American Sorrow: The Passing of Chester Bennington

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Creative Commons Image

Chester Bennington has passed, marking yet another sad loss this year from a defining generation of rock music. Bennington’s suicide follows that of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell a few months ago, and it is another testament to artists who produced work immersed in angst, now finding escape in the most total way imaginable.

The temper and mood of a generation can easily be felt through the music of the times. Such was the case with Linkin Park, which linked the angst and loneliness of grunge with the rap-metal sounds that came into vogue in the late 1990s. Hybrids of hard rock and rap tended to either be rave ups like Limp Bizkit, or politically charged behemoths like Rage Against the Machine. Linkin Park took the genre and transformed it into a journal of youth’s cornered frustrations, uncertainties and regrets. The group was technically innovative, but combined their sound with penetrating lyrics that revealed deep scarring. Bennington joined a gallery of front men, like Staind’s Aaron Lewis, who instead of dripping sex appeal, seemed to embrace moodiness and depression as their stage personas.

Bennington’s voice was a high octave growl that spoke clearly and directly to listeners. Like Nine Inch Nails, Bennington’s voice melodically described inner turmoil with sharp imagery. “There’s something inside me that pulls beneath the surface,” he sang in the ferocious “Crawling,” one of the band’s first hit singles from their massively successful 1999 debut Hybrid Theory. That album emerged as one of the first major debuts that understood the emerging link between technology and the youth experience. “In the End” was the album’s grand single, an epic tune about regret and struggle. For certain a commercial entity, there was still more sincerity in Bennington’s presentation and tone than in similar, moody fare from a band like Korn, which felt like being goth for goth’s sake. If a band like Disturbed always sounded superficial, Bennington sounds genuinely full of rage when he screams “shut up when I’m talking to you” in the song “One Step Closer.”

There is an electronic sheen to every Linkin Park album, whether in the use of turn tables as background decoration or keyboards as the glittering undercurrent of scorching choruses. This method would be pushed its farthest in experimental work like the 2010 album A Thousand Suns, which featured milky, synthesized compositions dealing with apocalyptic themes. The album’s second track even samples the famous commentary by scientist Robert Oppenheimer- reflecting on the creation of the atomic bomb- where he stated “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” After 9/11 the band could not help but make albums fused with a dystopian vision. Songs like “Wretches and Kings,” and album titles such as Minutes to Midnight (taken from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock), spoke for a generation already dealing with inner turmoil now living in a world spiraling out of control.

Above the electronic landscapes there was always Bennington’s voice expressing visions of sorrow and pain. Part of Linkin Park’s massive success was their image. Bennington eschewed the typical look of a rock god, instead sporting glasses and looking more like the scrawny, rebellious nerd. His own life was a tapestry of painful experiences (including child abuse) and substance abuse. “I want to heal/I want to feel like I’m close to something real,” Bennington lamented in the moody “Somewhere I Belong.” The band’s early videos featured characters personifying angry, pierced, self-abusing teenagers- the “freaks,” and outcasts. But if there is anything that is truly vital in this form of rock music, it’s that grants a voice to those who feel voiceless.

The key track from the band’s sophomore effort, Meteora,“Numb,” with its raging symphony of a chorus, pleading “All I want to do is be more like me, and be less like you,” is almost an anthem for a youth surrounded by conformity, where depression is now the norm and violent impulses abound. In terms of cultural context, it’s interesting to note that the band’s debut happened the same year of the Columbine shooting. Bennington’s expressions through song could be so blunt as to be painful. In the track “Given Up” from the band’s third release, 2007’s Minutes to Midnight, he screams “put me out of my fucking misery.”

Yet like many tortured souls, Bennington’s ferocity hid a tenderness that would appear in some of the band’s ballads and live performances (for a while Bennington would cover Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” acapella on tour). The group’s most recent effort, One More Light, is such a pop-infused, electronic album that many fans were left puzzled, to the point that Bennington made angry public attacks against accusations Linkin Park had finally sold out to crass commercialism. Even then, the first track, an auto-tuned number, still featured the title “Nobody Can Save Me,” with opening lyrics that confess “I’m dancing with my demons/I’m hanging off the edge/storm clouds gather beneath me/waves break above my head.”

Details are scarce on what Bennington’s final days were like. For the band it is certainly a shock considering the morning his body was found, Bennington was scheduled to join his bandmates for a photo shoot. A tour was mere months away. Yet we are all but human, as Bennington’s songs made all too painfully clear. Was it mere coincidence that he chose to take his life on the birthday of his friend Chris Cornell? It is hard to tell at the moment. But what is clear is that the crooners of a generation’s depths are being consumed by their own dark shadows. We may never know if Bennington found peace, but his songs carry on as anthems of a youth seething and seeking answers amid cruelty.