When Linkin Park released Hybrid Theory 15 years ago this past Saturday, the nu-metal movement was already in full swing. The disaster of Woodstock ’99 had already happened, and fourth-graders everywhere were driving their teachers mad singing “Nookie” in class (or maybe that was just me). It had become to the predominant form of rock music in America, replacing grunge/alternative and, to a lesser extent, the short-lived swing revival. The one thing nu-metal had yet to do was cross over into the pop world. Until, that is, Linkin Park came in.
No matter how popular nu-metal was on rock radio, it seemed highly unlikely that it would have much crossover appeal. You couldn’t very well slide “Break Stuff” into the rotation alongside Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, could you? The swearing-and-violence aesthetic was a big part of how nu-metal found such a large audience, yet it was also the biggest thing keeping it from growing any further. Linkin Park, however, had the same angst and anger of their brethren, but in a way that conservative radio programmers would find a bit more palatable. The result was that Hybrid Theory launched several hits, had songs that were played on several radio formats, and became a sales juggernaut. At 27 million copies sold, it was the biggest-selling album of the 2000s.
When considering why Hybrid Theory was so popular, we can’t just chalk it up to the band’s relative cleanliness. No, the band had – and still has – a serious knack for writing pop hooks. Think of the singles from this album – “In the End,” “Crawling,” and “One Step Closer.” All of those songs have instantly memorable bridges and choruses. Even if you hate those songs, you remember them. Linkin Park has a funny way of sticking in your head, which is a huge part of why they’ve hung around for so long.
In 2003, they followed Hybrid Theory with Meteora, a fairly similar album, and another smash success. Once again, the band blended rap-rock angst with an incredible knack for pop sensibility. The one deviation from the previous record was the single “Breaking the Habit,” which was more of a straightforward techno-rock song, and was probably best known for its cool, anime-heavy video. Other than that, it was a lot of the same, and fans weren’t complaining. The band had found a formula that worked and they were sticking to it.
That’s why what happened next was a bit surprising: In 2004, Linkin Park collaborated with Jay Z on the album Collision Course, which combined Jay Z’s lyrics with LP’s beats, most successfully on “Numb/Encore,” which became the best-known track from the album. The album was yet another example of Linkin Park’s crossover appeal. Every nu-metal act had a strong connection to hip-hop in their music, but only Linkin Park were able to get one of the most successful and respected rappers to work with them on a large scale. Admittedly, collaborating with Hov didn’t do much for Linkin Park’s credibility, as the cool kids still steadfastly refused to take them seriously, but the respect and attention of Jay Z was a confirmation of Linkin Park’s broad appeal, as well as their high status in the industry.
If Hybrid Theory and Meteora were pop-friendly by nu-metal standards, they still were far truer to rap-rock’s roots than what would come next. 2007’s Minutes to Midnight pushed the band away from hip-hop and in a more straightforward rock direction, as tracks like “Shadow of the Day,” and “Leave Out All the Rest” were power ballads devoid of Mike Shinoda’s signature rapping. It’s not surprising that they went in this direction, as nu-metal was thoroughly on the outs by the time 2007 came around. Admittedly, there still was still some rapping on the album, most notably on the single “Bleed It Out,” but it was quite clear that they were moving away from that aspect of their sound. At that point, Linkin Park’s reign as the kings of rap-rock was over.
In the years since Minutes to Midnight, the band has felt trapped between their past and their future. Singles like “Burn It Down” and “New Divide” hark back to the old days, while albums like the prog-ish A Thousand Suns indicate a band that is restless, and wants to see how far its sound can be taken. It’s as though the band wants to try new things while not alienating the fans who made them such a juggernaut. So far, it’s been a delicate balance.
But no matter what Linkin Park does in the future, its legacy is already assured. Whether you love or hate Hybrid Theory, its place in rock history is undeniable. It took the angst of nu-metal, and married it to some of the most memorable hooks you will ever hear. The result was an absolute juggernaut that sold like mad, and dominated the radio for nearly half a decade. You can shake your fists at Linkin Park’s success all you want, but in the end, it doesn’t even matter.