Millennial Masterpieces #5: Linkin Park – [Hybrid Theory]

Welcome to Millennial Masterpieces, where I’ll look back at a great album released within the past 17 years and see what its legacy is. Fifth in the series is the definitive point of catharsis for teens and young adults in the early 2000s, Linkin Park‘s Hybrid Theory.

Released: October 24, 2000

Approaching Linkin Park‘s major label debut as a record of import has long been a point of contention in the music community, and it’s doubtful that even now the world’s elite arbiters of taste are planning an imminent mass reappraisal of the album. Perhaps one isn’t needed. This is not a work to disseminate in search of sonic legacy, but a window into the psyche of millions of adolescents in the first half of the ’00s. It’s a triumph of pop songwriting that became an essential part of the cultural landscape not because of what the music was, but what it did.

To compare Chester Bennington and company to Seattle’s crown jewel Nirvana is somewhat of a cardinal sin in the rock music community; a forbidden analogy that thoroughly de-legitimizes the opinion of any “real” reviewer. Cool, I don’t care. The nu-metal crew bear at least two similarities to the venerated trio, and it would be silly to ignore them. The first is both acts’ penchant for spinning gold out of well-worn four-chord progressions, a testament to the strength of their melodic backbones. It’s the second similarity though that merits much more discussion- the stark baring of emotion in a genre previously defined by machismo and gritted teeth.

Kurt Cobain and pals were the first mainstream grunge act that laid out their darkest vulnerabilities in plain sight, essentially revolutionizing the notion of what a hard rock frontman was allowed to sing about. On Hybrid Theory Linkin Park took that sensibility and applied it to a genre that was previously all id and ego. One must remember that they entered the nu-metal marketplace fairly late, and it was territory already claimed by dual titans KoRn and Limp Bizkit.

Clown prince of rap-rock Fred Durst was the world’s swaggering, face-breaking underdog. Jonathan Davis was the dreadlocked frontman of a macabre near-goth band. Both sold millions of records, but neither had the mass appeal to emotion that Linkin Park would bring at the turn of the century. Limp Bizkit was all confrontation and masked inferiority complex. KoRn did explore personal issues, but their connections to real metal made them untenable as ambassadors in the mainstream sphere. They were still a little too intense to reach stratospheric ubiquity.

Suddenly there came this southern California group who had that same aggressive streak, but were so much more relatable. Not every teen was a freak on a leash, but every teen had at one point felt like their wounds would not heal. Chester Bennington’s crystalline voice communicated an understanding of every problem the average young adult dealt with. Solitude, grief, self-esteem- these were all vocalized in earnest on Hybrid Theory and instantly struck a chord with the world’s youth. It would still be a few years before emo sulked into the spotlight, so Linkin Park became the flag bearers for disillusionment. Their name would become shorthand for melodramatic sentiment, at least until My Chemical Romance took up that mantle.

The music was heavy, but not too heavy- a few screams here and there to liven things up. There was rapping too, but it was free of all vulgarity. In fact, Hybrid Theory holds not one instance of profanity. Despite all the anger neither Bennington or Mike Shinoda drop anything to merit a “Parental Discretion Advised” sticker. Not only was this band commercially viable, they were also impossible to object to. They didn’t make problematic statements, make puerile jokes, or alienate any potential listeners. They weren’t juvenile like pop-punk peers Blink-182-– one look at any promotional photo from that era will show you they were dead serious. The only competition they’d have as wholesome peddlers of rap-rock would be the explicitly Christian P.O.D. a year later.

They were essentially the boy band of metal; a perfect segue into hard rock for all those on the cusp of adulthood who had just prior been listening to Top 40 tunes. This may seem like a slight but rest assured, it’s a compliment in the highest regard. It’s genuine appreciation for the front-to-back hooks present on the record. This is an album optimized for consumption and there isn’t a single spot of filler material on it.

The streamlined production can be attributed to the now disowned Don Gilmore, who was notoriously dissed by Mike Shinoda for simplifying the rapper’s rhymes to broaden their appeal. This is fair, as listening to old demos of the songs reveals that Shinoda’s technical skills were in fact pretty undermined on the record. The record did however sell 31 million copies, so whatever negative tweaks Gilmore made were hugely overshadowed by his positive contributions. “In the End” remains an indelible pop staple, fellow tracks “Runaway” and “Pushing Me Away” follow its template to similarly memorable results.

As stated, much of this review has been focused on the way the album functions as a tool of empathy rather than an actual, you know….music album. So is there actually anything commendable on here other than a series of well-written three-minute pop songs? Are there genuine moments of deft composition that the critics have wrongfully dismissed? Yes- quite a few more than most would have you believe.

“One Step Closer’s” central guitar riff is right up there with any AC/DC hook. “Crawling”‘s glacial synth and wall-of-sound chorus recall the best parts of both Depeche Mode and Deftones. The winding guitar figures of “Papercut” and “Place for My Head” are well-constructed roots for their respective songs. Those two tracks also allow Shinoda to stretch his legs and feature some of his best rap moments on the record.

Rap and rock were the biggest parts of the band’s sound, but they were only two-thirds of the equation. It’s the underrated Joseph Hahn who defined the “Linkin Park” sound, his samples and beats contributing to the third dimension of Hybrid Theory. Drawing from acts like Nine Inch Nails, The Crystal Method, and The Dust Brothers, Hahn helped the band do what no other nu-metal act had been doing up until that point: bring electronica into the fold. The short-lived late nineties trend takes on a new life here, ranging from subtle accents to a full-fledged instrumental showcase on the Moby-esque “Cure For the Itch”. The record is fleshed-out thanks to Hahn, offering a fuller sound than what the band’s rock-oriented peers were making.

Ultimately though, all this extolling of their technical prowess probably won’t convert those who weren’t sold on them the first time around. Hybrid Theory‘s biggest strength lies in the fantastically efficient way it delivers visceral feeling to those who need it. Its appeal is endemic to a specific generation and a specific time period within that generation.

Most people who fondly reminisce about the record aren’t saying “wow this is masterful songwriting” or “this record influenced my guitar style”. They’re saying “this record was there for me during difficult times in my life” and “this got me through my darkest days”. It may not be the paragon of artistry, but by sheer metrics it indisputably stands as one of the most emotionally resonant rock records of the past seventeen years.

Top Three Tracks: “Crawling”, “Papercut”, “One Step Closer”