Wednesday, March 25, 2009

‘What the F%$& is Wrong With Me?’: Linkin Park’s proto-Christian Anthropology

I’m sure I had heard Linkin Park (LP) hundreds of times before my layover in a Dubai hotel, but it was half a world away, in the city of contrasts, that I became a fan. I was in that strange haze that accompanies jumping more time zones than can be counted on both hands, about to attempt some bonafide horizontal sleep before the UN humanitarian flight taking me to Kabul departed in the morning. I was getting ready for bed with a music video channel on in the background (I know, they still have those in some places). Suddenly, I stopped whatever I was doing, sat on the bed, and stared through blood shot eyes at a rapid succession of disturbing images flashing across the screen. It was still several weeks before LP released Minutes to Midnight and was the first time I heard ‘What I’ve Done.’ The song was just such a shockingly accurate articulation of Christian anthropology that I realized they deserved more careful attention.

Upon further analysis, ‘What I’ve Done’ was not an aberration. Anthropology,[1] or human nature, in particular, a dim assessment of human nature born of a sober self assessment, is one of the primary themes of their corpus. There are at least two themes in LP’s music through which they illustrate the Christian doctrine of the Edenic nature as well or better than almost any explicitly Christian band[2]: 1) They describe a battle with a pernicious parallel consciousness and 2) they see continuity between the worst of the world’s ills and the content of their own hearts.

1. A Pernicious Parallel Consciousness

A major theme of their debut work Hybrid Theory was that there is a force at work in us that is not under our control, that pushes us in directions we do not want to go. A pernicious parallel consciousness, if you will.

Consider the songs Papercut[3] and Crawling[4] in which LP seem to almost describe a second consciousness inhabiting their bodies[5], working against them. In Papercut the consciousness takes on the role of accuser:

Why does it feel like night today?
Something in here's not right today.
Why am I so uptight today?
Paranoia's all I got left
I don't know what stressed me first
Or how the pressure was fed
But I know just what it feels like …

I know I've got a face in me
Points out all my mistakes to me
You've got a face on the inside too
and Your paranoia's probably worse
I don't know what set me off first
but I know what I can't stand
Everybody acts like the fact of the matter is
I can't add up to what you can
but Everybody has a face that they hold inside

A face that awakes when I close my eyes
A face watches every time they lie
A face that laughs every time they fall
(And watches everything)
So you know that when it's time to sink or swim
That the face inside is watching you too
Right inside your skin -“Paper Cut” – Hybrid Theory

In ‘Crawling’ (which I try not to listen to at work since it seems I can not not sing along…loudly) the alternate personality is not as distinct, but it is certainly present (“There's something inside me that pulls beneath the surface”) and correlated with a lack of self control and a loss of the true self.

Crawling in my skin
These wounds, they will not heal
Fear is how I fall
Confusing what is real

There's something inside me that pulls beneath the surface
Consuming, confusing
This lack of self control I fear is never ending

I can't seem
To find myself again
My walls are closing in
(Without a sense of confidence I’m convinced
that there’s just too much pressure to take)
I've felt this way before
So insecure – “Crawling” – Hybrid Theory

Then, in the opening track of Minutes to Midnight we are given the image of a battle against the self:

Another day's been laid to waste
In my disgrace
Stuck in my head again
Feels like I'll never leave this place
There's no escape

I'm my own worst enemy

I've given up, I'm sick of feeling
Is there nothing you can say?
Take this all away, I'm suffocating
Tell me what the fuck is wrong with me
-“Given Up” – Minutes to Midnight

What the f%@& indeed?

Or in the words of a much older poet:

I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
-Paul of Tarsus[6]

At the heart of Christian theology is the idea that we are not OK…that we are each broken…what CS Lewis calls bent.[7] I have quoted him before, and I’ll do it again, but Malcolm Muggeridge used to say that the doctrine of human depravity is at the same time one of the least popular Christian doctrines and the most empirically verifiable.[8] We each hold the data in our own hearts. Which brings me to the second LP theme.

2. The Qualitative Sameness of the World’s Ills and the Contents of my Heart

In ‘What I’ve Done’ LP take a look at the horrors[9] human beings can visit upon one another[10] and looks for someone to blame. Shockingly, instead of self righteously projecting some illusory them, they seem to get it right:

In this farewell,
There's no blood,
There's no alibi,
'Cause I've drawn regret,
From the truth of a thousand lies.
So let mercy come, and wash away...

What I've done,
I'll face myself,
To cross out what I've become.
Erase myself,
And let go of what I've done.

Put to rest what you thought of me,
While I clean this slate,
With the hands of uncertainty.
So let mercy come, and wash away...

What I've done.
Forgiving what I've done.
-‘What I’ve Done’ - Minutes to Midnight

Contrast ‘What I’ve Done’ with this recent Nickleback[11] song:

If everyone cared and nobody cried
If everyone loved and nobody lied
If everyone shared and swallowed their pride
Then we'd see the day when nobody died...

And as we lie beneath the stars
We realize how small we
If they could love like you and me
Imagine what the world could be

-"If Everyone Cared’ - Nickleback

The uber-annoying Nickleback song is reminiscent of the old 90’s ‘message song’ genre (a genre that was brilliantly and definitively deconstructed by The Flight of The Concords,’ ‘Issues’ – seriously, if you have never heard of FOTC, do yourself a favor, push the link[12]).

At the heart of the ‘message song’ is an us-versus-them mentality…posing the question, ‘why can’t they be like us' ('If they could love like you and me/Imagine what the world could be.') The irony is that it is precisely the same us-versus-them mentality that generates most of the world evils that the message song is decrying.

There are two ways around the us-versus-them[13] mentality. We can posit that we are united under the banner of ‘us,’ good, kind, helpful, and just. Let’s call this the Nickleback Hypothesis: With hard work and lofty sentiment and mediocre rock music, we can achieve a world where we all love, care and share and don’t lie, cry or die. But this does not really hold up empirically…or philosophically.[14]

So let’s call the second option the Linkin Park Hypohesis, an approach that ends up very close to that taken by Christian theology…exemplified by a letter to the editor written by GK Chesterton wrote in response to an article called ‘What is Wrong With the World Today?”

"Dear Sir,
I am.
Yours, G.K. Chesterton."

In my opinion, Christian theology provides sound tools for escaping us-versus-them thinking. But instead of uniting everyone under the ‘us’, some fantastic, ‘why can’t we all just get along,’ alternate realities where gnomes frolic with unicorns …we are united as ‘them,’ the self centered, the broken, the wounded, the damaged…those who require mercy. The world isn’t a mess because of what that group of people (liberals, conservatives, secular humanists, Christians, Muslims, fundamentalists, neo-cons, AIG executives) did…but because we all participate in the Edenic nature. The world is the way the world is because of what I’ve done. If we are all in need of mercy, we are all more likely to extend it. And that is a world I can live in. Not a world of the righteous and the good…but a world of the broken and bent…the forgiven. A world in which damaged people extend mercy to each other and look for cosmic mercy from the God damaged for us.

So let mercy come, and wash away...
What I've done
This post was prepared while listening to: Linkin Park :)

[1] I will be using the term ‘anthropology’ in its role as the sub specialty of theology that deals with the fundamental nature of the human condition, not the academic specialty it has developed into specializing on cultural diversity and human origins.
[2] If you are wondering where LP is coming from spiritually, here is the best quote I could find by vocalist Mike Shinoda: “I was raised in a really, really liberal Protestant church. Two of the guys are Jewish. [Sample master] Joe [Hahn] was raised in a little more conservative Christian church and [lead vocalist] Chester Bennington has his own really unique views on religion. In general, we are all over the place."
[3] ‘Crawling’ is the much better known song with this theme, but ‘Papercut’ is far more explicit and has the added benefit of a super creepy, on theme, video.
[4] Probably their most distinctive and, maybe their best, song.
[5] Both songs describe the consciousness as somehow ‘inside my skin’ or a intellectual/spiritual force sharing their physical space
[6] From the second half of Romans 7
[7] Well before the phrase ‘get bent’ became a popular pejorative.
[8] While we are quoting the very quotable Muggeridge, check these out:
“Sex is the mysticism of materialism and the only possible religion in a materialistic society.”
“The orgasm has replaced the cross as the focus of longing and fulfillment.”
[9] Actually, the video contrasts the immense beauty and deplorable wickedness we are capable of…but that is a different post…and doesn’t seem to match the theme of the song.
[10] This counterpoint emerges from the video…the real video not the sell out transformers sound track. I always cringe when a good band gets co-opted by a major motion picture. Linkin Park selling out ‘What I’ve Done’ to the horrible Transformers flick is the most egregious recent example (except maybe Evanescence’s break out with that piece of cinematic history, ‘Daredevil’). Paramore actually pulled this off about as well as it can be done recently. Twilight is a mildly dark vampire movie targeted at the actual demographic the band member are in. The video with the band playing an a dark wood, Hayley’s crimson hair the only splash of color actually…works.
[11] Aslo, Jack Jhonson ‘Where did all the good people go?’
[12] If the flight of the concords is new to you…let me enthusiastically recommend this gem.
[13] LP isn’t immune from the us-versus-them mentality. I have a couple theories about why Minutes to Midnight seems to be considerably less popular than their earlier works. The most obvious is that it just contains too much radio music. We do not buy LP albums for the ballads. It should be hard driving, dissertation motivating stuff. But the second reason is that the album has two war songs and a Katrina song, making it kind of a ‘What Bush has Done’ album. In fairness, one of the war songs is fantastic:
Do you see the soldiers that are out today?
They brush the dust from bulletproof vests away
It's ironic, at times like this you'd pray
With hands held high into the skies above
The ocean opens up to swallow you

[14] Biological agents hard wired for the propagation of their genetic material simply cannot place morally binding oughtness upon one another.


Kel said...

Will probably think about this more later...but after reading your insight into Linkin Park's lyrics, I find it even more interesting that so many people with borderline personality disorder relate to their lyrics. A lot of their lyrics seem to reference self injury, which is fairly common to BPD (although not everyone with BPD self injures, and not everyone who self injures has BPD)

This could have a lot to say about psychiatry and it's relationship to the spiritual and existential (talking to folks around "mania" and "delusions" that have a religious component can be interesting), and even more to say about Borderline as a diagnosis (to say it is controversial is an understatement).

Anyhow, like I said, I will think more and maybe have something more coherent later.

stanford said...

Not sure How I overlooked this, but 'Breaking the Habit' also supports the thesis of this post:

Memories consume
Like opening the wound
I'm picking me apart again...

I don't want to be the one
The battles always choose
'Cause inside I realize
That I'm the one confused...

Clutching my cure
I tightly lock the door
I try to catch my breath again
I hurt much more
Than anytime before
I had no options left again...

I don't know what's worth fighting for
Or why I have to scream
But now I have some clarity
to show you what I mean
I don't know how I got this way
I'll never be alright
So, I'm breaking the habit
I'm breaking the habit
I’m breaking the habit