Wednesday, September 9, 2009

#113. 'I don't want to be the one who battles always choose'

Linkin Park "Breaking the Habit"

The problem with modern rock radio became more and more apparent as the decade went on, and a lot of it had to do with how formulaic the format's leading lights were. You could always tell who any new song was going to be attributed to, and every new artist seemed to do nothing more than ape the style of someone who came before them. Even the bands I liked when they first emerged became overly rote in the course of a few years. You may have always known what you were getting, but as I've said before the beginning of the decade was around the time I started branching out in earnest so the stagnation of the format came at exactly the wrong time for me. I wasn't asking for anything incredibly adventurous at that time, but the lack ofany forward motion in the genre was frustrating to me as someone who generally liked the genre at the time.

It's funny that the last new band I can recall really making me sit up and take notice was Linkin Park. Really, if you want to talk about formulaic bands you need not luck much further, at least after "In the End" became a mega hit, but in the context of a radio station that was papered with either post grunge retreads or old guard Canadian bands making one more go-around the singles from Hybrid Theory stood out enough that I was interested if not bowled over. The singles from Meteora were a different story though. It wasn't just that I was 18 as opposed to 15 when I got wind of them, though that's undeniably part of it, the songs all seemed to be striving to repeat "In the End"'s success by copying its formula to a T. Mike Shinoda rapped the verses, Chester Bennington screamed the choruses in his reedy, barely post-pubescent sounding wail, the band applied the usual soft-LOUD-soft dynamics and the DJ stood around trying to look like he contributed to the proceedings. The formula was rigid enough that even the singles that had other elements didn't sound like anything other than "In the End" with strings ("Faint") or "In the End" with Jay-Z ("Encore/Numb.") I didn't expect anything else really, after "In the End" managed a (still) truly shocking ascent to #2 on the Hot 100 it would be commercial suicide to try and bust out anything that wasn't at least somewhat similar to it until they had the sort of cachet one immense hit doesn't quite grant you.

If there's one positive thing to come out of that whole situation it's that they released something as out of character as "Breaking the Habit" as a single and they were in the position to have it become just as massive a hit as its predecessors in spite of that. Honestly, the first time I heard it I had no earthly clue that it was a Linkin Park song. I couldn't say I thought it was any other act in particular, but if you'd asked me who the song was by I doubt that LP would have been among the first 5 names off my lips. It made no sense that it was them, especially after they played it so safe and formulaic for the four Meteora singles that preceded it, but who else would have thrown a pretty much wholly electronic single into the mires of modern rock radio and have it catch on to any degree, let alone enough to top both the modern and mainstream rock charts? You could argue that Linkin Park's status as the decade's most popular rock band wasn't a sure thing until "What I've Done" snagged a top 10 debut in 2007, but as far as I'm concerned "Breaking the Habit" solidified that status by showing that the band could release anything and have it become a hit.

You could read that last sentence as a bit of a backhanded compliment towards the song if you want, but honestly it's the only LP single I could even come close to calling great. As an example of electronic music with vaguely rock tendencies it hits all the right marks. That haunting four-note synth riff that introduces the track along with some skittering percussion sets the mood perfectly before the main riff kicks in. That riff is the closest the song gets to Linkin Park's territory, but it still sounds a fair ways removed from even the least aggressive of their riffs to date. Basically it works as the antithesis of a typical Linkin Park song; a restrained instrumental that adds more elements as it progresses but never outright explodes, vocals that only briefly go into Bennington's usual angry voice, no rapping from Shinoda and most importantly lyrics that border on mature. It's not the most illuminating look at the issues surrounding substance abuse ever written, but compared to the junior high diary level lyrics I'd come to expect from the band. I mean, compare the chorus from "Somewhere I Belong" to this one; the former has the catharsis working for it, but Bennington's angry/loud voice is one of those things I can't stomach with the best of surroundings, let alone with lyrics like 'I wanna heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeal/I wanna feeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeel' etc. "Breaking the Habit" may not have the catharsis but everything else about the chorus is miles ahead of the rest of LP's oeuvre.

The key to its success as a song isn't just that it goes against everything you'd expect from Linkin Park, but that it doesn't use that as an excuse to be substandard. This sort of gambit usually fails because a band thinks that by simply being different the song should stand on its own, but "Breaking the Habit" is so impeccably crafted that it's outlier status seems like more of an afterthought than the song itself.

Coming up tomorrow: How charming can so easily morph into annoying.

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