I was once a high school boy with Opinions, so I used to get into a lot of arguments. One of the dumbest arguments I remember having was with another high school boy with Opinions about who was a better band—Linkin Park or U2. It’s so funny to think about in retrospect, because at fifteen years old neither of us had any context or framework to talk about what we were actually talking about. He was probably operating under some flimsy definition of what “rocked harder” and I was probably using an even flimsier definition of authenticity or something. One of the only “points” I remember being made in the argument was that Linkin Park was better because they got together while the band members were in high school. Well so did U2, so checkmate, Brandon.
What I realize now is that he was probably right. Or at least that I was wrong in telling him otherwise.
Linkin Park formed in the Los Angeles suburb Agoura Hills in 1996. After struggling to do much of anything other than lose lead vocalists for a few years, the band eventually stumbled upon a singer from nearby Phoenix, Arizona named Chester Bennington. With Bennington, the group quickly crystallized as a leading voice in the hard rock music that emerged in the shifting tides from a broad but stratified music landscape in the 1990s to the unknown frontier of digital music distribution in the early 2000s.
Linkin Park’s music is a blend of metal, industrial rock and rap, a recipe that’s often referred to as nu-metal. Nu-metal was aggressive and overwhelmingly masculine and it usually didn’t care about the optics of which cultures it borrowed from. With its unembarrassed blend of all sorts of in-the-moment music, nu-metal was fun to listen to—it was pop music that was ugly enough for people who didn’t think they liked pop music. But above all, nu-metal was very specific and easy to make fun of.
Most nu-metal came from California, but it quickly spread throughout the country, finding a particular popularity in the Midwest—both in the suburbs and in rural areas. As it would turn out, nu-metal’s serrated guitars and aggro-posture were perfect for soundtracking a below-freezing Michigan garage or a winter morning drive to school in an ice-caked 1997 Pontiac Grand Am.
Before his death in 2017, Chester Bennington wrote from a perspective of hurt. Growing up, he endured sexual abuse, bullying, the divorce of his parents and cycles of substance abuse. He wrote about all of these things, though not always specifically. Linkin Park songs were often vague in details but vivid in tone, which opened them to a broad spectrum of pain—from full-on abandonment and trauma to more casual, but still hazardous, strands of loneliness. You didn’t have to know Bennington’s pain first hand to understand a Linkin Park song. For many listeners, particularly men, Bennington’s writing spoke to things that they were already feeling and gave them a language to articulate or explore those feelings. I don’t know anything about Brandon’s life in particular, but I’m sure Linkin Park met him in his world more precisely than U2 ever could have.
I was reminded of Brandon’s and my debate recently during lunch with a client when Linkin Park’s “Numb” came on the radio at the golf course we were eating at. I was in a rural town in southern Michigan with a team to audit a bank, and during lunch the topic of marijuana legalization came up. Now that marijuana is legal recreationally in Michigan, the executive leaders of the bank wanted our advice as to whether they should accept deposits from or give loans to businesses in the newly bona fide marijuana industry. It’s something nearly all of our clients have been asking us since Proposal 1 passed last year. With a new industry, there’s money to be made; but without Federal legalization, it could be risky.
Having this conversation over and over sucks. Sure, it’s a relevant business question, but the level of detachment that is required to speak about this issue strictly in terms of dollars and cents is frustrating. Chances are that a lot of people in this particular region have been self-medicating with marijuana, alcohol or other, more addictive and destructive substances for a very long time. The racial disparities in the consequences for marijuana-use are staggering. The people sitting at this lunch table—the bankers and their auditors—would never have talked about marijuana until now, when there’s a question of profit. It solidifies the fact that our institutions are designed to only care about something when there’s something to be gained.
When “Numb” showed up, that entire dynamic was challenged, whether the people at the table realized it or not. Here was Chester Bennington, a voice that was there for the people of Quincy or Coldwater or Battle Creek, Michigan when the banks were not.
So who’s better? Linkin Park or U2? I don’t know. I love U2. Both bands have a song called “Numb.” And I think that arguing about whether an unfashionably garish rap-rock band from suburban LA is better or worse than an Irish band made up of four multi-millionaires and about a billion corporate sponsorships who release mediocre albums every half-decade probably reveals some flaws in how we’re conditioned to think about art and not much else. (Although, this particular argument would have taken place when No Line on the Horizon was U2’s newest album, which is the best late-career U2 album and very under-rated—that is a hill I will absolutely still die on.) Jay-Z has collaborated with both—I’ll just let him decide.
But I do know this: when Linkin Park’s “Numb” interrupted my business lunch by bringing a voice that heard the pain of so many within a square mile of where we were, it was holier than what hearing “With or Without You” in the same scenario would have been.
Jordan graduated in 2017. He majored in accounting and minored in history and now works as an auditor who spends a considerable amount of time travelling for work and complaining about the city planning of the east side of Michigan.