Linkin Park - Hybrid Theory
he Diamond is an apt name for albums certified for 10 million + sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. The hardest substance on earth: insoluble, impervious to penetration, secure in itself. "The formation of natural diamond requires very specific conditions," Wikipedia says. The aim of this feature is to define what made Cracked Rear View, Come On Over, Boston and The Lion King soundtrack not just sales benchmarks of their respective artists' careers, but inexplicable loci at which shrewd marketing and the inscrutability of mass market taste met to produce high-quality entertainment no one breathing could escape. This column will also study why artistic peaks like Rumours, Born in the U.S.A., Thriller, Can't Slow Down, and Hysteria deserved their sales. Each entry in this series will pose the question: why should we separate art from commerce?
Some called it “rap metal,” while others went with “nu metal.” For an undisclosed amount of time, I used the term “phys ed rock” as a stupid pun on the curricular nature of “math rock.” All nomenclature aside, despite the fact that the nu/rap-metal tag was applied so freely that kids poring over All Music Guide in 2030 might believe that Staind and System Of A Down had anything in common, it’s the most popular genre of music to never exist.
Although from approximately 1997 to 2002, we experienced what is most likely the last span of time during which rock records were a bankable commodity, nearly every group that rose to popularity during those years has sought distance, correctly figuring that associating with Fred Durst and/or Jonathan Davis exposed them to some of the most scathing reviews the nascent blog era had to offer.
Most of the time these bands, realizing an idiosyncrasy in their sound and whittling at it with a more sustainable level of fame, experienced Top Ten debuts for new records but not much more; see Deftones (erratically enunciated 4AD fetish), Incubus (prog and jazz overtones) and Slipknot (underground black metal). Linkin Park was more overt about it—in the promotional stages for Minutes to Midnight, they professed love for Arcade Fire and banjos and boasted pretty much outright, “We’re not rap metal" with the humorlessness of Shaud Williams telling Bruno what he had to say to the gay community of Austria.
And maybe they’re right: as ardent fans of Asian art, with a med student work ethic in the studio, Linkin Park look like guys who fight to ensure that their tour riders make provisions for Halo setups. From those descriptors, they’re diametrically opposed to the beer-soaked immediacy associated with rap/nu-metal, but then you remember they employ loud, distorted guitars, shouted vocals, and clap-of-the-titans drums. If you were confused about what it is Mike Shinoda actually does, he went ahead and released a straight-up hip-hop album as Fort Minor.
And then there was the misguidedly ambitious Collision Course, the first major label-sanctioned mashup album in music history. Unlike Jay-Z’s collaboration with R. Kelly, it was not deemed worthy of a follow-up. Oh, and they have a guy who plays turntables too. If Linkin Park isn’t rap metal…well, what is? With that in mind, I find it hard to believe that people wondered if their pervasive angst was authentic because they thanked their parents in the liner notes. The self-loathing comes natural because Linkin Park is a band that absolutely hates itself.
Their case isn’t unusual, as you’re probably familiar with dozens of great singles bands that flounder after grossly overestimating their ability to formulate an artistic masterpiece. And while many of these bands are rarely missed when they go tour de force on us, Linkin Park’s situation is kind of a shame since they had an ability to be the definitive rock singles band of this decade, a fate which is nowhere near as bad as haters make it out to be. I mean, would you have preferred Adema?
Although Andrew Unterberger would argue otherwise (provided he still stands by that list), to talk of Linkin Park is to talk of their singles; maybe it has something to do with ubiquity, but outside of Hybrid Theory’s five singles (“Papercut” may not have gotten proper release, but it garnered a fair share of radio play), the record is almost completely forgettable. The first of these proved to be the most important in regards to the “artistic” trajectory of Linkin Park.
It’s also their worst; I’m thinking that Hybrid Theory could have done just as well had “One Step Closer” not been the world’s introduction to the sextet. But it did dig them a cred hole which they struggled in vain to get out of even as record sales reached the kind of stratospheric Boyz II Men heights that grow more unreachable with every passing year. Featuring the record’s most trad lunkhead rock arrangements and boilerplate, obnoxious sloganeering (“AND I’M ABOUT TO BREAK!” “SHUT UP WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU!”), “One Step Closer” presented Linkin Park as a nearly parodic last frontier of nu-metal. Not to mention its horribly dated video, which was designed as a sort of kung-fu/Scream amalgam with the band members rocking haircuts and outfits that made them look like Virtua Fighter characters.
But what followed was strangely fresh for mainstream rock radio, particularly placed in relief of its ugly post-grunge peers and the staunch revivalism of the Strokes/White Stripes front. The appeal of Hybrid Theory feels similar to that of "The Jetsons": it offers a sanitized vision of the future that seems eerily antiquated from the moment it dropped. If you asked the 11-year old version of myself in 1991 what next millennium rock would sound like, I’d probably guess something along the lines of Hybrid Theory, not realizing that I would call it something I'd outgrown by then.
They were a band that really only knew how to write one kind of song, and what filtered down to their acolytes is emblematic: half-heated bluster over third hand Zep riffs and funkless drum patterns. It was rapping over rock music, but it got us nowhere that "Walk This Way" didn't already take us, a cardinal sin considering how much actual hip-hop had progressed since then. But while their associate contemporaries saw hip-hop as another avenue to express anger or to make party music, Linkin Park, likely cutting their teeth during the rise of the super-producers (Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, the Neptunes), fell in love with the endless sonic possibilities that Pro Tools had to offer.
Usually, it's an insult to say that a record doesn't sound like it was made by five people playing together in a studio, but with Linkin Park, that was kind of the point. These are rock songs assembled like techno or hip-hop, where straight melodics interplay seamlessly with MC'ing, live drums let the machines talk for them and guitar heroics make way for hollowed-out New Wave synths. But it wasn't a sound that was ahead of its time, so much as it was of its time. Unlike the rock behemoths of the past, Linkin Park had the hip-hop mindset to make an album that was portable. Indeed, its brash, buzzy and hyper-compressed production sounded best in what would become the predominant music devices of the early 20th century: computer speakers, car stereos, iPod earbuds.
Hybrid Theory is a study in egoless economy, at least instrumentally. There are no solos and just about everything seems prepared for removal and rejiggering during a remix process. "Papercut" would be just as effective if everything was replaced by dusty string samples. Was there even a guitar part for "In the End"? Wasn't the spotless, synthy verse of "Crawling" more effective than the chorus? Folks, this is how some people envision the term "post-rock."
But if you really want to deduce why Linkin Park might have released the last debut rock record that will ever go Diamond, you have to take a look at Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda's lyrics, presumably the biggest obstacle to enjoying the band for Stylus readers. Judging from nu-metal parody tracks from Ben Folds ("Rockin' the Suburbs") and Party Fun Action Committee, most get the sense that the questionably defined genre was solely informed by middle-class rage, but Linkin succeed because Bennington realized that sad lasts longer than mad.
Moreover, the group grew to fame while its partner-in-whine emo was starting to make serious commercial inroads, with Vagrant as its vanguard and Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional as its ambassadors. While those two bands certainly had their time in the sun, many teens rolled with LP, and not because they thought acoustic guitars were for pussies. Instead, they couldn't relate to the usual emo pining; why the fuck were those dudes whining about heartbreak? At least they got to go on dates in the first place.
Hybrid Theory spoke to the teenagers who didn't mind getting sent to their rooms because that's where the cool shit in the house is; or more precisely, in 2001, it catered to the kind of music listener that wasn't computer savvy or cynical enough to realize how easy it is to steal music instead of buying it. Bennington walks a thin line between cliché and truth, speaking in the sort of broad, universal language that most teens wish they could.
Recall your first awkward attempts at poetry; how many metaphors and similes did you destroy? But when Bennington says "in the end it doesn't even matter," it cuts through all that bullshit. No doubt, if a 16-year old half penned the stuff that pops up on Hybrid Theory, he'd kick back and savor the moment, thinking it was the realest shit he ever wrote. And he'd truly believe it if Linkin Park's damn near evangelical live shows (so I've heard) are taken at face value.
Linkin Park could’ve had it all. They kept making great singles on the similarly uneven Meteora: “Faint” used an exotic, centrifugal string loop that predated “Toxic” and yet they somehow got half the credit for it (oh, if only they were Swedish), while “Breaking the Habit” sounded like little else on radio or anywhere else, besting Postal Service in terms of ace techno/rock alchemy. Admittedly, I haven’t heard Minutes to Midnight, but the reviews indicate that they’ve construed being a U2-worshipping alt-rock outfit as progress rather than further exploring their synthetic and far more interesting (and promising) side. Shinoda's apparently on something like two tracks, and I can't imagine the DJ got much shine either. This represents a colossal misunderstanding of the critical process. There’s no reason to chase after what they’re currently praising: today's Arcade Fire fanatic is next week's Lil' Mama apologist.
But if you stay popular for long enough, the criterati eventually come around, likely the result of the Original Sin of music scribes (they dissed Led Zeppelin! THEY DISSED LED ZEPPELIN!). Perhaps fearful that they would’ve been the asshole in the ‘70s thrashing the Bee Gees, there’s a if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em attitude (often spearheaded by Rob Sheffield) that saw Limp Bizkit and Korn become critical darlings in 1997, teenpop taken way too seriously in 2000, and an ongoing attempt to justify Young Jeezy. Even with Minutes to Midnight pushing heavy Soundscan, it feels like Linkin Park is doing little other than just running out the clock, a pretty sad development for a band that was once so of the moment, you could see them pushing the minute hand.