The format in the last couple of years has gone through an identity crisis. You have stations that are too cool, that move too quickly and are only playing the coolest music, which doesn’t at the end of the day attract enough of the audience. Or you have the other extreme, dumb rock, red-state rock that the cool kids just flat out aren’t into.” —Kevin Weatherly of L.A. rock radio station KROQ, 2005, in the New York Times
“In between the letters of the word fuck — that’s where we go. That’s where we dig deep.” —Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington, 2001, in Rolling Stone
“Once again, rock radio has been dealt a blow in New York.” So begins a 290-word item that appeared October 9, 2012, on the New York Times‘s Media Decoder blog. Given the news, “dealt a blow” was a pretty massive understatement: WEMP, the city’s last radio station dedicated to playing contemporary rock music, was to begin simulcasting the AM sports talk station WFAN. It would now be virtually impossible to hear bands under the age of 40 over the airwaves in the nation’s largest media market. Rock radio in the city had been dealt a blow like Hiroshima had a bad day with a loud explosion.
At one time, New York City had been the unofficial capital of rock and roll, the place where the Beatles traveled to appear on Ed Sullivan and infiltrate an entire nation’s TV sets; where wannabe arena rock bands received their coronation by filling Madison Square Garden; where Bob Dylan and the Brill Building were nurtured and Lou Reed, the New York Dolls, and the Ramones were birthed. Now the ignoble death of rock radio in the city had been reduced to a matter of administrative paper-shuffling in a dispassionate web post.
The change at WEMP was, in a sense, old news. The extinction of rock radio has been a nationwide epidemic dating back to the mid-’00s, when stations in former rock strongholds like Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Seattle began slowly filtering new and emerging bands out of their playlists — or changing formats altogether. The Times originally reported on the trend back in 2005, when program directors and station managers put the blame on changing listener habits and, more pointedly, on the music itself. Even the record labels pushing the music admitted that its latest batch of artists — in the words of an anonymous promotion executive — “could be your waiter tomorrow night and you wouldn’t know the difference.” Indifferently promoted product resulted in indifferent ratings: Ratings for the “alternative” rock format in the 18-to-34 age group fell 20 percent in the first half of the ’00s, while audiences for rap, R&B, and Spanish-language formats grew.
KROQ’s Kevin Weatherly zeroed in on a dilemma for many rock stations in the ’00s: More rock fans were listening to indie bands, but not enough to sustain strong ratings. And those listeners recoiled at hearing a song by Interpol or Death Cab for Cutie followed by Staind or (gasp!) Nickelback. And the reverse was true for listeners who preferred the heavier bands. The rock audience had been parceled into smaller, less significant constituencies who saw themselves as incompatible with one another. Rock stations had to choose one or the other, diminishing their own stature in the process.
In its prime, rock had been used interchangeably with “pop.” It was a catchall term for music intended to be appreciated by millions. Now, rock signified new, uncomfortable truths about the new century: fragmentation of tastes, old-media collapse, demographic shifts favoring women and minorities and freezing out aging white dudes.
The end of rock radio is the thread that links the last two chapters of The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll — it is important for the tangible damage it inflicted on the current generation of rock acts, and for what it symbolizes about the marginalization of rock in the last decade. Changes in radio effectively removed mainstream rock from the pop-culture playing field. In 2011, Nielsen BDS reported that a no. 1 rock song reaches only 12 million people vs. 81 million for the average pop hit. To paraphrase Mr. Gorgonchuck, if popular music is a 12-pack, rock is down to under one beer.1
Even shrinking empires need rulers, and in the ’00s Linkin Park towered over the competition in rock’s dwindling marketplace. Linkin Park’s 2000 debut, Hybrid Theory, was the top-selling rock album of the decade — ranking no. 7 overall — eventually moving more than 10 million units. Linkin Park went on to sell more than 50 million records, due in large part to radio: On rock stations, Linkin Park was a dominant force, lodging 10 no. 1 alternative hits (and five top-10s) between 2001 and 2010. Linkin Park also notched three top-10 hits on the pop charts in the ’00s, peaking with Hybrid Theory‘s standout “In the End,” which went to no. 2 on the Hot 100 in 2001.
Linkin Park’s radio popularity is a chicken-or-egg proposition: Was the group a natural for airplay because it effectively mimicked the boilerplate sound of ’00s rock radio — some leftover angst from grunge, a flash of heavy-metal dynamics, a dollop of Sublime’s SoCal bro-rap, a trace of Trent Reznor’s pop-industrial histrionics — or was it radio that conformed to Linkin Park’s warmed-over, edible-enough sludge?
Formed in 1996 and based in Los Angeles, Linkin Park is commonly associated with the nu-metal bands of the late ’90s. But it never really belonged with the standard-bearers of that scene; as Korn and Limp Bizkit bum-rushed MTV, Linkin Park spent years struggling to get its act together. Originally known as Xero, the group promptly lost its lead singer after recording an introductory four-track demo for record labels. Xero might have been tossed on the rap-rock scrap heap like so many backward baseball caps had it not hooked up with Chester Bennington, who supplied Linkin Park with the sort of raspy, second-hand Bono-isms that served Scott Stapp and the other bozos in Creed so well.2 The contrast between Bennington’s vocals and co–front man Mike Shinoda’s rapping formed the core of Linkin Park’s new sound. True believers might have looked at Linkin Park as carpetbaggers, but the group’s lack of nu-metal “purity” would actually prove fortuitous in the decade ahead.
By the time Hybrid Theory was ready for public consumption, nu-metal was mired in the media scandal of Woodstock ’99. Linkin Park’s timing proved perfect; in sound and presentation, it was the ideal post–Woodstock ’99 band. Hybrid Theory‘s first single, “One Step Closer,” superficially resembled a typical nu-metal song: The scream-y vocals, down-tuned guitars, and record scratches fit the bill. Bennington was intense and vulnerable; he had some stuff to get off his chest, and you better not push him too far, becausehe’sabouttobreak, and blah blah blah. It was music most people over the age of 35 heard only from the other side of a slammed-shut bedroom door keeping the most pissed-off middle schooler on the block from wreaking havoc on the neighbors’ mailboxes.
But Linkin Park songs were also catchy, and more melodic than the typical nu-metal band. And the guys in Linkin Park were kind of cute — Bennington, lookswise, had more in common with Justin Timberlake or Nick Carter than the dreadlocked, punishingly tattooed Battlefield Earth extras in Korn.
Hybrid Theory might have been a vessel for teenage fury and sullen alienation, but it was ultimately as wholesome and kid-friendly as any boy-band record. In Rolling Stone, Bennington and Shinoda dismissed the use of swear words on so many recent rock albums, and bragged they didn’t have to work blue to be successful. “We wanted something people could connect with, not just vulgarity and violence,” Bennington said. “We didn’t want to make a big point of not cussing, but we don’t have to hide behind anything to show how tough we can be.”
Linkin Park’s clean ways extended to life on the road. Rolling Stone noted that the band did not ask for alcohol on its tour rider, and suggested that the only drug-related peer pressure in Linkin Park was strictly of the “just say no” variety. “If one of us wants to drink or smoke, we do it in the club, not in the bus, so people who don’t want to drink or smoke can hang out in the bus,” Shinoda told writer Rob Sheffield. In the same piece, Bennington said, “If you’re getting wasted, you should be spending that energy out there meeting your fans. I love to get compliments from the janitors in the clubs — ‘Dude, thanks for not destroying the place, I can go home early tonight.’”3
Linkin Park won over janitors and the kids they cleaned up after by touring endlessly behind Hybrid Theory. In 2001 alone, the band claimed it played an exhausting 342 shows. After each gig, in lieu of an encore, the members of Linkin Park stepped into the crowd to shake hands and sign autographs. On and off the stage, Bennington and Shinoda conducted themselves like candidates running for the office of Multi-Platinum Rock Star. “This is a business of love and labor,” Bennington told Spin. “You’re constantly trying to prove yourself, even after you’ve made it.”
Linkin Park’s work ethic carried over to the studio, where it obsessively pursued the construction of popular rock songs like Stanley Kubrick driving Shelley Duvall to tears on the set of The Shining. While making Hybrid Theory‘s follow-up, 2003′s Meteora, Linkin Park wrote 40 different choruses for just one track, the eventual no. 1 alternative hit “Somewhere I Belong.” “It was just agonizing,” Shinoda said in Spin. “You can’t even imagine writing ten, and we were writing the tenth one, and in our minds, it was done. And people would come in and say, ‘Yeah, it’s cool.’ And that’s not the response you want. You want, ‘That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard!’ In our heads, we were thinking, ‘Damn it — we gotta go on writing.’”
If ever there was a scenario in which Linkin Park invited me to the studio to listen to songs from its new record, I seriously doubt I’d hear anything that would make me say, “That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard!” That said, Linkin Park’s music isn’t quite the bucket of rat piss I assumed it was back when I was sprinting in the opposite direction of every nu-metal band in the early ’00s.
Let me qualify that lukewarm endorsement: Every Linkin Park LP eventually turns into a slog, particularly the later, more pretentious ones.4 But each album also has at least one track that worms its way into my heart,5 which is the highest praise I can give Linkin Park, because my brain gave my heart explicit orders to not admit any Linkin Park songs. It’s just that Linkin Park’s canniest singles are like expert cat burglars when it comes to pulling B and E’s on my nervous system.
Any band that is willing to write more than three dozen choruses in search of the one that’s going to soundtrack the feckless rage of a million sad-faced bros is clearly in it to win it. Linkin Park’s greatest asset isn’t a unique musical vision or game-changing creative genius; it is pop craftsmanship. Linkin Park is very good at making rock songs that are likable without exactly being good.
This is the point where Linkin Park’s badass credentials become suspect: It is far too listenable to be a legit nu-metal band. When rap-rock officially assumed the mainstream rock mantle in the late ’90s, it made me feel 100 years old, even though I was a wily codger of 18 at the time. It was the first “youth” music I ever encountered that I immediately knew wasn’t for me. I hated it then, and I don’t much care for it now — though I came to see that people like me hating nu-metal was the whole point of nu-metal.
As a kid, I discovered alt-rock and classic rock around the same time, and quickly realized they existed on the same continuum. This wasn’t some brilliant insight on my part: Alt-rock bands made a point of underlining their classic-rock influences, whether it was Pearl Jam recording with Neil Young or Nirvana covering David Bowie or Pavement tacking sly Billy Squier musical quotes to the end of their slacker anthems.6 Nu-metal bands, however, wanted no part of the rock continuum. Korn bassist Fieldy once claimed in an interview with Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman that he never listened to Led Zeppelin or the Stones — his band’s influences only went as far back as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More. This ignorance of history resulted in guitar-oriented music that only accidentally resembled traditional rock. Many critics couldn’t stand it, even though nu-metal was precisely what critics claim to adore: “original” music with little or no ties to the past. Nu-metal was about dismantling rock music like the hoodlums taking apart scaffolding at Griffiss Air Force Base to the tune of Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff.”
One of the only things classic rock and nu-metal have in common is their huge debt to black music. Fittingly, nu-metal emerged around the time that the blues influence in rock had all but evaporated. The alt-rock bands of the ’90s, like the indie bands of the ’00s, were blindingly white in sound and form. Nu-metal was an attempt by white rock musicians not only to engage with rap music, but to replace an outmoded rock lexicon with the language of hip-hop. In nu-metal, guitarists treated their instruments like turntables, exploring new possibilities for rhythmic noise far beyond the usual 12-bar riffs that had been handed down from ’60s bands cribbing from Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. The new guitar gods were now stealing from the Bomb Squad.
The hip-hop element in Linkin Park’s music had nothing to do with revolutionizing rock music; it was about going with the herd as rap strengthened its hold on pop and R&B in the ’00s.
Linkin Park’s records didn’t sound like hip-hop, but they were assembled with a hip-hop sensibility, and could comfortably coexist in the same space sonically with rappers and rap-informed pop stars. “Linkin Park had the hip-hop mindset to make an album that was portable,” critic Ian Cohen wrote of Hybrid Theory in a retrospective piece for Stylus. “Indeed, its brash, buzzy and hyper-compressed production sounded best in what would become the predominant music devices of the early 21st century: computer speakers, car stereos, iPod earbuds.”
Cohen notes how the musical elements of Hybrid Theory were “prepared for removal and rejiggering during a remix process.” The album’s opening track, “Papercut,” Cohen writes, “would be just as effective if everything was replaced by dusty string samples. Was there even a guitar part for ‘In the End’? Wasn’t the spotless, synthy verse of ‘Crawling’ more effective than the chorus? Folks, this is how some people envision the term ‘post-rock.’”
Similar to how grunge bands rushed to pay tribute to their grizzled, rocker-guy heroes, Linkin Park dutifully acknowledged its love of hip-hop on numerous occasions. For the Hybrid Theory remix record Reanimation, Linkin Park inserted underground rappers like Aceyalone and Phoenix Orion into the same context as Staind’s Aaron Lewis and Korn’s Jonathan Davis. Somewhat more listenable was the EP Collision Course, a mash-up record with Jay-Z. Putting Hova’s rhymes over Linkin Park’s music was hardly flattering to Shinoda’s meager rap skills, but it did shore up the band’s reputation a bit in some crucial areas.
Rock and rap had come full circle: Nearly 20 years earlier, Aerosmith had helped Run-D.M.C. cross over to a new audience by appearing on the rap group’s remake of “Walk This Way.”7 Now it was a rock band asking a rapper for a shot of credibility.
As the ’00s drew to a close, Linkin Park’s relationship with radio was more codependent than ever. Only now it didn’t seem so healthy. Rock radio was down, and so were Linkin Park’s record sales. A Thousand Suns was the first Linkin Park album to not go platinum; 2012′s Living Things barely went gold. Starting with 2007′s Minutes to Midnight, Linkin Park started to downplay its hip-hop side, employing Shinoda’s raps on only a few scattered songs, moving toward a more conventional rock sound. Some lamented this evolution in Linkin Park’s musical makeup: “They’ve construed being a U2-worshipping alt-rock outfit as progress,” Cohen writes, “rather than further exploring their synthetic and far more interesting (and promising) side.”
The narrowing of Linkin Park’s sound echoed changes at the radio stations that the band catered to. Even at the height of nu-metal in the late ’90s, the alt-rock airwaves still afforded space to the occasional late-period bubble-grunge hit like Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” to placate less aggressive listeners. But by the mid-’00s, radio executives ditched all traces of pop on rock radio in pursuit of an exclusively male and overwhelmingly indignant audience. Many stations stopped including women in their market research altogether. It was a risky, all-in bet that quickly seemed impossible to renege on. Tom Calderone, a former radio programmer and consultant, laid out the dire circumstances of this strategy in a 2005 New York Times article: “You got yourself into a corner that you can’t get out of,” he said. “When you become 65-75 percent guys, you’re leaving a huge audience on the table.”
Rock radio wasn’t just a sausage fest, it was also aiming more and more for older listeners. The stations that weren’t converting to all-talk formats resembled full-on ’90s revues; in my town, the rock station plays Red Hot Chili Peppers songs like it’s trying to end a police standoff. “Radio has ceded the younger demographic to other media,” Fred Jacobs, president of a radio consulting company specializing in rock, told the Times back in ’05. “I just don’t know how we’re going to get back people who didn’t get into the radio habit in their teens … It really becomes problematic down the road.”
Speaking as a rock fan who has seen what lies down that road, “problematic” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, brother.
Coming up in Part 7: We wrap up The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll with the Black Keys, one of the only ’00s indie-rock bands to successfully transition to arena-filling, mainstream stardom. I’ll look at how they did it and whether rock has any hope of regaining its lost share of the pop audience.