Even though it's been years since I last listened to one of the band's albums, Linkin Park vocalist Chester Bennington's reported suicide was like a punch to the stomach. I've never gone to a Linkin Park concert. I don't own any merchandise. Bennington and I have never met. And yet his death was earth-shattering — not for me, but for the younger version of myself that lives inside the older versions, like a Russian nesting doll. Linkin Park defines me much like my birthplace defines me, much like my taste in books defines me. The band defines an era in my life. They defined an era in many fans' lives, whether you're still a fan of theirs or not.
Say what you want about Linkin Park, but as a band, they understood teenage angst like no one else. I was 11 years old when I first heard "In the End," and even on the cusp of puberty, I knew I'd found a soundtrack for every single time I got in a fight with my parents or got a bad grade at school. "I tried so hard and got so far, but in the end it doesn’t even matter," Bennington sings. "I had to fall to lose it all, but in the end it doesn’t even matter." As I grew older and my emotions grew more complex and inexplicable and occasionally terrifying, listening to that same song always helped me feel so understood.
Sometimes life knocks you down, and you get up again to fight twice as hard as before. But sometimes life knocks you down and you want to lie in bed and think about how terrible you feel for a while. You want to cry and scream and rage and think about how unfair that all is. Or you're too tired to feel anything at all, too tired to even get out of bed. Well, guess what? Linkin Park had a song for that. Between Hybrid Theory and Meteora, Linkin Park had two albums' worth of songs for that.
Bennington sang, "I can’t hold on to what I want when I’m stretched so thin... with thoughts of failure sinking in" on "By Myself." He sang, "I need a little room to breathe 'cause I'm one step closer to the edge and I'm about to break" on "One Step Closer." And yet he also sang, "I don't know why I instigate and say what I don't mean... So I'm breaking the habit tonight" on "Breaking The Habit." He sang, "I will never know myself until I do this on my own... I will break away. I'll find myself today" on "Somewhere I Belong." And teenagers responded.
With every one of those songs, with every one of those lyrics, Bennington made misunderstood teenagers worldwide feel understood, validated, and seen in a way their parents, friends, therapists, or authority figures couldn't see them. It's impossible to think about what the early '00s emo/screamo/alt-rock/pop punk scene would be like without him screeching every negative emotion you'd ever felt into your ears. And even now, years later, it's impossible for me to think about what the music scene will be like without him.
In 2002, Linkin Park did an interview with Rolling Stone in which Bennington discussed the inspiration behind his songs in as self-aware a manner as you would expect:
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.
As haunting as that quote might be now, it illustrates another important thing about why young people found the band so relatable: Bennington had lived with all of the emotions that he was expressing in these songs. Not only did the songs themselves make me feel less alone as a teen, but the singer himself did as well. Bennington had dealt with all he had dealt with — drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and past sexual abuse — and had overcome it all to use his music to help others, to help me. Back then, that was such a huge deal.
And maybe that's the true reason this news is so devastating. I could hear Bennington's pain in every song, and he was very open with his fans in interviews. That was part of the band's appeal. So it hits twice as hard to hear about his reported suicide, because we know from his own words how much he was dealing with. We heard with our own ears what a unique and beautiful mind he had, how he could turn that anguish into a universal catharsis for all of Linkin Park's fans. Linkin Park might not have the same sound that they used to, but they are iconic all the same, and Bennington was a huge part of that status.
His talent can't be replicated and his effect on me as a teenager can't be understated. As silly as it is to say, Linkin Park raised me just as much as my own parents did and spoke to me when I was not in the mood to listen to anyone else. They taught me that my feelings were valid. That I didn't have to be happy all the time, but that I could be. That it was possible, and they would be there for me until I believed that. So in the wake of Bennington's death, the best way I can think of to honor his legacy is to keep fighting. To lift others up, to make them feel less alone. We can all honor his legacy by breaking the habit and finding somewhere we belong. Just like he taught us back in 2003.