The Story Behind the Intense Angst that Fueled Linkin Park’s “Numb”

Although Linkin Park got hit with the nu-metal tag when they blew up in 2000, the California sextet’s sound had a broader reach, incorporating elements of hard rock, hip-hop, and pop into their angst-ridden mix. Frontman Chester Bennington fueled their music as he channeled turbulent youthful emotions into their different songs. Perhaps their most famous example is “Numb,” the third single from their multi-Platinum second album Meteora, which came out in 2003.

The song itself was reportedly the last to be written for the album, created just a week before they went into the studio. Bennington had been sick for five weeks during recording and was even doing vocals for “Numb” during mix sessions. But the pain and anguish he wanted to express came through loud and clear.

I’m tired of being what you want me to be
Feeling so faithless, lost under the surface
Don’t know what you’re expecting of me
Put under the pressure of walking in your shoes
Every step that I take is another mistake to you
(Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow)
I’ve become so numb
I can’t feel you there
Become so tired
So much more aware
I’m becoming this
All I want to do
Is be more like me
And be less like you

In a track-by-track breakdown of Meteora for Shoutweb in March 2003, co-frontman Mike Shinoda spoke of “Numb” and the band’s desire to create a strong sonic signature. “I thinks it was a nice way to end the album because it kind of sums up the record. It’s very recognizable as our sound. … When you hear it, you can easily recognize it as a Linkin Park song but it obviously belongs on Meteora. It obviously belongs in this new group of songs just because of the way the tone of the song is and the lyrics are. It’s kind of about those times when you’ve got no feeling left or you just don’t care. It’s almost like exhaustion or something which funny enough is how we felt after touring last year.”

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In the video for “Numb,” which was shot in Prague, a young female artist is bullied and alienated in her high school. She seems to have no friends and no one takes an interest in her. At one point she violently throws paint at a canvas although we never get to see what the frenetic finished result is. Intercut throughout the clip are shots of the band performing in St. Vitus Cathedral. By the end of the video she rushes in to find them, but they have already disappeared. Or perhaps they were never there and just served as a metaphor for expressing her pain. Or maybe even her idols’ music cannot soothe her pain. While the clip was downbeat, it definitely tapped into the feelings of alienation, loneliness, and hopelesssness many teens experience.

Audiences Feel “Numb”

Undoubtedly because of how its potent emotions hit listeners, “Numb” proved to be a big hit, ultimately selling 4 million copies. The video itself has crossed the 2 billion mark on YouTube. Linkin Park got a chance to reinterpret the track when Jay-Z did a mash up with them—thus, “Numb/Encore” emerged on their collaborative Collision Course EP. The new version won the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 2006 Grammy Awards and it also became a hit, eventually selling 3 million copies and hitting close to the 2 billion mark on YouTube. Equally impressive is after the band and Jay-Z performed “Numb/Encore” on the Grammys telecast, they launched into the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and were joined by Paul McCartney himself. Bennington harmonized with him.

Intense feelings like the ones portrayed in “Numb” would also subsume Bennington, who had been open with his mental health struggles and tragically would take his life at age 41 in July 2017, leaving his band and fans shocked and bereft.

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A Wake-Up Call

In speaking to BBC Live Lounge in September 2017, Jay-Z said of Bennington, “I really think that hopefully his death serves as a wake-up call. Mental health is a real thing. You never know what people are going through and you think that because they’re performers and he’s sold millions of records … that doesn’t equate to happiness. … A lot of people, we don’t deal with what’s happening to us, we just keep going. Especially for a performer like that, you just start numbing yourself. You become numb. He’s singing it, he’s telling you become numb. Hopefully his death wakes a lot of people up and a lot of people start taking care of themselves. Men, we have this bravado, we have to armor up. Nah man, you have to take care of yourself—physically and spiritually.”

I spoke to Bennington back in 2007 about the band’s third album Minutes to Midnight. When I asked how he stayed in touch with the angry young man inside after achieving so much success, he replied that while he was doing well, life would throw out curveballs one might not accept. And regardless of where one stood on the economic hierarchy, certain feelings of unhappiness were universal. The singer himself was not born into the lap of luxury.

“I got divorced over the last couple of years,” Bennington told me. “I was at a point where I was a multimillionaire, and then I had no money. Things come and go, and it’s difficult to deal with that. From my perspective, I hear you say I sold 40 million records and it must be great to be rich. Yeah, it was.”

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This unease was echoed in his March 2017 interview with News Corp. Australia. In discussing the last Linkin Park album One More Light, Bennington said, “If you read a lot of the lyrics it seems pretty depressing. For me I went through a lot of s–t in the last few years. I f–king hated 2015. 2016 was better but there was a lot of anger and resentment on my end I had to work through. All this was going on while we were making this record.”

It’s wild to think “Numb” and Meteora turned 20 years old last year. It’s also sad that Chester Bennington was not around to celebrate that milestone. Perhaps he had become numb to so many of his own problems. But he left us with a lot of emotionally cathartic music that fans remain attuned with today.

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