Chester Bennington

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Confessions of a Secret Emo Kid

Chester Bennington, lead singer of the band Linkin Park, took his life last week. In this essay, Nathan Palmer reflects on the social pressure he felt to hide his feelings (and love for Linkin Park) and how he came to embrace being an “emo kid.”

I had to read the headline three times before my brain could make sense of it. It knocked the wind out of me when it finally registered. Chester Bennington was gone. He took his own life.

When my emotions flooded in and took over, I did what I had done so many times before; I put my headphones on and listened to Linkin Park. Chester and his bandmates composed songs that remain the soundtrack to my feelings. Chester’s lyrics of pain and trauma had always carried weight, but now they were haunting.

I have been a Linkin Park fan since their debut album, but I’m ashamed to admit that I kept my fandom secret. In 2000 when their first album came out, the band was part of the rap/rock hybrid genre called “Nu Metal” which included cheesy acts like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock. I liked almost all of these Nu Metal artists, but the entire genre quickly fell out of favor. Nu Metal became a guilty pleasure that I kept between me and my iPod.

Linkin Park’s sound evolved, and as their Nu Metal peers faded away, they continued to make great music (their One More Light was the number one album on the Billboard 200 last month). Despite their popularity, or perhaps because of it, critics mocked Linkin Park for most of their career. Online and amongst the people I hung out with in my youth, being a fan of Linkin Park wasn’t cool. Linkin Park fans were thought to be “emo kids" who moped around with black hair and finger nails blaming everyone other than themselves for how awful they perpetually felt. “Cheer up emo kid” memes tied to the band (like this one) were used to smack down anyone who dared to give voice to their feelings. As soon as I learned of the grief Linkin Park fans faced, I kept my love of the band a secret.

I’m a Two Faced Man

I have (at least) two selves; the one that I am on the inside and the one that I show other people. When I was a little kid I, for the most part, said what I thought, felt what I felt, and did what I wanted to do. As I grew up and began to care about what others thought of me, I learned that there were parts of my self that I would be ridiculed, ostracized, or punished for expressing. If I wanted to fit in, be popular, impress people, or just be left alone, I had to craft a public persona that conformed to my friends and family’s expectations.

In crafting my public persona, I was engaging in what sociologist Ervin Goffman called impression management. Once I learned what the people around me expected of me, I accentuated the parts of myself that were prized by my peers and played down or hid altogether the parts of myself that they would ridicule.

Growing up, being “manly” was by far the most consequential aspect of my public persona. All of my friends and family members seemed to have been given the same masculinity rulebook. Manly men never showed weakness, never backed down, never expressed any emotion except anger, they didn’t think too much, they were always tough and never backed down. More broadly, being masculine meant never doing anything associated with being feminine (Kimmel 2004). When I failed to abide by the rules of masculinity in public, the people around me immediately mocked me and twice I caught a beatdown for my gender transgressions.

Music & My Tough Guise

In high school my peers patrolled the hallways and classrooms like gender cops, ready to punish anyone who didn’t abide by the law of masculinity. To get by, I learned how to use impression management to convince those around me that I wasn’t a sissy. Every day I walked into my school, I put on my macho mask or what the anti-violence educator Jackson Katz calls a “tough guise.”

Listening to music has always been the one space where I could take off my macho mask, be my authentic self, and feel my feelings. After years of pretending I didn’t have any feelings, I had gone numb to them. I lost the words to express how I felt. I’m not sure I would have survived high school if wasn’t able to listen to “Monkey Wrench” and “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters over and over again. During my freshmen year of college, Linkin Park’s album Hybrid Theory was my salvation. I listened to that album on repeat because it gave me the words to reclaim how I was feeling inside. To this day, I still put on Linkin Park when I’m feeling sad, defeated, or angry.

I’m an “Emo Kid”

The truth is, I’ve always been an “emo kid.” I’m sensitive and feel things deeply. It took me a long time to give up trying to be someone else. It took me even longer to stop fearing the gender cops. Chester Bennington and Linkin Park played a crucial role in my journey of self-acceptance. Chester may be gone now, but his legacy will be all of the people who his music has and will continue to help. I only wish he could be here to see it for himself.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Describe an example of gender policing from your own life. That is, describe a situation where someone was ridiculed or punished for not conforming to gender norms. Explain your answer.
  2. What is one of your guilty pleasures? That is, what is something that you enjoy, but you keep your enjoyment of it private?
  3. How do you engage in impression management? To fit in, what parts of yourself do you accentuate/play down? Explain your answer(s).
  4. What are some musicians or songs that have given voice to your feelings? Why do these musicians/songs resonate with you?

References:

  • Kimmel, Michael S. 2004. “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity.” Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study. Ed. Paula S. Rothenberg. New York: Worth 81–93.

Image by Chris Lloyd Photography via Flickr