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Against All Odds, Linkin Park Were America’s Last Huge Rock Band

During the late ’90s and early ’00s, I was one of Alternative Press magazine’s nü-metal correspondents. The publisher and editors didn’t really favor the music themselves, but its popularity was impossible to ignore, and AP is one of the most audience-responsive magazines in music history: They give readers what they want. So I got my first assignment for them when the editor asked me, “Will you interview Godsmack so I don’t have to?” I said yes, and between 1997 and 2002, I interviewed them, Slipknot, Disturbed (twice), Static-X, Staind, Papa Roach, Otep, American Head Charge, the Union Underground … and Linkin Park.

The Linkin Park interview wasn’t actually for the magazine. It was for the Ozzfest tour book, which AP produced in 2001. That was the most nü-metal-heavy lineup the tour ever had: Slipknot, Papa Roach, Linkin Park, and Crazy Town were all on the main stage, while the second stage featured Mudvayne, Disturbed, Taproot, Nonpoint, Drowning Pool, American Head Charge, the Union Underground, and Otep.

Watching Linkin Park live in 2001, it wasn’t obvious that they’d become one of the biggest bands in the world. From a cranky metalhead’s perspective, they seemed like nerds. Their guitarist, Brad Delson, wore giant headphones onstage to protect his ears. Their good cop/bad cop vocalists — Mike Shinoda rapping, Chester Bennington singing and screaming — seemed unconvincing when compared with a berserker like Slipknot’s Corey Taylor. But their debut album, Hybrid Theory, was an extremely smart, well-crafted record, so effectively built to make an impact at radio that its lyrics contained no profanity. It wasn’t just a marvel of design, either; these nerds had songs. Sonically, they drew from all over the pop and rock spectrum: There were big chunks of Trent Reznor and Martin Gore in their sound, and Delson’s guitar could crunch like Helmet’s Page Hamilton (who guested on a track from their 2014 album The Hunting Party) or shimmer and chime like the Edge or Johnny Marr.

And almost before anybody knew it, Linkin Park were huge. Hybrid Theory was the best-selling album of 2001 and has sold more than 11 million copies in the US alone, something like 30 million worldwide. The follow-up, 2003’s Meteora, has sold over 27 million copies worldwide; their third album, 2007’s Minutes To Midnight, has sold over 20 million. Every album since Meteora has debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, except for The Hunting Party, which peaked at #3. Until Bennington’s suicide, Linkin Park were legitimately one of the biggest bands in the world, but if you were over 30, they probably didn’t make your mental list of “the biggest bands in the world,” and if someone mentioned their commercial juggernaut status, your response was likely to be “Really? Them?” But Linkin Park were an arena-filling act in North America and in Europe for basically a decade, one popular enough to headline their own touring festival (Projekt Revolution).

Linkin Park took from the big bands that came before them — Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, U2, Korn — while keeping their hip-hop side much more than an afterthought. On most of Hybrid Theory, Shinoda was the dominant voice, while Bennington was half hypeman, half backup singer; it took a while for him to achieve lead-singer status, even within his own band. (He formed the band Dead By Sunrise, making one album between Linkin Park’s Minutes To Midnight and 2010’s A Thousand Suns; he also wrote and recorded a five-song EP with Stone Temple Pilots in 2013.) As the group’s music shifted more and more to the rock side of the spectrum, though, Bennington took over, and allowed his voice, which had real depth and range, to expand and fill the space.

When nü-metal first became popular enough to attract critical attention, a lot of that attention came in the form of scorn. The general stance was “What are these suburban white boys whining about?” But the music, and the lyrics, struck a loud and resonant chord with millions of young listeners, and to dismiss the genre as the self-pity of the privileged is to shrug off their pain. John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, a former psychiatric nurse, tweeted, “Linkin Park meant a LOT to a lot of kids I used to take care of in treatments & placements & therefore to me, too. Very sad today.”

Beginning in the ’90s, mainstream rock lyrics began to embrace an emotional nakedness that had previously been the exclusive territory of bands like the Cure and the Smiths. (The only real exceptions in ’80s metal were Metallica, whose suicide power ballad “Fade To Black” was a touchstone, and Suicidal Tendencies, whose lyrics frequently wallowed in a despair none of their peers would touch.) Over time, it’s become clear that the pain some of rock’s biggest singers are expressing in their lyrics is real and not showbiz hokum. We’ve all seen Metallica’s therapy documentary Some Kind Of Monster. I’ve heard tapes in which Korn’s Jonathan Davis breaks into uncontrollable sobs, forcing him to halt an interview. And Chester Bennington’s suicide, coming so quickly on the heels of his close friend Chris Cornell’s (Bennington delivered a eulogy and sang at Cornell’s funeral), gives the emotional desolation of so many Linkin Park songs a tragic additional level of resonance not even present in the work of Kurt Cobain, whose lyrics were often oblique. But the question of what all this free-floating despair says about society as a whole remains open.

I suspect Linkin Park’s work — and influence — will remain present for quite a while. I still write for Alternative Press sometimes, and while I’ve never discussed LP’s music with the young bands I’ve interviewed — bands like Of Mice & Men or I See Stars — their combination of big riffs, anthemic choruses, and electronic textures is pretty much the standard toolkit for a vast swath of acts, from youngsters to veterans like AFI and In Flames. And let’s face it: Once you sell 30 million copies of your debut album, you’re a part of the cultural landscape forever. When their story is finally written, Linkin Park are likely to be remembered as the last truly mega-scale rock band. In a Balkanized, silo-ed, streaming-dominated music industry, who’s ever going to sell that many records again? Who’s going to speak to that many kids?