What does selling out even mean in 2017? One More Light, the Linkin Park album released last Friday, has provided, among other things, an occasion to debate this question. On the one hand are the Linkin Park fans who feel that the band has diluted the nü-metal aesthetic of their first two albums in search of commercial profit; arguing in defense of the band’s right to sound however they choose to is Linkin Park itself, with singer Chester Bennington taking the lead. Here’s Bennington in an interview with Music Week:
We were asked, “What do you think of people who say you sold out?” I don’t care… If you like the music, fantastic. If you don’t like it, that’s your opinion too. Fantastic. If you’re saying we’re doing what we’re doing for a commercial or monetary reason, trying to make success out of some formula… then stab yourself in the face!
And again in an interview with Kerrang! Radio:
Either you like the song or you don’t and if you don’t like the song because you hear it and on a kneejerk reaction it’s like ‘oh it doesn’t have metal in it so I don’t like it’, that’s fine, like whatever. But if you’re gonna be the person who says like ‘they made a marketing decision to make this kind of record to make money’ you can f—ing meet me outside and I will punch you in your f—ing mouth because that is the wrong f—king answer.
Even without the overly harsh rhetoric, there’s some confusion here. Those who remember Linkin Park as the group that sold, in America alone, 11 million copies of their debut album Hybrid Theory (2000) and 6 million copies of its follow-up Meteora (2003) may wonder if the band was ever not pop: heavy guitars have never disqualified an act from being designated as such. Meanwhile, listeners who have stuck around for the four albums since Meteora may wonder what creative risks the band has left to take. 2007’s Rick Rubin–produced Minutes to Midnight saw awkward, ill-advised turns toward political themes and curse words, but that disaster (which still sold 3 million in the U.S.) set the stage for 2010’s A Thousand Suns, also with Rubin. It was a solid and mature, if not especially deep concept album about the disastrous and pitiful condition of the world. (Think of the Police’s later albums, if that helps.) Living Things (2012) and The Hunting Party (2014) are more or less miscellaneous collections, mixing and matching sounds from prior albums. The latter is marginally better than the former because it features musical guests (including, incredibly, Rakim); both are far from great, but don’t sink wholly into mediocrity either. It’s clear that, throughout all the rises and falls in sales and quality, Linkin Park has never aimed to make anything but broadly conceived pop music.
Less clear, though, is how and why this band — out of all the angst-engorged metal-fusion acts that appeared near the turn of the millennium — became the most popular and has managed to age decently, though not phenomenally well, since. Though the band has always worked hard to develop a sound of its own without bowing to industry pressures, that sound was always destined for a mass audience. (No one sells 11 million copies of their debut album by accident.) Leaving questions of quality aside, Hybrid Theory and the band that made it constituted something of a perfect storm.
Linkin Park’s formation was facilitated, like many popular ’90s bands, by the California public high-school system, as the band had plenty of time to practice; coming at the tail end of the rap–nü-metal wave, they had many exemplars to emulate (particularly the Deftones, of whom they often sounded like a less inventive and romantic variant). Led by rapper–rhythm guitarist–visual artist Mike Shinoda, whose multiple roles mirrored his catholic tastes, the band was unencumbered by questions of genre purity: elements of classic hip-hop, thrash, synth pop, and electronica cohabited easily within their nascent sound. The band members, for their part, seemed to get along swimmingly: Lead guitarist Brad Delson, bassist Dave Farrell, drummer Rob Bourdon, and DJ Joe Hahn were content to defer to Shinoda’s direction.
The final pieces came together when record executive Jeff Blue, whom Delson had interned under while at UCLA, connected the band with Bennington, a native Arizonan with a lean but keening voice and, given his history as a victim of sexual abuse, bullying, and drug dependence, ample cause to scream. With Bennington’s howls and croons contrasting nicely with Shinoda’s sober rapping, vocals set against a wall of heavy sound, and the whole thing wrapped together cleanly (no Korn sludginess or Bizkit profanities for them) and filtered through crisp production, the band was all set: Blue, who had become an executive at Warner Bros. Records, signed the band — formerly known as Xero, then Hybrid Theory, and soon after known as Linkin Park — to the deal they’d been seeking for years.
Leaving aside a couple nice instrumental tracks, Linkin Park made two kinds of songs on Hybrid Theory and Meteora. Both were about “relationship issues.” There was the kind where the vocalist had a problem with himself, and the kind where he had a problem with “you.” In either case, the lyrics were fine-tuned to be so vague that anyone could read almost anything into them.
Linkin Park made mirrors, not paintings: Anything from a history of horrendous parental abuse, to a quarrel with a friend over getting owned at video games, to a bad day at the office, to suicidal despair could be read into the lyrics, if one wished. Though the precise nature of this mode of engagement was hard to make out behind the melodies and kinetics, if you focused you could see it for what it was. Though not insincere, it was generic, and it was completely pop. Linkin Park is Drake, but more aggro and less specific. (No accident that few phrases sum up Drake better than “hybrid theory” either.) Both acts see the world as a matter of relationship issues and identity crises, a zone swarming with enemies threatening to drain all their energy; both relate to youthful listeners exactly as they relate to themselves; both are, as a result, really, really popular. The best music of both, even if not necessarily great, is still really hard to turn down, especially if it’s karaoke night.
Linkin Park hasn’t “sold out,” and they can make whatever music they want; still, the fans longing for their original sound aren’t being entirely unreasonable. Hybrid Theory and Meteora might not be the best Linkin Park albums (A Thousand Suns at least deserves consideration) but they are definitely the easiest to listen to. The riffs are powerful but friendly, and the themes of intra/interpersonal tension, though essentially anonymous, were universal nonetheless. When is anyone okay with themselves or others now? The importance of sound seems to be underlined especially by One More Light, an album whose poor quality is directly connected to its softness. The lyrical themes are more or less identical to the early albums: Once again the singer’s self is troubled. Yet their sodden, unintentionally schmaltzy presentation prevents any but the most forgiving listeners from lending a sympathetic ear. One More Light isn’t hard; it’s just hard to listen to. Without the anger and power chords to maintain interest in the same old personal drama, there’s not much to hold on to. To paraphrase Hybrid Theory’s cover art, the new album is a set of dragonfly wings with no soldier attached. Bennington’s singing voice, though not without power, is too thin to go for as long it does without some measure of contrast and challenge, whether from Shinoda or the other musicians. The best track (not all that great, but decent) is “Good Goodbye,” which restricts Bennington to a chorus and makes room for Shinoda, Pusha T, and Stormzy to each deliver a full verse.
Linkin Park used to be as prevalent among teenage listeners as therapy, albeit cheaper, more cathartic, and slightly edgier. Say what you will about teens, but their issues are intensely felt. Linkin Park’s new album, though, is as tired, banal, and incurious as 40-somethings in therapy. Maybe if all the anger that went into cursing out fans had been channeled into the lyrics and riffs, the band might still make music worth hearing.
Robert Christgau’s positive review of their first album reads, in its entirety: “The men don’t know what the angry boys understand.” How ironic that 17 years later, boys grown to men, it sums up everything wrong about their seventh.