Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington Was A Rock Star At A Time When Rock Stars Were Rare

Getty Image

When news broke on Thursday that Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington had committed suicide, it exposed a fault-line between generations of rock fans. For Gen-Xers, the early ’00s are associated with bands like The Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and other New York City groups recently documented in Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me In The Bathroom. From the perspective of those bands, Linkin Park might as well have been the enemy, an angsty corporate-rock act that appealed to millions of uncool kids in middle America.

But for millennials, who were in their teens when Linkin Park’s blockbuster debut Hybrid Theory was released in 2000, Bennington looms as a defining rock star of the era. A singer capable of both piercing bombast and pained sensitivity, Bennington’s nimble tenor initially played off the rapping of Mike Shinoda, but over time his versatility and soulfulness made him the band’s primary frontman. For kids who found solace in Linkin Park’s music, Bennington was the band member they were most likely to connect with.

Linkin Park’s canny mix of pop, hip-hop, and melodic alt-rock drove Hybrid Theory to sales of more than 11 million copies, making it the top-selling rock record of the ’00s. Given the rapid changes to the music industry in the immediate aftermath of Hybrid Theory, it’s plausible to suggest that no rock record will ever come close to achieving those sorts of sales figures ever again. The album single-handedly initiated Bennington into a small (and now rapidly shrinking) fraternity of arena-rock vocalists — it’s no wonder that Stone Temple Pilots called on him to replace Scott Weiland for a brief spell before Weiland’s death in 2015. Bennington was one of the few guys on the planet with the qualifications to front a big-time rock band.

Linkin Park’s dominance of rock radio during the ’00s is impressive and yet strangely unheralded. (Surely, someone will now finally write the definitive oral history of nu-metal, with a starring role for Linkin Park.) Between 2000 and 2010, Linkin Park scored 10 No. 1 songs on the alternative chart, along with five top 10 hits. That success crossed over to the Hot 100, where Linkin Park lodged three songs in the top 10 during the decade, peaking at no. 2 in 2001 with “In The End” — with Bennington belting the soaring chorus — from Hybrid Theory.

While Linkin Park in its early days was commonly classified as nu-metal, the rise of Hybrid Theory actually marks a transition from the heyday of Korn and Limp Bizkit in the late ’90s. When Linkin Park released its debut, the nu-metal scene was still reeling from Woodstock 99, a PR disaster marred by riots and sexual assaults that many in the media blamed on the antics of Fred Durst during Limp Bizkit’s infamous performance. But whereas Limp Bizkit propagated hair metal-style hedonism, Linkin Park presented themseves as comparatively decent and hard-working, and with far more melodic music. (It didn’t hurt that Bennington, unlike Durst or Korn’s Jonathan Davis, was boyishly cute, looking a bit like a harder Justin Timberlake or a softer Eminem.)

While Linkin Park channeled plenty of vitriol in their music, they always tried to be nice guys off-stage. In a 2001 Rolling Stone profile written by Rob Sheffield, Bennington and Shinoda insisted that, unlike so many nu-metal bands before them, Linkin Park didn’t have to use swear words in their songs in order to be successful. “We wanted something people could connect with, not just vulgarity and violence,” Bennington said.

The members of Linkin Park also claimed that they didn’t drink on the road or smoke, or engage in other standard rock-star behavior, like trashing their dressing rooms. “I love to get compliments from the janitors in the clubs — ‘Dude, thanks for not destroying the place, I can go home early tonight,’” Bennington told Sheffield.

According to that Rolling Stone profile, Linkin Park played 342 shows in 2001 alone, exhibiting an exhausting work ethic that carried over to the studio. A Spin story documenting the making of 2003’s Meteora reported that the band wrote 40 different choruses for the song “Somewhere I Belong,” which went on to top the alternative chart.

But Linkin Park’s greatest strength from a commercial perspective (and often creatively as well) was their malleability. When nu-metal bottomed out in the early ’00s, Linkin Park was one of the few acts able to pivot forward — toward straightforward rock, electronic pop, even hip-hop. On the 2002 remix record Reanimation and 2004’s “mash-up” EP with Jay-Z, Collision Course, Linkin Park demonstrated an innate ability to approach being in a band delving into different soundscapes like a rapper trading out producers. While many rock bands in the 21st century find themselves tethered to tradition — even nu-metal revolutionaries like Korn, who eventually were mired in a predictable sound — Linkin Park’s magpie sensibility enabled them to stay part of pop music for years after nu-metal’s sell-by date.

The indifferent-to-negative response that greeted this year’s One More Light suggests that Linkin Park’s ability to successfully reinvent themselves had started to wane. (Though, it should be noted, that the album did manage to debut at no. 1.) The album’s overtly poppy sound alienated some fans, which caused Bennington to lash out. “If you’re saying we’re doing what we’re doing for a commercial or monetary reason, trying to make success out of some formula… then stab yourself in the face!” he said defiantly in May. Bennington also expressed frustration over Hybrid Theory continuing to cast a shadow over the band’s other albums. “It’s f*cking years ago. It’s a great record, we love it. Like, move the f*ck on. You know what I mean?”

Now that Bennington is gone, it’s unlikely that fans will move on from Hybrid Theory anytime soon. While Is This It was heralded as the most important rock debut of the early ’00s by critics at the time, Hybrid Theory will certainly see its stock rise as the people who grew up listening to it assume the duty of writing pop-music history. No doubt Bennington’s tragic death will also cause listeners to reassess his band’s significance. It’s a shame that legacies always seem to be enriched by tragedies, but as the number of successful rock singers dwindles, the awfulness of Bennington’s loss feels all the more acute.