Hybrid Theory turned 15 this year, which means that those born on its release date may now be too old to listen to it. It’s about how old I was when the album was released, and quite frankly I hated it. I hated the singer’s voice, I hated the dumb, blaring guitars, I hated that all their songs were alike, and I really, really hated that boring-ass rapper who couldn’t be bothered to hit more than one note. I hated that they took all the worst bits of Limp Bizkit without bringing along any of the accidental humor. And most of all I hated that all of my friends owned a copy of it. It’s not that I couldn’t identify with what they were singing about; I’ve felt the disillusionment, the rejection, the self-doubt, and everything that went with it. But it never felt so damn dramatic, and besides, I was a teenager and these were in fact grown men. I mean, a bit of drama is expected from teenagers, as that’s a point in your life where you maybe have never been successful at anything, and so it’s easy for self-doubt to creep in. But these guys had a record deal, girls liked them, and they went on to become massively successful – okay, maybe those last two came after this album, but their sound sure as hell stayed the same. To me they sounded like middle-class, 20-something dudes throwing a tantrum (“Shut up when I’m talking to you!!”). I could have written these lyrics. And I’ve seen my old writing from high school – not good.
So yeah, they were probably my least favorite band for a period, but I eventually relented. I heard “Feint” and thought it was…pretty cool? I remember thinking, “maybe I should just give ’em a try, what if I actually like this stuff?”, like a teenager examining himself in the mirror, wondering if any latent gay tendencies laid dormant within. By 2005, there were new bands to hate, namely Creed and Nickelback, and rap-metal’s audience either got sick of it or grew up. But rock n’ roll radio was a dying beast by then anyway. At the end of the day I was right, Linkin Park was a fad, and my friends started listening to Modest Mouse instead. Everyone wins!
Lately I haven’t really got the energy to hate on anything. Okay, I still can’t stand Nickelback, but everyone hates them. With LP I felt they were pandering to me directly, but now that I’m almost 30 and nobody’s trying to sell anything to me anymore, it doesn’t bother me as much. But here’s the other thing, despite how whiny and hamfisted the ‘Park tend to be, at least you got the impression that they were trying hard, they weren’t in it to get fucked up and get girls and make loads of cash. I’d even heard stories that these guys were downright nice, always considerate their fans and their crew, even refusing to drink while on tour ‘cuz they didn’t want anyone cleaning up after them. Now that’s just bein’ cool. A few weeks ago someone played “Crawling” while I was out and my first thought was “Jesus, again with this shit”, eventually giving way to “hey, this is pretty hooky isn’t it?” Maybe time to finally give this thing a listen at the comfort of my desk, praying that nobody comes by and sees the cover art on my iPod.
First thing – this album is tight. Outside of “Cure for the Itch” every single tune sticks to the same script, to the point where almost all of them around the 3:30 mark. Their bag of tricks is remarkably shallow – when “With You” came on my thought was “wait, aren’t these the chords from ‘Crawling’?”, and sure enough they were. This is Rock n’ Roll in an Electronica world, everything sounding like it was assembled in Pro Tools, as though none of the band members were ever in the studio at the same time. Clearly they wanted it to sound this way, chopping up the real drums (if there are any) and overdriving the guitar to wall-of-sound levels (is there a bass player in this band? Do they need one?). Most of it is built on the same sort of sudden dynamic shifts between the verse and chorus that drove the grunge era. In fact with such control over all the sounds and a total disregard for anything sounding “live” they actually do this really well. It helps that they’ve got the singers to pull it off, one who can scream his ass off and one who just sorta raps in a dead-eyed manner. Chester Bennington’s voice doesn’t annoy me as it once did, mostly because I’ve started to notice that he actually stays on key, which you can’t say for most dudes who sing this way.
Which sort of makes me wonder why I hated this so much in the first place – yeah, it’s dumb, but it’s not aggressively dumb like Korn or Limp Bizkit were, because Linkin Park were smart enough to put the melodies first and work hard on those damn choruses. In fact one could theorize that the entire album was made in search of the perfect single, with all the rejected verses and choruses reassembled into album tracks like “A Place For My Head” or “By Myself”. And what about those singles? Well, “One Step Closer” is still embarrassing, but I think “Crawling” and “In the End” hit that goal; maybe you find them obnoxious but their construction is inscrutable. “Papercut” was also a single but I hadn’t heard that one; “Points of Authority” I do remember though. And I definitely remember that “even those who never frown eventually break down” line from the last song, if nothing else about it. Like most blockbuster albums, it’s all about the big singles, and keeping the audience’s attention in between. Linkin Park don’t give themselves a lot of leeway to screw things up.
So where did this sound go? Not that I’ve missed it, but Linkin Park proved that you could reconcile rock with electronica and hip-hop, and sell ten million copies in the process. If Big Beat couldn’t last, maybe something like this could – clearly people liked stuff that had big choruses and sounded powerful, and if it’s gimmicky enough maybe it’ll be a hit. At the time it certainly seemed like this was how rock music was gonna be from here on out. But you listen to it now and it seems so hopelessly mired in that post-Matrix era, when the future was nothing but wires. I watch the video for “In the End” (mostly because Legion of Rock Stars so expertly did it) and cringe at the awful CGI’d graphics, which still looks better than the CGI of the 90’s, but still not good enough to figure out how a real live human is supposed to fit in. And I think, “no way in hell could you get this song on the radio today”, not just because it’s dated, but because there isn’t really a such thing as rock radio anymore. Instead we’re treated to a world full of Max Martins, where a handful of superproducers write most of what you hear on the radio, where real instruments may be sampled but aren’t really played. In other words, exactly what we feared was going to happen in the 90’s, though if nothing else credit or debit Linkin Park for taking the first couple of steps. Can’t exactly say that pop’s gotten any worse; I’m not a big fan of how damn loud everything has to be these days but the aesthetics have been reduced to a science. I wonder where all the guitars have gone, but then again, the guitar’s had a good run. As for Linkin Park, they keep plugging on, and though their moment has passed, I admire them for sticking it through.