The rule of threes feels a distant memory, doesn’t it? The past few years’ steady procession of famous people killed by illness (David Bowie and the slew of Baby Boomer icons to fall), suicide (too many examples this spring alone), or shocking calamity (the 20-year-old rapper XXXTentacion was shot dead Monday) has rendered popular culture an endless overlapping of public grief. This has many terrible secondary effects. One is that death and its ceremonies might leach energy and attention from the living. How can a culture—not to mention the individual loved ones and fans left behind—hope to progress when mourning is so often at the front of everyone’s minds?
That may sound like a gauche question, dishonoring the dead. But the issue of how and when to let people “move on” is not a vain one during what increasingly appears to be a national mental-health crisis. It also connects with the quest for achievement and expression that each grieved-for celebrity, in their way, partook in to become beloved in the first place. Pop culture has rarely “gotten over” losses like Kurt Cobain’s, nor has it been kind to folks like Courtney Love, who soldier on after the unthinkable. But maybe now, amid a new wave of tragedies, there’s something to be said for an approach to celebrity death that, crass as it may seem, doesn’t dwell so myopically on the departed.
Last July came a particularly staggering shock to the music world when Chester Bennington, one of the two lead vocalists from Linkin Park, died by suicide at age 41. His band’s album Hybrid Theory moved more copies in the new millennium than any other new rock act’s has, and a huge, dedicated fan base had over nearly two decades deeply identified with his voicings of pain and rage. Rather than step away and regroup, his bandmates undertook the public grieving process with a striking amount of forthrightness. Three months after Bennington’s death came an energetic concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Now, almost one year since the tragedy, a new album, called Post Traumatic, from Mike Shinoda, the band’s rapper, insists that the music go on.
Shinoda and Bennington shared Linkin Park’s frontman spot, and the angst of the music was most clearly embodied in the screams of Bennington, who openly spoke of struggling with addiction and the memory of childhood sexual abuse. By contrast, Shinoda came off as the relatively unfettered wordsmith, art director, and career mind. “I’ve always listened to dark music—Depeche Mode, Public Enemy, Nine Inch Nails—but hadn’t really experienced the things that were going on in the songs,” Shinoda recently told the Los Angeles Times. “But now I’m in this horrible situation,” he added, referring to Bennington’s death. “I’m a member of this club that I never asked to be a part of.”
In footage of the October 2017 memorial concert that was broadcast online, you can watch Shinoda begin to use music to process what’s happened. He debuted a new song, “Looking for an Answer,” which asked, “Was there something I could say, or something I should not have done?” The track is delicate, all piano: far from Linkin Park’s techno-metal bombast, with Shinoda singing instead of rapping. “Is there sunshine where you are, the way there was when you were here?” he asked. “‘Cause I’m just sitting in the dark / In disbelief that this is real.” It was a moving but also familiar performance of grief, the tentative sound of the Kübler-Ross stages setting in.
That fragile and shellshocked approach, however, doesn’t rule Post Traumatic. Shinoda omitted “Looking for an Answer” from the 16-track album, and though Linkin Park’s future remains uncertain, many of these new songs are as confrontational and charged-up as the ones the band was best known for. Bennington looms throughout, but rather than dwell directly on the loss—or eulogize his bandmate in any sustained way—Shinoda focuses on his own desire to salvage his life and career. In the face of assumptions that someone like him must be irrevocably damaged, Shinoda asks that his self-interest be recognized as bravery.
“Did somebody else define me?” he asks on the album opener, “Place to Start.” “Can I put the past behind me?” His cadence is slow and questioning, but he builds in intensity, sliding from singing to rap against a synthetic backdrop evoking gloom tinged with hope. By the end of the song’s sole verse, Shinoda has reasserted both his place in the story as well as his ear for satisfying, melodramatic pop. The track closes with a collage of voicemails from friends offering condolences. “Hope you’re hanging in there,” one says.
Those messages are well-intentioned, but there’s a hint of criticism in their inclusion here. Linkin Park’s music often relied on a sense of opposition: a “you” or “they” who tormented the narrators, pushing them to some terrible breaking point. On Post Traumatic, the opponent sometimes comes in the form of well-wishers. Shinoda recounts hearing things like, “Wow, must be really hard to figure what to do now” (his reply: “Well thank you, genius”), and mentions someone bringing up Bennington’s death at a child’s birthday party (in reply, “I make the most awkward joke / Too dark to be funny”). The scrutiny clearly feels oppressive to him.“They’ll tell you I don’t care anymore, and I hope you’ll know that’s a lie,” he sings, seeming to address fans.
At other times, the antagonistic “you” appears to be Bennington. “Enough is enough / I let you have your last word,” he says in one of many passages about choosing to embrace life again. The line sounds harsh, and maybe the you there isn’t actually Bennington but some inner demon of Shinoda’s. But such is the trap that both singer and listener find themselves in: “Even when it’s not about you / All of a sudden it’s about you,” Shinoda sings in a track he says was inspired by wanting to write music unrelated to his mourning.
Later in that song, he pugnaciously raps, “Get it crackin’ / Back in Black until you have ‘em Thunderstruck.” The lyrics reference AC/DC, who recorded a world-conquering album immediately in the wake of the death of singer Bon Scott. If that band could keep chasing success, Shinoda implies, so can he. Yet Bennington will be impossible to replace. After the memorial concert, where a number of guest stars took the mic, Shinoda said, “I was listening back and going, ‘God, these people were all really great singers and none of them were Chester.’ He had such a specific tone and range.” It’s true, and some of Post Traumatic’s toughest moments come when Shinoda aims his voice high and angelic. Bennington would have sung those parts, and so much more distinctly.
But Shinoda is making a point by not treating absence as an insurmountable obstacle. For him to so stridently celebrate his own life in the wake of his friend’s wrenching death defies not only the grief police, but also Shinoda’s own internal sense of guilt, which he wrestles with throughout the album. “[Mike] is really concerned about people thinking that he’s selfish for doing [Post Traumatic], but like, fuck that,” Chino Moreno, the Deftones singer who contributed to one song, told Rolling Stone. “He’s a creative person … For someone to assume he’s not going to [make music] is crazy." Selfish is a charged word in relation to suicide, and experts on mental health advise that people resist the impulse to use such terms to describe its victims. Extend the principle: If those who’ve left aren’t to be judged, surely those who’ve been left behind should be encouraged to survive—and thrive—as they want.