just a heads up: this essay includes some discussion of suicide
The news of the death of Chester Bennington, front man and lead singer of Linkin Park, affected me deeply. This was strange: a lot of musical greats have died recently—Prince, Bowie, Chuck Berry—and while each death saddened me, I refrained from outward shows of grief. This time was different.
It felt even stranger because, for the majority of my adult life, Linkin Park has been little more than the butt of a joke. It’s the kind of band some people associate with their emo teens, and thus worthy of derision. I even have an ongoing joke with some coworkers: who can sneak the most of the lyrics of “In The End” into a design review as possible?
“I tried so hard!” “And got so far!” “But in the end, you know. It doesn’t even matter.”
That’s usually as far as I get before I get a crumpled sticky note thrown at me. But there was a time when I learned every word to that song, and those words were a mantra to me, a refrain that I could use to feel stronger.
Bennington’s death hit me hard in part because of how he died. I found out through a tweet, obscurely referencing his death and calling for the press to report it responsibly as he had died of suicide. I immediately searched for answers and within minutes got them all: How he died. How he did it. I knew that I shouldn’t have—that’s one of the very things responsible reporting calls for, and something I should look out for. I live with depression and suicidal ideation. I know better — that Knowing How fuels unhelpful, harmful fantasies. I’ve had it happen to me before: seeing a tweet, a headline, a medical report that gives me every detail I need to have a vivid image of my body, experiencing that method, an intrusive desire that I don’t want and I don’t honor.
But this time, I didn’t imagine it happening to myself, or as it happened to him. I remembered his music, and I felt thankful that it was there at a crucial time in my life.
I have an in-depth knowledge of Bennington’s oeuvre. Linkin Park was the first — and for a long time, only — “secular,” non-Christian band I ever listened to, at least on purpose. I grew up in a strict church environment, with parents who were well-meaning but afraid of everything. Growing up, I wasn’t even allowed to listen to Christian Rock, for fear that it had the devil in it, somehow, living in the amped-up guitar strings. I once asked a friend to gift me the Christian-rock band Audio Adrenaline’s Underdog album for my birthday, because I had been forbidden to buy it with my allowance money. My mom was furious. She accused me of being sneaky, of already being sucked in by demonic forces that wanted me to listen to this music. She explained to me her honest belief that Antichrist Satanists had invented rock music, that even Christian rock bands might unknowingly conjure this evil and bring it into our home. I had nightmares about this as a kid, of being possessed by demonic forces because I accidentally heard a song they lived in, lying in wait to poison my head. I’d have vivid images of ghosts in my room, shifting here and there, ready to get inside of my head. In a way, they did, but not from the rock music.
Imagine telling a child that they are already bad. That they are evil at their core and will have to work their entire life to live against their own nature and be good. If they don’t manage to pull that off, they will suffer for eternity. Try explaining eternity. Try to explain fire and burning and hell. Tell them every natural impulse is the work of a monster, there to trick them into doing something wrong so that they can be trapped there forever. Try not to let that fuck them up.
By 8th grade, I had chipped away at my parents enough that even they enjoyed Audio Adrenaline, DC Talk, The Newsboys, Jars of Clay—all the rock bands that were beginning to emerge as a dominant Christian Contemporary Music genre in the early 2000s. Better them than Black Sabbath, right?
When I first heard Linkin Park’s “One Step Closer,” with its harsh, exploding refrain (“Shut up when I’m talking to you / Shut up / Shut up”), I knew I was listening to something Bad. In fact, one of the “bad kids” at school played it for me, intending to scare and titillate the mousy goody-two-shoes students like me. But I heard something in that reedy tenor that I knew was for me, and I wanted to hear more. To his surprise, I asked the kid to burn me a copy of his CD, and he brought me Hybrid Theory and, later, Meteora. This music was strange, loud, crashing and haunted. The guitars sawed at me. The screaming scared me. I loved it.
Linkin Park came to me in an unusually restrictive environment. The denomination of the Christian school I attended required me to wear a khaki-and-polos uniform daily, except Thursdays when girls had to wear a plaid skirt and a thin, white oxford for Chapel. The worst days were when it rained, and we’d rush across the long courtyard from the school buildings to the church, hugging our nascent breasts to hide them from the gawking boys. They’d play at distract-and-bother, trying to impel us to uncross our arms. Once in the chapel, we’d shiver quietly, singing the hymns in eight-part harmony because instruments weren’t allowed in worship. Women weren’t allowed to speak publicly in the church besides to ask for prayer or join in a recital of scripture; I remember one of the most egregious examples of this rule occurred my Junior year when a former Senior who had joined the army died in Afghanistan. His best friend, a woman, wasn’t allowed to lead a prayer for him. She stormed out, and the captain of the basketball team gave an uninspired elegy. My senior prom was a formal dinner because dancing led to impure thoughts, which led to abortion, which led to hell.
I didn’t know I was queer yet. In truth, queerness wasn’t even something I considered, because liking girls was a foreign option, and sex was a forbidden topic. It took me years to realize I was in love with my best friend, my first boyfriend’s sister — classic set-up. But I did know that something was different. Something felt wrong in my core, pooling under my ribs and constricting me. I wasn’t meeting expectations. I had many black nights, awake with nightmares, replaying all I’d done wrong that day and praying that it didn’t relegate me to hell forever, fearing my lack of perfection would be an eternal sentence. Into this came “Crawling”—
There’s something inside me that pulls beneath the surface/ Consuming, confusing / This lack of self-control I fear is never ending / Controlling, I can’t seem / To find myself again / My walls are closing in (Without a sense of confidence / I’m convinced that there’s just too much pressure to take) / I’ve felt this way before / So insecure
These words were like staring at the sun to find its black center: so true, and so direct. “Crawling,” ” Numb,” and “In the End” were all on the radio. Becoming a teen is hard, and to many of us these words became the soundtrack to our angst. To my sheltered heart, they were permission. Bennington’s self-loathing and aimless rage spoke to me on a level I didn’t understand, connecting me to anger I didn’t know I had. His anger was so present and so empathic. It told me it was okay that I had it too—that I wasn’t alone, that my feelings were normal. It replaced my fear, and it helped me survive. It was anger that I could work with, that I could use to reshape my hurt. He taught me to make the walls I needed to build a space that I could grow inside. Rather than inflicting me with demons, Bennington’s music helped me fight them.
It’s strange to laud a — by all accounts, straight, white, cis male — on this website. It’s a weird thing for me, a person who has fully integrated misandry into my personal brand, to do. But Linkin Park helped me fully accept myself, they taught me that feeling “wrong” was normal, and put me on the path to learning that my queerness is one of the best damn things about me. Some people will look at Linkin Park’s lyrics and use them to draw a thick, black line to how Bennington died, but that would be a mistake. Bennington took the suffering of being human, and he met it head-on. He used it to create, and his deft ability to negotiate his personal traumas walked many of us through doing the same. Sasha Geffen, of Consequence of Sound, said it best:
…scanning Linkin Park’s music as the preamble to an inevitable tragedy flattens the work, squeezes all the holographic dimensionality out of it. To live with the scars Bennington wore is itself a triumph. To make music so generously from those scars, with so much vulnerability, is a gift that takes incredible strength to give.
I don’t know anything about Chester Bennington’s life since he helped make Linkin Park’s debut and sophomore albums. I don’t know what his life looked like when he got up every morning to face the day. But I do know what it looks like to do that, and I know that the fact that he did, for many years, was brave as hell. I know that when I most needed to, I used his music and lyrics to give shape to monsters that felt too vague and too big for me to understand. Though he never knew me, never met the overwhelmed, baby queer teen crying in Austin, Texas in 2002, I felt like for a time we fought the same malady, side by side. He took depression into his hands and gave it voice. He didn’t let it overpower him, but he let himself feel it, and he screamed it out. His death feels to me like that of a fellow soldier, in the trenches of the same battle I’m fighting. It makes me want to keep fighting. He lived a life of honesty, and I hope that he rests in power. Thank you, Chester Bennington.