Growing up, I attended a small Christian school in the suburbs of Detroit. One day, in chapel, the principal showed us a video depicting the horrors of hell and told us that listening to secular music would set us down the path of unrighteousness. He then invited us to hand over our dangerous CDs so he could dispose of them for the sake of our eternal souls.
Beneath all the rage, there was a gentleness, too. That’s what made Bennington so fun to listen to, and it’s what made him such a talented artist.My friends and I barely registered what our principal was saying, though, because we were too busy listening to our illegally procured copies of Linkin Park’s debut, Hybrid Theory, and its follow-up, Meteora. We couldn’t purchase these albums on our own for two main reasons: We didn’t have any money, and even if we did, our parents wouldn’t have let us. Linkin Park was, in the minds of many parents at the time, simply too dark to interact with safely. Eventually, though, a friend’s older brother downloaded the albums—track by track—on LimeWire and burned us copies for free.
Up to that point, my exposure to pop culture outside of what my parents deemed meet and right had been minimal. They weren’t the sort of folks who anxiously tried to shelter me from the world, but they were wise enough to put the parental lock on MTV. At that point, I mostly listened to Newsboys (and occasionally Plus One, CCM’s answer to NSYNC). The most intense music I had heard was DC Talk’s Jesus Freak.
But as Hybrid Theory became the best-selling album of 2001, there was no hiding from the band’s pervasive influence. A combination of heavy metal and hip hop, Linkin Park was unlike anything I, or my friends, had ever heard. We memorized all the words to “In the End,” one of the band’s most iconic songs, and sang it while standing in line to go to recess, as if we were daring the teachers to reprimand us.
Linkin Park’s music made parents and teachers anxious because it was aggressive and angry. That is, of course, exactly why my friends and I loved it. It was the first time I had encountered pop culture that acknowledged and wrestled with the darker thoughts of my heart and mind. And for a post-Columbine, post-9/11 generation suddenly awakening to the brutal realities of existence, Linkin Park’s music resonated. Put simply: it was—finally—music that felt true.
And that can be directly attributed to lead singer Chester Bennington.
When Hybrid Theory was released, Bennington was a 24-year-old emerging from a childhood marred by divorce, sexual abuse, bullying, and substance addiction. He propelled Linkin Park into the rock music stratosphere by wearing his demons on his sleeve. Music was an outlet for the grief and the anger. His shrieking, ferocious vocals—easily one of the most recognizable voices to emerge in the 21st century–often sounded like something akin to an exorcism. Bennington was keenly aware that the world is not how it should be, and he was, like all of us, in search of healing.
“Crawling,” for example, contains one of the most apt descriptions that I have ever heard of what it feels like to live in a fallen world overrun with sin:
There’s something inside me that pulls beneath the surface,
This lack of self-control I fear is never ending,
I can’t seem to find myself again.
While I certainly don’t believe Bennington was intentionally drawing from the Apostle Paul, there are parallels: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Beneath all the rage, there was a gentleness, too. That’s what made Bennington so fun to listen to, and it’s what made him such a talented artist. There was a compelling earnestness and impressive range of emotional and musical complexity to his performances. One gets the impression, through both interviews and his music, that Bennington was always trying to tell his story—both the good parts and the painful parts—as honestly as he could.
“I want to heal, I want to feel what I thought was never real,” he sings in “Somewhere I Belong.” “I want to let go of the pain I’ve felt so long.”
By placing his pain front and center, Bennington invited listeners into that space with him, and in doing so made others feel like they weren’t so alone after all. He was radically generous with his scars, using them as a means to connect with millions of people on a profoundly deep level. He let his fans know that their pain was valid, and that it mattered. And that might be the most important thing one human being can do for another.
On July 20, Bennington was found dead in his home near Los Angeles, his death apparently a suicide. It had been years since the last time I had listened to Linkin Park, but I still knew every word of “In the End.”
I tried so hard and got so far
But in the end, it doesn’t even matter.
I had to fall to lose it all
But in the end, it doesn’t even matter.
These words carry a new, heavier meaning now. It’s impossible to listen to them without wondering why, without thinking of his wife and six children who will now spend the rest of their lives wondering why. Bennington shared his story with so many, but we’ll never truly understand how difficult it was for him simply to wake up and live each day. No amount of listening to his music will make sense of it all.
So what is there to do? Bennington gave millions of fans a gift by providing a space to be honest about pain and depression and fear. We, too, can create that space for our neighbors by being generous with our anger and our wounds. We can weep with those who weep, and we can let them know that their pain is valid, and that it matters, and that God cares deeply. We can let them know they’re not alone.