Chester Bennington, frontman of Linkin Park, Dead by Sunrise, and briefly Stone Temple Pilots, passed away on July 20, this year. Only a few days later, his death was ruled a suicide. When the news broke, many of my generation were speechless. When I say “my generation,” I mean young adults born in the late ‘80s and early to mid ‘90s who came of age during the frustrating, confusing, and uncertain “new millennium.”
The early 2000s was a peak time for a very unique species of rock music to develop and thrive. Nu-metal, rap-metal, and other such genres, though invented much earlier, now dominated radios, music television, and top-ten lists. The music was harsh and violent not unlike the war zones we all were drowning in from news and Internet. The lyrics referenced the very real thoughts that very real kids were having: depression, consuming anger, blind resistance to no one and everyone all at once, sexual frustrations, and all too often suicide.
It only makes sense that the music spoke to us. For some, our earliest memories were the twin towers coming down in a fiery burst of tears and rage and dust. Our discontent was molded by the aftermath. For others, like myself, who remembered relatively peaceful times prior, albeit only briefly, it was a slap in the face, an awakening from a sunny childhood into the bleak overcast of adolescence with a promise that things would only get worse. While our peers may have taken comfort unifying in mindless anthems of hope: “Where were you when the world stopped turning?” and “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way!” the rest of us saw through the facade. And we were scared. And we were angry. And we were looking for a way to get through these feelings in one piece.
In our era of digital trendy nihilism, we often look back and laugh at ourselves, mocking these “angry white boy” musicians in order to cover any involvement on our part. How quickly we forget, how quickly we rewrite our own histories to reflect our current aspirations and attitudes.
Before Bennington’s death, he had given an interview with Music Week where he now infamously stated:
“When we made Hybrid Theory, I was the oldest guy in the band and in my early ’20s. That’s why I guess I’m like: ‘Why are we still talking about ‘Hybrid Theory’? It’s fucking years ago. It’s a great record, we love it. Like, move the fuck on. You know what I mean?”
This was in response to the backlash from so-called “fans” and critics alike toward their 2017 album One More Light, which saw Linkin Park break entirely from the hard rock they popularized almost two decades ago, instead experimenting in more pop and techno territory. Bennington’s defense of his artistic license, however, was met with even further backlash and internet mockery. Now, after the tragedy of Bennington’s suicide was made public, many of those same voices have morphed from keyboard satirists to social media mourners. Again, how quickly we rewrite our own histories; how quickly we cover our tracks.
What I’m getting at here is that we live in extraordinarily bizarre times. Popular artists, whether in music, literature, film, or anything else, have always been target practice for angry masses. However, what separates our era from others is the digital megaphone available to anyone.
Recently, musician Ed Sheeran received similar social media reaction after taking a brief guest role on an episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones. In a brief time, his social media accounts, especially Twitter, were flooded with hate messages from so called fans (both of the series and Sheeran) scolding him for his decision to be part of the show, despite the fairly public knowledge that Sheeran has been a passionate fan of the series for many years. What’s worse, the backlash was seemingly for no logical (or at least sane) reason. It was purely based in fans not wanting two fantasies crossing over and thus shattering their illusion. And this is exactly the problem.
We, as consumers, can feel any certain way we like about someone’s creation or personal choices. But it is not our place to bum rush someone with our nonsensical feelings of betrayal just because something they produce or take part in doesn’t meet our subjective standards.
And, whether we like it or not, our standards are always subjective.
Before we open our mouths in criticism, or set hand to keyboard to type our opus of objection, we’d do well to step back a moment and consider the the very living, breathing, thinking humans behind the thing we want so badly to smash.
The backlash against Linkin Park’s One was equally cruel. The album was a stark departure from what fans may have expected. But the end result was far from poor or generic. It is also of note how personal the project was for Bennington in particular. On May 18th, just one day prior to the release of “One More Light,” he lost his best friend, fellow singer Chris Cornell. During a performance for Jimmy Kimmel Live! Bennington stated:
“We were going to come out and play “Heavy”‘ first, but in light of our dear friend Chris Cornell passing away, we decided to play our song “One More Light” in honor of him to start this off … We love you, Chris.”
Thus the album was more than a personal project to see the band into new artistic directions. It held a deeper, more painful place in Bennington’s heart. Yet fans and critics were unsupportive of the endeavor, insensitively hurling insult upon insult at the band for not providing what they want.
Almost two months later, on July 20th, what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday, Bennington ended his own life.
I’m not going to be so naive as to say the backlash is what drove Bennington to his decision. Suicide, or any human tragedy, is rarely so easily quantifiable. It’s messy, complicated, and the entire picture is never wholly clear.
What I am suggesting is that we, as consumers and critics, rarely step back and consider what immense destructive power we have, and how that destructiveness is magnified by the amplifier that is social media. Through it, we can bully and criticize and spread toxic feelings faster than ever possible in human history. Through it, we can get our way or else damn those who refuse to comply.
Yet we rarely acknowledge the time and craft that goes into an artist’s creation, especially when the end result is something we might disagree with. More so, we rarely view those artists, especially the ones who gain any sort of public acclaim, as human. At best, they are demigods: heroes of legend to be admired yet no more real than Hercules or Beowulf. At worst, they are entertainment factories expected to churn out product after product for our enjoyment and ours alone. We feel personally betrayed when they fail to deliver, as though we, in all our self-importance, have been spat upon: “What about our needs, your fans’ wants?” we demand. “We are all-important, and it is your job to acknowledge that and never let us down!”
In the words of Blake Schwarzenbach, “There is plenty to criticize. You have to learn not to narrow these eyes.” I think it’s time we, as critics and fans and human beings in general, begin to take a big picture approach to the art we consume, especially in the digital world where our voices seem to suspend forever. It is time for a more ethical criticism, where, though we may not always agree or even enjoy an artist’s final product, we still take the time to respect its intent and interpret it fairly. And most of all, that we recognize it is not the artist’s responsibility to give us what we want, but to instead give us a piece of themselves, of what makes them an ever healing and hurting, ever thinking, ever evolving HUMAN. If they do that, even if the aesthetic isn’t what we might prefer, the artist has succeeded in their job.
It’s our responsibility, as listeners, simply to listen and consider the broader context.
Rest in Peace Chester Bennington: March 20, 1976 – July 20, 2017.