I was devastated to learn of Chester Bennington’s suicide on July 20th. As with some or many people who listened to (mainstream) rock music as a preteen or teen in the late 1990s/early 2000s, Linkin Park were an important band for us, especially if you were someone who had a lot of feelings about everything. Growing up with parents who were trying to protect me from my own emotional sensitivity, Linkin Park—and specifically Bennington’s vocals—were one of the first audible and felt expressions of emotionality in my life. And in terms of my music listening herstory, Linkin Park turned out to be an extremely significant gateway band for me. Linkin Park would be my gateway to Placebo, Placebo my gateway to Metric, and Metric my gateway to the synthpop music that both inspired my dissertation project and is what I predominantly gravitate towards at this point in my life. More so, connecting to Linkin Park’s angst would, only a few years later, make Sleater-Kinney’s anger so palpable to me (which is a huge reason why S-K remain my favorite band). I would come into a politicized queerness and femaleness through first connecting with the power of my feelings vis-a-vis all of their emotionally-charged music.
And I also came into whiteness through Linkin Park. Up until that point, I had avoided dealing with my racial identity in any meaningful way by hiding behind my (sincere and ongoing) interest in r&b, hip hop, and pop music influenced by one or both of those genres. Angst became an accessible emotion to me through a band comprised of four white men and two Asian American men who passed for white and/or whose racial difference was subsumed by the overwhelming whiteness of the band. The angst of Linkin Park was markedly white (and thus privileged)—but transcended at least some of the limitations of said whiteness, as VSB and others note. Listening to Linkin Park as a teenager, the band represented both emotional expressionality and the impossibility of actually expressing it. In retrospect, my high school years were the first time that I began to notice mental health struggles, both my own and the ones of those around me (especially those of one close friend in particular). Before we had words to describe depression, we screamed along with the lyrics of LP. I would run cross country and track & field for four years to quite literally run away from everything that I was incapable of articulating and fully grappling with at that age—and would listen to songs (or entire albums) from the band pre-race.
For Linkin Park, emotionality is both an individuality and a relationality. Since his death a few weeks ago, countless celebrities have publicly celebrated Bennington as an amazing vocalist. In the spirit of this, the camera in the above performance of “Pushing Me Away” from 2001 focuses almost exclusively on Bennington, following his facial gestures as he emotively delivers the song’s lead vocals. At age 13, 14, 15, it is easy for me to watch and listen to him and think of all the ways in which various forces in my life (parental oversight, the Catholic Church, my first group of girl friends in high school) feel like they are “pushing me away.” The angst in this moment is very individualized, and I empathize with the wrong that Bennington’s vocal narrator describes as having been committed against him. But then something different happens at the 1:35 mark in the video. As a blue-haired Mike Shinoda comes in to add his vocals to the pre-chorus, Bennington leans back and into him, bringing their bodies the closest they will be for the duration of the performance. Looking at this moment now, I notice a vague homoeroticism swirling around the moment. The emotional sharing of this moment makes their bodies’ closeness acceptable, even as it simultaneously reveals the instability of the decorum for straight white maleness. It shows emotionality’s power to push people away—and then bring them back together.
High school was the first time in my life that I began to build friendships on the basis of emotional connection. And so, when I discovered that the person closest to me at that point in time was struggling, I felt it in and on my body. But all of the words I came up with in my head failed to capture the weight of what I was feeling. What words can one muster at age 15 when someone dear to you is struggling in a way where you don’t know how to help her? When we struggled to verbalize our feelings, we spoke in Linkin Park lyrics; when we didn’t yet have the language for mental or emotional struggle, we blasted LP’s rap rock instead. Reconvening at a café in the East Village where we used to escape as teenagers one winter night this past December, I still cannot muster the words to talk about that moment of near loss at age 15, when I suddenly didn’t feel like a kid anymore due to the magnitude of the situation in front of me. That is similar to how I feel about Chester Bennington hanging himself: I cannot quite find the words to describe the consequence of our loss of him. 15 years later, he still feels like a friend from high school, guiding us through all the awkward and painful moments of growing up and into ourselves. His loss feels personal to me.
Nevertheless, when the music stops, we still have our feelings—and one another.