If you went to an American high school between the years of 1998 and 2005, you were absolutely at the very least aware of Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory—it was everywhere in a way that albums could only pull off in a time when radio still shifted millions of units and before the internet really kicked into high gear. Chances are, you fucking loved it, too. It's the album that catapulted the then-hybrid rap-rock group to stardom; its four singles—"One Step Closer," "Papercut," "Crawling," and especially "In the End"—were everywhere, and thanks to its major label distribution, any kid with a Walkman and an allowance had access to it.
Linkin Park's debut arrived during rap rock's commercial peak, filling a quicksilver generational sweet spot between grunge's wilting omnipresence and the rise of the aggro, cartoonish nu-metal that would directly follow it. Hybrid Theory certainly didn't shy away from nu-metal tropes (peep the low-slung bass chug and whisper-screams on "Run Away"), but it felt different from the naked rage that bands like Slipknot and Korn peddled. Rather, Linkin Park seemed more tormented than anything else. Chester Bennington, who died yesterday at the age of 41, provided lyrics that were steeped in misery, his half-whispered dirges often dissolving into an enraged roar when confronted with the hypocrites, phonies, and bullies that acted as his invisible antagonists.
More than anything, Bennington sounded pissed, but it never came across as threatening or overly macho. There was a fragile quality to his voice, magnified by his slight frame and boyish good looks (I developed a crush on him immediately after seeing one of their videos on MTV). Whatever it was, it held us in thrall, and helped us make sense of a world that often seemed too big and cold. While many rockers of their era milked the "angry I-hate-my-Dad guy" trope for all it was worth (and in those days, when nu-metal records regularly went platinum, it was worth quite a lot of money), their anguish was genuine, fueled by Bennington's recollections of his rocky, abusive childhood.
His willingness to be frank about his own trauma provided comfort for millions of other kids struggling with tough times. The album's themes of disappointment, loneliness, and rebellion were instantly relatable to the angsty, frustrated, mopey kids that so many of us were, and the music itself—an appealingly odd, unthreatening blend of crunchy alt-rock, nu-metal, and hip-hop, punctuated by rapper Mike Shinoda's bars and Bennington's high, often pained vocals—was confrontational enough to feel dangerous, but accessible enough to keep us hooked. Live, they were electric; in the studio, they were fearless, continually pushing the already fluid boundaries of rap rock in every direction they could dream up. It was the perfect gateway album, in that the answers it offered were multiple choice; it led me to extreme metal, but it led others to hip-hop, and to electronic music, and to rock music in general. Even the most orthodox black metal fan or real hip-hop head has to start somewhere, and for millions of American kids, that starting point came courtesy of a few scrawny dudes from the LA suburbs.
For kids like me, who grew up in rural areas and got all of our music from Walmart and the radio, Hybrid Theory landed like a meteor. The first time I heard Linkin Park was on a late summer night, as I was curled up next to my stereo straining to hear the local rock station at a volume low enough to keep my mom from realizing I was still up. Out of the fuzz came something new—something different. Their first single, "One Step Closer" came slithering out of my beat-up speakers like the serpent tempting Eve. As the riffs crunched and swayed, Bennington's voice, sharp and clear as shattered glass, echoed my own adolescent frustration and the poorly pent-up aggression that kept landing me in anger management classes. It clicked with me in a way my dad's old Sabbath records didn't; this band seemed to understand me, and why I was so angry, and made it seem like it was OK to feel that way. I scrambled to shove a blank tape in to record the last half of the song, waiting anxiously for the DJ to tell me the name of the band who'd just turned my world inside out. I was 12 years old.
That was 17 years ago, and I still think about the way it felt to hear that song, and realize, for the very first time, and just for an instant, that I wasn't alone.
Linkin Park is still active, and released their seventh album, One More Light, this past May. They remain a massive name in mainstream rock, but I won't pretend to be well-versed in the band's newer material; by the time 2003's Meteora dropped, I'd gravitated towards the harsher, less emotive sounds of grindcore and death metal. Linkin Park had opened up a door that I'd never known existed, but once I crossed the threshold, I never really looked back. I didn't need to—they'd given me the first glimpse of what was out there, and left it to me to discover what else was possible. When Bennington joined Stone Temple Pilots, I checked out a few videos out of curiosity, watching long enough to confirm that his voice was as iconic as I remembered (it was) then closing the tab, satisfied that all was right with the world.
Even after my own interests had changed, Linkin Park remained a part of my life—sometimes appearing in unexpected places. When I was in college, somewhere between her boy band phase and flirtation with pop punk, my little sister developed an obsession with them (she even had their weird Jay-Z, collaboration, Collision Course, and the first album from Mike Shinoda's Fort Minor project). I gave her my old copies of Hybrid Theory and Meteora, since I didn't need them anymore and, though I teased her mercilessly, secretly hoped she'd end up getting into metal, too. She was a much quieter kid than I was, but had her own demons; I knew she needed a soundtrack for the war ahead. My ploy didn't work, though; she never did get into metal. She eventually "grew out" of Linkin Park, too, turning first to punk and then to more mainstream pop as her interests shifted and she figured herself out—but they were there for her when she needed them, just like they were for me, and for so many others. We don't talk now. She lives out in the desert in California and waits tables. I live in Brooklyn and do this. Part of me wonders how she's handling the news. Part of me wonders if she'll read this. (If she is—hey, kid. Come home.)
After years of fighting them onstage and off, Bennington's own demons pulled him down for the last time. He died on July 20, 2017, at age 41, leaving behind a family, friends, and millions of fans who owe him more than any of us can really explain. Back in 2002, Bennington told Rolling Stone, "It's easy to fall into that thing – 'poor, poor me', that's where songs like 'Crawling' come from: I can't take myself. But that song is about taking responsibility for your actions. I don't say 'you' at any point. It's about how I'm the reason that I feel this way. There's something inside me that pulls me down."
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.