Restraint is not the hallmark of most newly minted rock stars, but Bennington, 25, and his mates in the Los Angeles-based band Linkin Park are exceptional in more than mere fiscal prudence. Linkin Park shocked the record industry by selling 4.8 million copies of its debut rap-metal fusion album, Hybrid Theory (Warner Bros. I Records), to eclipse 'N Sync, Shaggy and: Britney Spears as the top-selling act of 2001. "We're stunned," says DJ Joe Hahn. "We expected to tour in an RV for three al- I bum cycles before anything even close to I this happened."
Like Limp Bizkit and Kom, other bands that studiously and inexplicably avoid using the letter C, Linkin Park rocks and raps about its own sense of alienation, frustration and loneliness over a furious wall of musical fuzz. But what separates Linkin Park from the rest of the rapidly expanding nü-metal field is that the band's six members - Bennington, Hahn, 24, rapper Mike Shinoda, 24, guitarist Brad Delson, 24, bassist Phoenix (just Phoenix, thanks), 24, and drummer Rob Bourdon, 23 - inject nearly everything they do (save their songs) with a sweetly humanistic approach. They may scream "Shut up when I'm talking to you" . like misunderstood demons, but they don't wear goth makeup, cut themselves onstage, objectify women or encourage kids to "break stuff," as Limp Bizkit infamously did at Woodstock '99. They are earnest, middle- class guys who sign autographs until the are- na lights go out, give their e-mail addresses to fans and refrain from uttering a single curse word on their album. "I think at one point I wrote, 'I can't take this f___s___'" says Bennington, who shares lyrics credit with Shinoda. "And Mike just went, 'What f___ s___?' Then I went, 'Hmmm.'" Says Shinoda: "Let's be realistic: there are a lot worse things to worry about [than obscenity]. But as writers, we both have such better ways of describing things, I just thought, 'Why don't we explore those?'"
It is hard to imagine a band with less industry buzz than Linkin Park, circa 1998. "From the very first song we ever wrote," says Delson, who co-founded the group with junior high school buddy Shinoda, "the vision was, 'Let's create a hybrid of hip-hop and heavier music and electronic music and try to make it into one sound.' It was pretty crude when we started." So crude that every major label took a pass. Things only got worse when Limp Bizkit, Korn and other fusion groups hit the charts with a similar musical formula. "We thought we had a new idea and, to our dis- may, all these groups started breaking," recalls Delson. "We were almost, like, 'We've been beaten to the punch.'"
While the original members of Linkin Park (who named themselves after Santa Monica's Lincoln Park) were struggling to catch a break in L.A., Bennington had effectively retired from singing in his native Phoenix, Ariz. "I just got tired of being in bands that weren't dedicated," he says of the apathetic Phoenix metal scene. He had taken a job transferring property maps into computer files when a mutual friend told him Linkin Park was looking for a singer. With his wife's encouragement, Bennington drove to L.A., auditioned and never left. "Another guy was trying out the same day," says Shinoda, "and he just took off when he heard Chester try out. He was, like, 'Hey, I'm not gonna try to compete with that.'"
With the addition of Bennington's soaring vocals, the band's sound took on a rich- er, more dramatic tone. But rather than wait for record companies to notice, Linkin Park started building a fan base on its own. "I would assign everyone in the band to go on the Internet and recruit five or six people a day," says the business-minded drummer Bourdon. "We'd go into a Korn chat room and say, 'There's this new cool band called Linkin Park, go check out their MP3,' pretending like we weren't in the band." When interested kids e-mailed asking for more music, the group sent back mountains of tapes and instructions to pass them out to anyone with ears. By the time Linkin Park signed with Warner Bros. in . November '99, the group had fans in Scotland, Japan and Australia and a worldwide thousand-person unpaid street team.
The accolades Linkin Park now receives are no longer just from kids in cyberspace. The band was recently nominated for three Grammys, including Best New Artist. But the critics have not yet been won over. Part of the problem is a broader perception that rap-metal fusion is still a bit of a gimmick, a crass way to cash in on two markets. While considering its own devotion to both genres beyond reproach, Linkin Park concedes that some of its fellow hybridists may not be so purely motivated. On a track called Step Up, Shinoda raps, "Rapping over rock doesn't make you a pioneer/ 'Cause rock and hip-hop collaborated for years/ But now they're getting readi- ly mixed and matched up/ After a fast buck and all the tracks suck."
The more biting criticism against Lin- kin Park is that its songs lack artistry. Lesley Gore's It's My Party and Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit are sonically distinct and generations removed, but they both used irony (Cobain: "Here we are now/ entertain us") and metaphor (Gore: "It's my party and I1l cry if I want to") to appeal to alienated teens. By comparison, Linkin Park's three biggest hits - Crawling, One Step Closer and In the End-are strictly confessional yawps. Here, the band offers no apologies. "There's a lot of music out there that our producer [Don Gilmore] de- scribes as 'poor me' music," says Bennington, who says that much of the pain he sings about stems from physical abuse he suffered as a child, though not at the hands of his parents. "Don says he wants to listen to music to be entertained. That's not where we're coming from. We like to talk about things that we can relate to. When we write music, there has to be honesty in it. We're not trying to say, 'I've gone through this, you have to feel sorry for me.' We're saying, 'I've gone through this, and we know other people are too.' There's nothing wrong with looking in the mirror and not liking yourself sometimes. But there is something wrong with giving in to that."
Not everyone is able to distill the positive message. Last March Charles Andrew Williams, 15, walked into his Santee, Calif., high school and killed two fellow students. That morning he wrote out the lyrics from Linkin Park's song In the End-"I tried so hard and got so far/but in the end, it doesn't even matter"-pinned the note to the speakers in his room and signed it to ex- plain his feelings of despair to his father. None of the group members like talking about Santee, in part because, really, what can they say other than that the incident makes them sad? "Yes that kid connected with the lyrics, but so did a million other people, totally different kinds of people," says Shinoda, who feels that Linkin Park was vilified by a mainstream press that never got acquainted with the band's broader philosophy. The problem is that Linkin Park is a band, not a cosmology, and if the group wants to be genuinely up- lifting, its members can't just declare them- selves positive and leave it at that. Is a line like, "You try to take the best of me/ Go away" really positive? Sure, some kids may empathize with the sentiment, but the lyric hardly provides an adequate means of transcending loneliness and insignificance. Bennington and Shinoda have to find a way to get the message they truly advocate into their songs, and so far they haven't really done the job. For a band so heavily invest- ed in trying to communicate clearly, they still have lots of work to do.
The good news is that Linkin Park likes to work. The group spent 325 days on tour in 2001, and it's already planning to release a remix album this spring and record new material as soon as the band's members can tear themselves away from the road. They were also an exceedingly young band when they wrote Hybrid Theory. They wrote what they knew. Now their lives are much more interesting. "Our next record could sound like anything," says Bennington. With a little more discipline, it could even sound like what they intend.