In the fall of 2000, I was a slightly maladjusted middle schooler, living in a Maryland suburb I would soon come to view as suffocating. By any standard, it had been an extremely easy life thus far, not yet tarnished by death or the following September’s sudden intrusion of history. Despite this, I had a healthily developing sense of the unfairness of the world, tempered by an idealism about the future shared by everyone in my cohort. In a few years time, I would be a young adult with young adult concerns, like rebellion and heartbreak. And thanks to the march of technological progress embodied by my PlayStation and the newly internet-connected PC in my living room, I would surely also have access to all sorts of cool robotic toys.
These were, I think, the perfect conditions under which to experience Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory, an album that utterly blew my 12-year-old mind. I first heard it while listening to my local rock radio station on a weeknight before bed, when they would sometimes play singles from newer bands before they were upstreamed to regular daytime rotation. The song was “One Step Closer,” the first single from Linkin Park’s first album and still one of their signature tunes. It had everything: a huge headbanging riff, beats and rippling synths that scanned vaguely as “techno” to a kid who hadn’t yet encountered the real version, hip-hop turntablism, lyrics that reflected and magnified adolescent angst with appealing bluntness. (“SHUT UP WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU!”)
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard these sounds assembled together, but in my mind, no other band had so perfectly nailed the balance and presentation. Korn were still too intense and scary, and even to a kid, Limp Bizkit came off a little trashy and vulgar. Linkin Park, with their monochromatic Angeleno outfits and multicolored spiky hair, seemed like they had come from the teenage near-future, dispatched with the sole intention of showing me and my friends how awesome it was going to be. At some point, I bought the album, feeling like I was the first person to discover a band I quickly began thinking of as my favorite.
Soon, of course, “One Step Closer” was getting play on daytime radio shows, as was the even-bigger followup single “Crawling.” Linkin Park became a phenomenon, and Hybrid Theory reached the number-two slot on the Billboard albums chart, eventually selling over 10 million copies. The rest of the record was equally thrilling. “Papercut,” with lyrics about “a face inside” that operated independently of the one on your head, was like a seminar on Carl Jung put in terms an adolescent could understand. “Points of Authority” and “Runaway” had intros with aqueous synth pads that suggested electronic music might not be the exclusive province of goofy Europeans with glowsticks. MC Mike Shinoda’s verses on “A Place for My Head” were so inspiring that I once “rapped” them and claimed them as my own during a lunchroom “freestyle” “battle,” one of my most embarrassing but poignant memories of seventh grade. Linkin Park practiced a genre bricolage that wasn’t particularly tasteful or sophisticated by the standards of today’s internet-weaned indie bands, but nonetheless revealed unseen musical universes for me, as well as for many of my peers, I’m sure.
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At the center of it all was Chester Bennington’s legitimately powerful voice, which could be rough and cathartic or as tender as those of the guys on the Backstreet Boys and N*SYNC albums I was trying to wean myself off of. (Listen to the end of “In the End” again if you don’t believe me.) It wasn’t accidental that the music appealed to those of us who were making a tough go of our pre-teen years: Bennington’s own childhood, as described in a 2008 Kerrang interview, was miserable. His parents were unavailable; he experienced regular sexual abuse. Hybrid Theory was filled with pain, addressed in elliptical enough terms that those of us with more banal tribulations could still make it our own. And the music, with its sci-fi cosmopolitanism, promised us a better world was coming soon, or at least a cooler one.