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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Saturday, July 30, 2005

the zeros: linkin park

Linkin Park, a nu-metal band from Agoura Hills, CA exemplifies the kind of music that can best be summed up as "adolescent angst." Their music, influenced by hip-hop, techno and metal, and whose core audience is young men, has emerged as one of the ubiquitous "sounds" of this decade.

Breaking the Habit, a typical Linkin Park song from 2004, mixes pop melodrama, techno beats, and hip hop scratching so buffed and produced that it's pretty much unrecognizable as such. There's no hiding that this is pure radio fare by a band with platinum hits and the resources of a major label behind them. You can check out their neo-noir, multi-media version of the song, and its anime video, here (flash req'd.)

The key lyrics are in the chorus:

I don't know what's worth fighting for
Or why I have to scream
I don't know why I instigate
And say what I don't mean
I don't know how I got this way
I know it's not alright
So I'm breaking the habit
I'm breaking the habit

This is music for the OxyContin era. It's got a post-talk show pop-psychology vibe....as if these guys grew up with Sally Jesse Raphael and Dr. Phil blaring from the TV. In that context, the song is also remarkable in how it uses the language of doing something: breaking a habit, starting again, fighting, instigating...to convey a powerful tide that drives in the exact opposite direction.

Anxiety, powerlessness, disabling introspection and the language of addiction permeate Breaking the Habit. Although the lyrics imply a "turning point conversation" with an unnamed friend, what the song is saying is the opposite: I'm going to my room, I'm checking out. I'm breaking a habit. This ambiguity, between the self-destructive, ironic mood....the narrator is not breaking a habit in any normal sense of the word...and the use of a language of action and sincerity, is emblematic of a decade where words often come with an ironic kick from their opposite meaning. We live in times of contradiction.

The clearest statement the song makes is one of emotional confusion, of an impotence that blocks understanding and impedes dealing with what life is throwing at you. There's a surprising falsetto, an earnest "pop softness" to the vocals. Despite the anguished scream that the song builds up to, its main impression is one of vulnerability, confusion and a desire to escape.

If this is music for an era of pill-crushing and meth addiction, it's also music that was created in the context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (You can read the lines of the chorus to imply a kind of PTSD.) Early in 2003, one member of the band made this statement in an interview that exemplifies the 'disaffectedness masking over real concern' we hear in their songs:

DJ Mr. Hahn said that the band wants to play everywhere around the world, and he feels that Linkin Park fills a valuable role as an escape from reality. When asked how he and the band are handling the world's political unrest, he said he's trying not to overload on the news since it's out of his control.

"Well I actually don't really pay attention to the news that much just because there's so much going on," Mr. Hahn said. "It's kind of depressing because there's a lot of things going on that's beyond your control. The only fear I have is airports shutting down so we won't get to travel around the world to tour. Basically what we do is more on the upside is provide entertainment for people. As far as there's a war going on, that's completely distant to what we're trying to achieve."

(In 2004 another member of the band, Dave Farrell, donated $75,000 to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation which aids the surviving family members of U.S. Special Operations forces killed in combat.....and the band itself participated in Live 8 and Tsunami Relief efforts.)

Like most young people, many U.S. Military personnel are into Linkin Park's music. This can been seen on message boards and in this profile of one returning veteran, Spc. Catelina Varelas, from the Arizona Daily Star:

It's hard to sleep in her mom's West Side home without the familiar lullaby of mortar shells exploding in the distance. Varelas is only seven days removed from her stay in the Middle East - where blasts at all hours were common at her Army base in the Sunni Triangle. She falls asleep with headphones blaring Linkin Park in her ears. Peace and quiet and home don't yet comfort Varelas, who says she "came out of her shell" after shipping out on Feb. 10, 2003.

-Arizona Daily Star 3/19/2004

Linkin Park and the war in Iraq come together in that quote. The image of Spc. Varelas retreating to her room and listening to Linkin Park's music as a way of coping with her return from Iraq fits precisely with the mood of Breaking the Habit. It is also an image that, in so many of its particulars...a female veteran, her service in the heart of the combat zone, the odd, contradictory tone of newspaper article, and Ms. Varelas herself, alone, listening to Linkin Park on headphones as she falls asleep in her mom's house....could only have come from this decade.

These are the zeros.

{This is the first in a series of essays looking at things that are emblematic of this decade of ours.}


  • i always thought this decade should be called "the oughts," just out of the sense that we ought to be doing something else, but "the zeroes" certainly gets the nihilistic sense of watching it all crumble helplessly before your eyes, and deep down inside wondering if it isn't better just to let it collapse and start over from scratch. wish i had some hope to latch onto, but i'm feeling kinda dark tonight. the brooklyn wedding piece was great last night kid. thanks as always for making me think, and feel.

    By Anonymous wu ming, at 7:16 PM  

  • Hey thanks wu ming.

    zeros / oughts...

    I always liked "the 2Ks" from hip hop. But, yeah, I'm feeling dark too....so

    zeros, or is it zeroes, it is for now. Thanks for the response!

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 7:42 PM  

  • PS anyone who knows more about Linkin Park or the genre...

    feel free to kick in here. I'm all ears.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 9:56 PM  

  • I'm not really a fan of theirs. In fact, I think their music is awful, but then I guess 50 million Linkin Park fans can't be wrong. Their fame totally invalidates my taste.

    By Blogger Keir, at 12:58 AM  

  • I hear you keir.

    I'm writing a whole series of these pieces....on 'the zeros'....and things that embody this decade.

    From where I stand, this just fit that.

    Thanks for the comment.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 8:50 AM  

  • Gotta throw in my lot with those who don't see the appeal of LP. Some of the lyrics are interesting in a four-beers-angst way, but they're not particularly insightful or clever--just desperate and angry. I suppose that appeals to some people.

    Which is not to say that clever lyrics are the be-all end-all of good music. I like plenty of bands whose lyrics are pointless or mundane. I also like music that makes good use of dissonance and hard edges. But LP, like so many other bands of the last 10-15 years, doesn't sound to me like their sound was a deliberate artistic choice--just that they lack the talent or imagination to do anything more.

    By Anonymous Catsy, at 8:59 AM  

  • Personally, I kinda like Linkin Park. My favorite song of theirs is 'My December'...definitely a detour from their usual fare. And the usual fare is cool...great to work out to, to think to, and to vege to.

    By Anonymous Kath, at 9:00 AM  

  • Great post -- I just love this sociological stuff.

    I talked to my 16-year-old son about this, since I know he has a couple of Linkin Park CDs. Turns out he's not particularly into LP or their message. He's more into punk, particularly punk with a "fight against the madness" message.

    He is fortunate to attend an arts-oriented charter high school, where he estimates most of the students are "fighters." But he estimates that 80% of his contemporaries attending "regular" high schools have the "what's the use" mindset.

    While we were having this conversation, he was in his room playing video games. Ironies abound. But at least he and his contempories attend peace marches, etc. But there simply isn't enough positive focus for his age group -- or any of us. I am talking sheer hours of activities that make a positive difference.

    Lack of "traction" has always been a core issue for me. Not enough opportunities for me to use even part of my highest potential. But... we do whatever we can and hope it adds up.

    BTW I have enjoyed your posts on Kos. I appreciate your quiet incisiveness, well organized into bullet points. I expecially appreciated how you kept encouraging the freaked-out Kerry troops last fall. Keep it up, kid.

    Gordon Solberg

    By Blogger Gordon Solberg, at 10:08 AM  

  • glad you have a blog, KO.

    Re: Linkin Park, they are nice polite kids who write some good pop tunes and put in just enough riffs and anger to make it not seem too.. uh.. gay? :) The prevailing view on this music geek message board I read is that they're kind of an American version of Depeche Mode.. loud, kinda shallow, and don't hold your breath waiting for them to produce a "Blasphemous Rumours," say. Some of their songs are pretty good pop ("Numb") and they aren't so bad compared to most everything on rock radio, but then I think, shouldn't good music push you out of your comfort zone a little and (if you're a teenager) piss off your parents? But, maybe some escapist music is OK, in the context. I would not really want actual soldiers fighting an actual war to be listening to some of the stuff I was really into as a teenager (ie Ministry).

    I'm kind of depressed by what's happening in music right now, nothing much is really grabbing my attention. Maybe I'm burned out on it. I don't know what I am waiting for an interesting new band to be doing or saying, but SOMETHING, surely.

    By Anonymous daria g, at 7:17 PM  

  • Thanks all for these comments!

    Kath and Catsy, regardless of my actually enjoying the occasional LP song...and that animation...my tastes run more to the stuff in my playlsit on the right.

    Gordon, it was great to read that comment...it really painted a picture....and was kind of "zeros" in its own right.

    and Daria G, great to see you here!

    Yeah, music is weird right now. One of my friends, who's in the art band Toychestra (all women, all toys, real music...see link) has been buying used cassettes...

    Alice Cooper, Journey etc. etc.

    says something.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 10:56 PM  

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