Linkin Park, now successful and comfortable, ponders where to take its music next
03.05.2008Every track Linkin Park touches turns to gold, platinum and multi-platinum. Their debut album, Hybrid Theory, crashed the music industry's mainframe when it dropped in late 2000, and went on to move more than 8 million units.
Its remixed version, Reanimation, earned the So-Cal sextet credibility in the hip-hop world and the respect of artists such as Jay-Z and the Roots frontman Black Thought.
Tracks from their latest offering, Meteora, continue to ascend the charts, and ticket sales for their annual "Projekt Revolution" tour, which stops at Sound Advice Amphitheatre today, are steady during a year that has seen massive tours like Lollapalooza crash and burn.
So what is it with these guys? Pinning down a theory on their success has been as hard as finding weapons of mass destruction. There are two schools of thought: one that praises the band's ability to connect with their massive fan base and the other that dismisses them as a non-offensive group pretending to be original, despite bands like Faith No More and Rage Against the Machine that already forged a link between rap and rock.
So is this a case of hating the player or the game?
"They're the `it' band and there's always going to be a small faction of folks who hate them," said Troy Hanson, 94.9 Zeta's director of rock programming. "We as Americans build things up so we can tear them down. There aren't enough quality new bands coming out these days. Linkin Park still acts like they did when One Step Closer came out. You have to get out there, shake hands and kiss babies, and a lot of rock stars don't do that."
Billboard's director of charts, Geoff Mayfield, thinks it boils down to their ability to relate to their fans.
"At the risk of sounding simplistic, the bottom line for an artist succeeding is delivering what consumers want to hear," Mayfield said. "Sometimes it's tricky when the first album is as successful as [Hybrid Theory] and its follow-up, Meteora. An example is Limp Bizkit. They had an underground cachet and were very successful but Fred Durst became a celebrity and that, and the loss of their guitar player, kind of put them in a different light with fans."
Linkin Park's songs are reflective of the sentiments of a post-Columbine, post-9-11 generation trying to make sense of the world.
The desire to explore these themes isn't surprising given the band members' individual interests. Bassist David "Phoenix" Farrell holds a degree in philosophy; emcee Mike Shinoda, a classically trained pianist, studied art; and guitarist Brad Delson studied mass communications. The group formed in 1996 when Shinoda recruited high school buds Delson, drummer Rob Bourdan and DJ Joseph Hahn to form a band.
Singer Chester Bennington, who paid his dues with bands on the Phoenix, Ariz., scene, joined in 1999. He's openly discussed his bouts with depression and abuse, and his guttural screams on songs like Faint are so intense you can almost see the veins bulging in his neck. Add Shinoda's raps, guitarist Delson's power chords and Farrell's unyielding bass and the result is a sharply orchestrated mix of rap, rock and ProTools wizardry that contains enough desperation and rage to rival the Book of Job.
"Historically speaking, a lot of great art has been inspired by the creator going through some struggle," said Hahn. "That kind of idea shows up a lot in our music. Dealing with frustration is obvious but it's not what we focus on intentionally. Something naturally comes out of [struggling] and people relate to it."
Songs like Papercut and One Step Closer are chronicles of paranoia, depression and struggles with a nebulous tormenting character named "You," a pronoun used by fans to apply the songs to a personal situation.
But while angst has made for great first and even second albums, what happens when your audience has gone through therapy, grown up and moved on?
"That's the question on the minds of every A&R exec right now," said Hanson. "They're trying to find the new sound, the new grunge, garage band. Music is such a cyclical thing, from the '80s hair bands to grunge in the '90s and nu-metal [in this decade]. I'm anxious to see what's gonna come out next."
And when the band grows up?
Ask him about the direction the band will take for their next album, and DJ Hahn waxes sarcastic.
"We don't want to pigeonhole ourselves," he said, the irritation rising in his voice. "Who knows where we're gonna take it? In the next few years, maybe we'll be doing shows on the moon with astronauts and living with aliens."
Well, they certainly make enough money to try to get there. Money and fame may not erase your woes but they certainly make a struggling artist much more comfortable. The fact that they have less excuse for an "orgy of self-pity," as one critic called Meteora, has some observers wondering how they'll continue to relate to their audience.
Despite the clean-cut, positive image they convey by excluding profanity from their lyrics and hanging with fans, they don't offer any solutions for the feelings of abandonment and depression that made their careers.
Mayfield believes Linkin Park's struggle to remain relevant is no different from what the Rolling Stones and U2 faced after the successes of their early albums.
"It's too early to tell but the fact that they sustained even this long bodes well for them," he said. "With that kind of audience, they have to stay true to themselves. I would think that it would be astute to follow musical instincts and not tailor their sound to what they think is popular. There's a tricky tightrope, trying to keep it from going to your head. What sounds cool in the studio might not sound good to fans because they're no longer that person."
Songs like the uplifting Breaking the Habit offer glimmers of hope.
Hahn, however, prefers to focus on the present.
"We've accomplished a lot so far," he said. "We're overworked and we get along great considering we're around each other all the time. If we're around in a couple of years that will be the real test."
SouthFlorida.com - August 17, 2004