September 20, 2010


When Your Heart Gets Burned

The synthesizer tone that introduces Linkin Park's "The Catalyst" is a storm cloud, an electronic harbinger of some kind of fallout ahead. Eighty seconds into the song, as the beat snaps into trebly double-time, another synth sound kicks in, and it's suddenly clear that we've weathered this storm before. The last time, it was called a heart.

In 1985, Depeche Mode were major contenders in the British pop world, cranking out more hits than they could fit onto their albums (in the U.K., anyway; in America, they were still something of a cult item). The single "It's Called a Heart" appeared that September on its own—it later turned up on various collections, but not on a studio album. Listen to it next to "The Catalyst," and it's a remarkably close cousin: in its desperately sped-up tempo, the vibrating whoop of its contrapuntal synth parts, the blunt bitterness of its lead vocals. Depeche Mode singer David Gahan doesn't have Linkin Park's metallic certainty, but the emotional doom he's predicting is as apocalyptic in its way as their "symphonies of blinding light."

Of course, "It's Called a Heart" couldn't be any more personal: it's entirely concerned with the "you" and "I" that Linkin Park declare their interest far away from. "The Catalyst" is anything but a personal song—Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda trade off lines of its chorus in the first person plural, as a declaration of political hopelessness from "a broken people living under loaded gun." (That's their rhyme for the Tiny Tim-inspired "God bless us, every one": like Depeche Mode's Martin Gore, looking for his own personal Jesus, they're fond of sardonically invoking the idea of sin and salvation.)

Linkin Park's sentiments, in fact, have more to do with the original B-side of "It's Called a Heart": "Fly on the Windscreen," a song whose very first line is "death is everywhere," and which ended up on Depeche Mode's doomy subsequent album Black Celebration. As usual, the perpetually libidinous Gore managed to twist his memento mori into a carpe diem come-on—"come here, kiss me, now"—but that's not too far from Linkin Park's "lift me up/let me go," a slow, lighter-waving moment before the frenetic, burbling beat returns.

The weird part is that, in the mid-'80s, it was universally understood that Depeche Mode were not a rock band—that their wonkish devotion to electronics and deliberately "artificial" tones was a kind of sly resistance to rock orthodoxy. (It's not just "It's Called a Heart": the nearly-single-note melody of their 1987 single "Never Let Me Down Again" prefigures the monomaniacal refrain of "The Catalyst," by way of catalytic converter Trent Reznor.) Now Depeche Mode's sound has been absorbed into a song that was an instant #1 on Billboard's rock-songs chart.

What happened there?

One explanation is that rock is the most colonialist of forms. Over the past couple of decades, it's sustained itself by absorbing ideas from outside itself, especially from musical styles that used to resist it (consider Linkin Park's collaboration with Jay-Z). This summer, Linkin Park made the digital stems of "The Catalyst" available to fan remixers—but that would never have happened if pop bands like Depeche Mode hadn't opened up their songs to scads of alternate mixes a quarter-century earlier. There's no form of musical resistance that doesn't make itself a juicier target; in popular music, assimilation is what can't be outrun.