Death in the Grunge

Social Commentary

Death in the Grunge

Illustration: Cleon Dsouza

Years before Chester Bennington, in 1903, the world looked up to scientist Marie Curie, who had just received a Nobel prize for her research in radiation theory. In a cruel twist of fate, the exposure to her own discovery led to leukaemia, and her subsequent death in 1934. Two days ago, Bennington, the front man of Linkin Park, committed suicide. Much like Marie Curie, he set out with noble intentions. As an artist, he alleviated the pain of an entire generation, with foreboding lyrics that even now resonate in the heart of every angsty teenager. Unfortunately, just like Curie, he ended up succumbing to the very plague he sang about.

Bennington’s death is a harsh reminder that everybody is fighting a battle you know nothing about. In his case, the battle was out there in the open. Chester spoke about the sexual abuse he faced as a child; he was frank about his addiction to alcohol and a number of other substances. His lyrics – “crawling in my skin… these wounds they will not heal” – could serve as material for any suicide helpline’s trigger list. The signs were out there for everyone to see, for everyone to sing along with.

Linkin Park came on to the scene as the grunge movement was on its way out. Chester was heavily inspired by another frontman who tragically killed himself a few months before: Soundgarden and Audioslave’s Chris Cornell. He was the godfather of Cornell’s son, the two toured together extensively, and Bennington often spoke of Cornell being an inspiration for his own career. But like Icarus, Bennington flew too close to the sun.

Bennington’s music could be seen as an extension of the legacy that Cornell and so many others had left behind. While the styles would be different, Bennington addressed the angst of a new set of teenagers. He was never considered a “grunge” musician, though he did briefly replace Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots, but he shared many sensibilities with the Seattle musicians. Most glaringly, the pervasiveness of rage, angst, and sorrow in his music.

Scott Weiland. Chris Cornell. Chester Bennington. They’re all gone now. All three died too young. As did Layne Staley and Mike Starr of Alice in Chains, Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone, Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, and of course Kurt Cobain to name a few. Almost an entire generation of musicians who expressed their pain through music is now facing the effects of extensive drug abuse and depression.

And what about us — a generation of kids who grew up during the grunge years (almost everyone I know has a flannel shirt from back in the day) and the “NuMetal” aftermath that was Linkin Park or Korn?

Everyone’s fighting a battle we know nothing about. But here we are, millions of young adults fighting Chester’s battles with him.

We got accustomed to being vocal about pain. “Black Hole Sun” became an accurate description of the feelings of an 18-year-old in a math tuition class. Our rage got a little more intense and incoherent. Millennials came to be known as the “entitled ones” always shouting about things like “gender and gay rights” and “freedom of expression” and “iPhones” and so on. People often wonder aloud what upper-class millennials could possibly have to complain about. We mostly live comfortable lives. We fed, we’re warm, we have shelter, that’s what our parents and grandparents fought for us to have. But as our worlds became militarily and economically level, our battles shifted inside. The mind, our frontier; the enemy, our personal demons. It’s no surprise now that “What do you know about my pain?” has become such a common refrain. Pain that found a release when confronted with Bennington’s verses.

It makes sense in retrospect that my family was shocked the first time they overheard me listening to Linkin Park. Chester and I were yelling “I bleed it out, take it deeper… just to throw it away” in my bedroom. I was 14. They couldn’t figure why the music was that abrasive, they had never heard anything this angry. They also made a lot of fun of me.

Everyone’s fighting a battle we know nothing about. But here we are, millions of young adults fighting Chester’s battles with him. Never before has a generation been bombarded with this much mainstream depression.

Linkin Park came bundled with other acts like Evanescence that spawned the whole emo-core movement. With that came the idea of “self-harm” in my school and many other schools across India, I am sure. A few people I knew personally – and I’ve heard similar stories from friends who have lived in different cities, and gone to very different schools – found the idea of “self harm” thrilling, and began carving out names of loved ones in blood on their thighs, arms whatever. Most saw it as a way to declare “their love” for a classmate or somesuch. Things that appear trivial in the cynicism of adulthood, but which you felt with a keen feeling that only teenage can muster.

If there’re two things we’re good at as a generation, it’s being comfortable talking about immense pain, and taking ourselves very seriously. We are a generation that shares nihilist memes and laughs at dead baby jokes. But we will also fight against all odds for the right to express ourselves in whichever way we please. All of these traits, I believe, originate from these two huge pop-cultural revolutions.

As most of us 90s kids grow older we’ll probably stop listening to Linkin Park – most of us were already in the phase in which we were ashamed to admit we like the band. Chester’s death will change that, the way it did for Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell. We’ll grow up and listen to different kinds of music and have different opinions; some of us will get over the teenage angst. But we’ll have Chester to remind us that some of us don’t find that peace.