Heavy, pt 1

Mean body has compulsions and tics. Mean body holds too much. Mean body is so susceptible. Mean body keeps grasping at. Mean body loses grasp.

I woke up the other morning with Linkin Park in my head. Actually I think I woke up in the middle of the night and was greeted with “Heavy,” the Linkin Park single released a few months before LP’s lead singer, Chester Bennington, took his own life last year.

I have never owned a Linkin Park album. Until Chester killed himself I really didn’t know much at all about them, or about him. LP is not in any way part of the discourse or the range of interests generally discussed in the artist and writer circles I run in, but over the last couple years Caleb and I have worked up a pretty grand tongue-in-cheek karaoke rendition of “In the End,” with me singing Chester's part. I guess in doing so I inadvertently forged a bit of a connection to LP and Chester. When he died I found myself obsessed, legitimately heartbroken, and somewhat shocked as I learned just how popular LP actually is, so I started to investigate further.

In the days since I started writing this post we've lost two more pretty big public figures, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, to suicide. I was sad to hear about Kate, but had no real connection to her work, the news of Bourdain was crushing, tho. There was a pretty long era of my life where I didn't own a TV, almost never watched anything, but I would gather weekly with my two besties and watch No Reservations and eat something delicious Jesse cooked.

I loved Bourdain for his ability to unlock cultures through food; I loved him for his unabashed attempts to seem cool all the time, despite his dad-in-a-Rolling-Stones-cover-band-with-earring vibe. I saw him as something complex and laughable, but still lovable, and in many ways very wise. He understood deeply that food was a political issue, from the restaurant industry's reliance on undocumented labor to the cultural exchanges that happen via sharing meals, traditions, and commodities. His shows increasingly brought political struggles to the fore.

He wrestled with life. He was a year younger than my dad. I keep thinking about this fact that Bourdain had to end his own life and Fred's just ended on its own for no reason. Fred didn't commit suicide, but in a way he did kill himself through decades of checking out from the world and destroying his body with a four-pack-a-day habit and exclusive beverage consumption of coffee and beer. 

I don't know what I really think about that yet except that it's compelling me to read tweet after tweet about the sadness everyone is feeling in the wake of this loss. Nobody saw it coming, apparently. Tony talked about his depression, for sure, wore his darkness publicly, but it always seemed like something he had a handle on, not something that would get the best of him

Chester Bennington, on the other hand, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, was very public about his mental health struggles, it seems like he was always up and down. Linkin Park’s songs are all about depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, struggling with ptsd and its related issues. I was completely ignorant to how many records they had sold, that they weren’t just the butt of jokes about nü metal, but actually have a massive following. According to my shallow research, they're the best-selling band of the 21st century and one of the world's best-selling musical artists overall: Linkin Park has sold more than 70 million records worldwide.

I’ve long thought that depression and anxiety were increasingly culturally constructed, as capitalism is a brutal system to live under unless you're cis, white, male, AND extremely wealthy; even with those privileges you aren't guaranteed respite from the darkness, as the INCEL "movement" deftly illustrates. I don’t have to think too hard about why a band screaming about suicidal thoughts got popular. It is depressingly relatable music lyrically, not to mention the fact that thrashing around and screaming is one of the most cathartic treatments I can think of. It’s a sort of diy Trauma Release Exercise

I read in the CNN story on Bourdain that the suicide rate in the U.S. rose 25% from 1996-2016, and in many states the number is actually 30%. I have many friends who have contemplated suicide, one in particular who has attempted and been hospitalized like 4 or 5 times. The day before Bourdain was found I talked to a close friend who has bipolar and had just come out of the psych ward, finally on meds after her most suicidal episode yet. I listened to her talk about the past 6 months for half an hour with tears streaming down my face and words catching in my throat. Those statistics are both completely shocking and in no way surprising to someone who is surrounded by people who feel such deep darkness. Their struggles are personal and unique, but I can't help but see, also, how the state of the world impacts us all deeply.

“Heavy,” the single I mention above that has been swimming around in my head for the last week or so, and the album it's featured on, One More Light, marked a departure for the band. Instead of the usual interplay between his soaring vocals and Mike Shinoda’s raps Chester is duetting with pop star Kiiara, and the overall tone is slightly more emo pop ballad than hard nü metal anthem.

“I'm holding on,” he sings, “why is everything so heavy?"

Honestly, I frequently tear up whenever I hear "Heavy" considering what happened after it was released. LP’s fans were very very critical of it, in the Quora thread about the song one commenter writes "Suprised to see Linkin Park bend their knee so shamelessly for a taste of the charts" (LOL @ the surely Game-of-Thrones-inspired knee bend reference). I haven't been able to find this in my preliminary research yet, but my husband told me an anecdote about a radio dj playing the single upon its release and asking listeners to call in with their thoughts: they were overwhelmingly negative. Chester may or may not have heard any of those call-ins, but he did lash out publicly at LP's fans in the wake of the album's release telling those accusing him and LP of selling out "you can fucking meet me outside and I will punch you in your fucking mouth." 

He killed himself about five months after the single release, and only 2 months after the full album release. 

I'm not arguing that the reception of "Heavy" and One More Light is responsible for Chester's suicide. It is clear from all of LP's music and many things he has stated publicly that his suicidal ideation and the struggles he had with addiction and other fallout of his abuse had been haunting him his entire adult life. But it's meaningful to me that fans who connected to the music on an emotional level could so quickly turn on him, couldn't see a shift in genre as anything other than a marketing decision, even as his lyrics gave off such a stench of utter desperation. 

To me the lyrics of "Heavy" read as an exhausted cry for help, a man at the end of his rope. He knows that his mind is trapping him:  "And I drive myself crazy/Thinking everything's about me" and that it's in his power to free himself: "Holding on/So much more than I can carry/I keep dragging around what's bringing me down/If I just let go, I'd be set free"

And yet, all it seems he can do is spill his guts. 

U.S. Americans use music to cope with their mental illness. People, I guess, do this, not just U.S. Americans, but given the state of our healthcare system, and mental health in particular, and the fact of my own U.S. American-ness, there is something about this coping that does feel particularly U.S. American. It is not surprising to me that bands like Nirvana or Linkin Park became so popular with mental health struggles being at the darkened center of their aesthetic. It is a cruel irony that people have become so conditioned to be paranoid that we're being financially manipulated by marketing gurus when a beloved band takes a risk in their sound or tries to be more vulnerable.

I spent my 20s in Olympia, WA in basements full of young people drinking excessively, doing drugs, thrashing their bodies against one another, screaming along to punks thrashing their guitars and pounding their drums, everyone collectively trying to self-medicate their internal struggles. Depression was at the center. Attempts to self-medicate mostly just exacerbated issues. Kurt Cobain had been a key player in the burgeoning Oly grunge scene pre-Nirvana, and his ghost was haunting every basement. More than one of my peers didn't make it out alive.

To the fans of LP's music the hard darkness the band embodied for them was part of the commodity they were buying to self-medicate when the culture otherwise just left them to the wolves. When the makeup of the drug changed, tried a new tonal balance to get the message across, their response was based in it not having the same effect on them. The tragic collateral was that it caused a disconnect between the fans and their beloved singer trying to reach through to grasp onto something that could save him.

My husband discovered a middle aged dude's YouTube channel wherein he sings almost exclusively Linkin Park covers in what seems like a state of the art home recording studio. Big Bermers (singing Chester's part) isn't the best vocalist in the world, but he sure as hell pours his heart into it. The story we've constructed to explain this particular YouTube phenom is that he built the studio after a divorce, and Linkin Park is what allows him to access the feelings he can't otherwise out of fear of losing his manhood. Linkin Park fans couldn't allow themselves to open up to Chester's more tender side. Anger is an approved masculine emotion; screaming is great, but if it tips into a wail you might get punched for being a fucking pussy.

I can't help but wonder what could have happened differently, say if fans hadn't felt so entitled to the commodity of Chester's manly scream rather than his tender wail, or if toxic masculinity didn't dictate to him that the way to deal with their rejection wasn't to lash out violently, but to be even more vulnerable.