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« In Which I Was Feeling Some Feelings You Wouldn't Believe »

The Deepest Shade of Mushroom Blue


Listen to Nine Inch Nails for a week and see what happens. Only Nine Inch Nails. At first, everything becomes serious. The smallest slight feels like a slap in the face, another reminder that they just don’t understand you. Roommates, cashiers, people on bikes become enemies and you’re all, ‘I’d rather die than give you control’. Then the music just becomes silly, the lyrics too literal. You drift out of NIN World and back into the arch, cynical posture you’re used to adopting. If "God is dead" as is claimed in "Heresy", I’m not so sure I wouldn’t care, and I would definitely be upset if I were in hell, whether you were there or not. Then things become really serious. Once you "take the skin and peel it back", it does not make you feel better. Everything is so sad and mad and bad in NIN World. And what if Trent is right?

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails’ first album, Pretty Hate Machine, went three times platinum nationally and sixteen years later in 2005, his album With Teeth went gold. And of course there's The Downward Spiral and The Fragile in between going platinum a combined six times. He has just won a Golden Globe and very well might win the Oscar for Original Score for his work with Atticus Ross in The Social Network. So he must be right at least some of the time.

For someone who has based a career on being the outcast, Reznor is very good at being very popular. And therein lies the trick; everybody wants to be a member of the club that says that clubs are for losers, for everyone else. Reznor has done something if not impossible, then really really hard to do: he’s stayed culturally relevant for over twenty years. In an industry and a medium that change by the week, by the city, by the new mashed-up genre somebody just made up. As far as I can tell, he’s been able to do this for two reasons.

Trent Reznor (now) puts all of his crazy into his music, not his daily life. In the years following The Downward Spiral he suffered from depression and abused drugs but beat his depression and cleaned up. Since that period, he has the same adolescent rage in his music, but doesn’t need to live it to prove its validity.

By the late 90s, he shed his tattered, stringy hair for a more distinguished Goth look ("Perfect Drug"), then moved on to an even shorter haircut and no facial hair (With Teeth), and finally shaved his head altogether. If not for his fame, he could now easily be mistaken for a car mechanic or high school chemistry teacher. In other words, a far cry from the guy in the tights and the leather and the Industrial Tefillin who’s hanging out with Bob Flanagan. Or the dude with the Milli Vanilli haircut in 1989.

You can also take his music seriously and not seriously at the same time, listen to it literally and ironically in the same sitting. The lyrics are silly, but they’re kind of true. There’s a little bit of Nine Inch Nails in all of us. And like almost every white male in North America, I had a Nine Inch Nails phase. I started listening to NIN when I was eleven. My older brothers listened to them but talked about it in hushed tones; his satanic verses were not meant for kids. So, of course, I couldn’t not. I was drawn to all of it. The cover of The Downward Spiral looked like it was made by an agoraphobe in a barn in Iowa (it was made by Russell Mills at the Glasgow School of Art.) It was confusing but in a way that said that it didn’t matter that I didn’t understand; it could be someone’s back, it could be a wall, or neither. The fact that I was looking at it was enough.

Unlike most other bands, I could understand every word he said. He enunciated so well! I spent hours trying to decipher what Kurt Cobain was saying; for years I thought he was chanting a man’s name, "Robbie Naya", at the end of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." And best, I understood the lyrics. Gone were the vague allusions, the coded phrases, the metaphoric imagery. Nine Inch Nails spoke a language an eleven year old could understand. "Everyday is exactly the same." And "why do you get all the love in the world"? So, "I became less concerned about fitting into the world. Your world, that is." By fourteen, I was too cynical to listen to them anymore. What I once worshipped as naked emotion I coolly dismissed as sappy heart-on-your-sleavery. Too many years had passed, everyone sitting around waiting for The Fragile got bored and moved onto his perverted protégé, Marilyn Manson, or changed direction and got into Smashing Pumpkins or Phish.

Around ten years later, my brother and I started texting each other Nine Inch Nails lyrics. We didn’t have much to say to one another, and when we did it often was not simple. Instead of treading in these awkward waters we opted to make light of the situation, to send it up. He was in L.A., I was in Montreal and so we would spend around a buck a text to say things like "I am a big man yes I am/And I have a big gun" and "I was feeling some feelings you wouldn’t believe." But it allowed us to change the subject; to not like, to make fun of ourselves for ever liking, and really still like, his music.

And all this without mentioning the fact that he made one of the most important albums of the 80s and definitely of the 90s. Pretty Hate Machine was a revelation, a confessional voice but one packaged in a harsh exterior, a smiley face with crossbones. The album sounds dark from afar, but somewhere amidst the pain is pure pop. The convincing whine, the needy screaming, the pouting silence—every teenager you’ve ever met. It wasn’t all darkness like other industrial music; there was a lot of light that peeked through.

I went to one Nine Inch Nails show, it was during the With Teeth tour in 2006. I hadn’t purchased tickets, didn’t even know there was a show until that night. A friend of mine called and asked if I wanted to go. With nineteen dollars and nothing else to do, I went to the show at the Bell Centre, the biggest venue in town. Filling nearly half the arena, Reznor and his road band thrashed through songs, new and old, the old better received than the new. At the encore’s close, Reznor sat down at the keyboard and played the first few notes of "Hurt." Ten seconds and ten thousand lighters later, the room was silent. "I ran away to this song," a girl behind me told her date. "I know exactly what you mean," he answered back. My friend and I pinched our noses to not laugh out loud. But, I guess, we laughed because we knew it was true. We were uncomfortable with her sincerity. She did run away to that song. So did Johnny Cash. I run away to "Hurt". Everybody does.

Jesse Klein is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer and filmmaker living in Austin. He twitters here and tumbls here.

"Cars" - Nine Inch Nails ft. Gary Numan (mp3)

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Reader Comments (1)

Always thought it was crazy that, when Downward Spiral was new in the summer of '94, an entire hot crowded bar full of hormonally charged kids would scream the lyrics to Closer into each other's faces.. "I want to fuck you like an animallll.. I want to feel you from the insidddde.. I want to fuck you like an annnnnimal...." must have been happening across the nation.
what a subversive cultural coup for the man Trent - I wonder if he rode around behind tinted windows watching and listening to America's youth get an early taste for playing with evil, pain and pleasure, eroticism...

February 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGill Crueller

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