The All-Timers #5: Linkin Park's "Somewhere I Belong"

The All-Timers #5: Linkin Park's "Somewhere I Belong"

In this series, I write about one of my all-time favorite songs. There's no rhyme or reason to the order. Check out past editions here.

Music class, Fourth Grade. It's a once-a-week thing. One afternoon, we're all given miniature xylophones—think the rainbow-colored, eight-note ones for toddlers, but not rainbow-colored. Our music teacher is young, I think, though I couldn't venture an age approximation based on my nine-year-old conception of everyone over the age of 15 as an adult. She asks the class, "Does anyone know Linkin Park?" My god. I knew three bands that weren't The Beatles, but for some reason, all of us knew Linkin Park. She proceeded to plunk out the piano melody from "In The End" on the mini-xylo in front of her. Jaws dropped.

This was my first perception of popular music as something universal. I had just moved to this school district months prior, so I didn't yet have friends who'd played me their CDs of Linkin Park's massively successful debut album, Hybrid Theory. But through osmosis, I knew the hit single.

Weeks later, during a spring break trip to see my mom's family, we went to a Target in Virginia Beach and I convinced her to buy Hybrid Theory for me. "I think you'll like this," I remember saying to her as she inserted it into the rental car's CD player with my sister and I in the backseat. She didn't. My music recommendation skills hadn't even begun to form yet. I hadn't given a single solitary shit about music before this, so of course I assumed that no one could deny what in my mind was the most popular band in the world. You know The Beatles? This is like them, but 35 years later.

Hybrid Theory was my first CD (children's music notwithstanding). I played it to death, first on the ancient boombox that my dad fished out of a closet for me, then on the stereo I got for my 11th birthday. I haven't given it a front-to-back listen in what I estimate to be 22 years, but I still know every song like the back of my hand. That's the power of your first CD.

Despite this preamble, I'm not here to talk about a song from my first CD. I'm here to talk about a song from the first CD I anticipated. I bought a couple more albums in the ensuing years (I don't think it's coincidental that my parents instituted a chores-for-allowance system soon after I asked them to get me Californication). But in Spring 2003, Linkin Park's second album was coming out. Don't ask me how I knew about it—I wasn't yet a regular internet user, the letters "M-T-V" would've registered a blank stare—but I knew about it.

Meteora was released on March 25, 2003, nine days before my 12th birthday. I can't say for sure that I was one of the whopping 810,000 people that bought it in the first week, but I know I dragged my mom to Best Buy at her earliest convenience. Meteora felt like mine in a way that Hybrid Theory didn't. I was up on this. I had a brand-new CD by a band that I already loved.

When people look back on nü-metal, and the time period just before Napster popped the CD sales bubble, Meteora is never mentioned in the same sentence as the era-defining Hybrid Theory. It's a classic post-blow-up album: tons of people bought it on release day, but the sales numbers fell off almost immediately and none of the singles stuck.

Linkin Park kept the formula largely the same. It wasn't until the 2007 follow-up that they recruited Rick Rubin, aspired to U2 heights, and landed the closing song in the Transformers movie. Arguments could (and have) been made about the comparative strength of their first two albums. I'm not going to make one. I'm writing this purely to bask in the glory of lead single "Somewhere I Belong."

It starts with... (sorry, I had to) a backwards melody on an unidentifiable instrument, vinyl scratches, and a minimal electronic beat. This was Linkin Park turntablist Joe Hahn's time to shine. That's "Mr. Hahn" for anyone familiar with Hybrid Theory closer "Cure for the Itch" (should have been a bonus track, TBH), an instrumental that might include contributions from the rest of the band, but mostly exists as a showcase for the guy behind the decks, a requirement for all nü-metal acts.

For such an era-specific band, Linkin Park had so many diverse individual elements in their sound. These came to function as doorways into other genres as my life progressed. When I first heard Hybrid Theory, the '60s-'80s guitar-based rock I'd passively absorbed from my parents was all I knew. LP introduced me to hip hop, to electronic music, and in all honesty, to distorted guitars. Some of those I glommed onto more quickly than others, but over the course of my musical maturation, so many times I've realized that my youthful LP fandom had primed me for at least prerequisite knowledge of otherwise unfamiliar sounds.

The guitars kick in. The first one is clean and contemplative, but behind it, that backwards melody suddenly rises as the beat drops out. BANG. Upon the tumultuous arrival of the distorted guitar, "Somewhere I Belong" elevates from glitchy, UNKLE-style IDM into a full-band bruiser. Sorry Mr. Hahn, but you exist to spice up the quiet spaces. The guitar tones are prickly but streamlined in that distinctly digital way that so clearly separated mainstream '90s hard rock from mainstream '00s hard rock. We're not in a sweaty club. We're in the matrix.

It still shocks me to this day that I didn't hear Deftones until I was in college in the 2010s. They predate LP, and they were also unceremoniously lumped into the nü-metal pile, but against the odds of 2000s indie pretension, and even within the late-2010s reevaluation of Y2K aesthetics, they've always stood out as so fucking cool. I've written about this at length before, but Deftones are one of the most-mimicked bands of the last five years. Just earlier this week, a song by 20-year-old digicore artist quannnic came on at work, and my mid-40s coworker goes, "I guess I wore the right shirt today," gesturing down at his Deftones tee. I said, "Yeah, it sounds a lot like them," and he was incredulous to learn that it was in fact a Zoomer doing their best Chino Moreno impression.

"Somewhere I Belong" is Linkin Park's most Deftones-esque song, and maybe that's why it endures as my favorite. LP were never the most tasteful band. A big part of Deftones' longevity and acceptance among crowds outside of those who exclusively listen to mainstream hard rock is their diverse and dare-I-say "hipster-y" influences/taste in music, encompassing everything from Sade to The Cure to, if their 2022 pre-show playlist is to be believed, Project Pat. Linkin Park were more garden-variety nü-metal in this arena, clearly raised on a diet of major-label metal and punk, with dashes of U2 and backpack rap thrown in for flavor.

As is the case on most of LP's biggest early hits, Mike Shinoda handles the verses on "Somewhere I Belong." He's a rapper, and not a particularly good one. He raps in a stunted cadence about nonspecific, universal feelings, but it works in the context of the band. Chester Bennington usually acts as the hypeman while Shinoda's rapping, singing the last few words of each bar, guiding the song and biding his time before he bears down and displays his full register on the choruses. One listen to Shinoda's side project Fort Minor is enough to close the book on arguments about which vocalist was more crucial to Linkin Park's success.

You have to remember, though: I'd never heard legitimate rap music when I became a Linkin Park fan. I vividly remember a friend and I agreeing that the band would be better without "the singer guy." I had an almost instinctual attraction to rapping, and once I had access to the vast world of actual hip hop a few years later, I fell so hard and fast that the word "Shinoda" meant nothing to me by age 15. Rap was an easy sell, more so than the LP-adjacent abrasive punk and metal that would take me a decade to warm to, but the main reason I so quickly repressed my Linkin Park fandom was Bennington's vocals.

Last year, in a 10th anniversary essay about The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die's 2013 debut album, I reflected on how uncool the word "emo" and all of its attendant musical vectors were among the kids I looked up to in adolescence. The underlying factors that created this herd mentality are a story for another time, but understand that the environment I emerged into once music defined my personality was a hostile one towards Bennington's whole thing. He sang about difficult feelings, sure, but so did Ben Gibbard and Conor Oberst. It was the way he did it, with the unbridled whininess that so many indie rockers avoided like the plague, that was the chief red flag working against Linkin Park.

"I wanna heal/I wanna feel/What I thought was never real/I wanna let go of the pain I've felt so long." Maybe it was the fact that I, and the vast majority of my friends, grew up in stable homes and never knew the trauma that Bennington carried with him. As a pre-teen with dwindling childish rage and the first pangs of hormonal volatility both raging inside of me, Bennington's frustration struck a chord. But once I outgrew the former, the only emotional outlet I sought in music was sad-boy venting, which was supplied in droves by the contemporary indie rock I was conditioned to enjoy.

"Somewhere I Belong" pulls off the rare two-fer of sounding cool and confrontationally laying feelings bare. Just because a song does one of those two things doesn't mean I'll like it, and maybe if my experiences with Linkin Park and Deftones were reversed—getting into the latter in elementary school and digging into the former's discography in college—I'd find this song cringeworthy. But to paraphrase Bennington on the immaculate bridge, I never know myself until I do this on my own.

BOI (Best Of Inbox) #31

The Jesus Lizard - "Hide & Seek"

Location: Chicago, but they're all old now so probably scattered across the US // Genre: it's the fucking Jesus Lizard, noise rock originators, c'mon! // RIYL: seriously, if you don't know this band, go listen to their masterful early '90s albums // From: Rack (their first album in 26 years!!), out 9/13

LA LOM - "Danza de LA LOM"

Location: LA // Genre: Latin funk // RIYL: Budos Band, Quantic Soul Orchestra // From: LA LOM, out 8/9

Larry June - "Dreams"

Location: Bay Area // Genre: grown man G-funk // RIYL: Jay Worthy, Andre Nickatina

PEGG Feat. Fusilier - "Geronimo"

Location: Upstate NY // Genre: '80s-flavored rock (think big drums) // RIYL: Bartees Strange (he produced this), a more boisterous Westerman // From: PEGG, out 8/23

Riley Burke - "Why's It So Hard?"

Location: NYC // Genre: folk-inflected indie rock // RIYL: Big Thief, Julia Jacklin // From: Reconfiguration, out now

All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

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Jamie Larson