Shortened Version

Entertainment Through Pain:
Sexual Chaos and Industrial Terror in the Music of Trent Reznor


Trent Reznor, aka Nine Inch Nails, has emerged as one of the leading figures in contemporary popular music. Beginning with the 1989 release Pretty Hate Machine and its "alternative" radio hit "Head Like a Hole," and continuing to 1994's The Downward Spiral, Reznor has successfully blended such diverse musical genres as techno and metal, industrial and DIY rock and roll, resulting in both commercial success and critical praise. Roger Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, for one, sees Reznor as "rock's hottest new antihero," who, "in his most powerful moments pushes the relatively polite alienation of most post-Nirvana bands to new levels of aggression" (8,9).

While Hilburn's comments highlight the importance of Reznor's musical vision, they also posit NIN as a band that is breaking beyond the cultural and economic limits set by the music industry. True or not, this is often the way the mainstream press perceives Reznor; in fact, he is known more for his violent and sadistic lyrics and outrageous stage antics than for any music he has ever produced. At the same time, the so-called "alternative" press often questions "whether the rage that fuels [Reznor's] sometimes venomous music is genuine, and whether he isn't just a tad too eager to be a rock star" (Hilburn 9). In short, while Reznor's cultural image is of a dangerous outlaw, the image perceived by other so-called "outlaws" is of a figure borrowing the convenient tropes of alienation and suffering to procure a mass audience. The gap which separates these two readings, situated as it is between danger and pandering, highlights the ambivalence at work in Reznor's music, which is split between a desire to be radical or "industrial" and a dependance upon the popular music industry to maintain and support both his art and his popularity. Although many critics read this ambiguity as a major hindrance to Reznor's artistic development, I would suggest just the opposite. By borrowing from both avant-garde "noise" and traditional pop, Reznor is able to articulate the political and artistic project at the center of "industrial" music better than any of his predecessors. The Downward Spiral, as I see it, is a careful and calculated examination of violence, sexuality, and pain as it is produced, processed, and disseminated by a media culture which encourages (even threatens) its audiences to sit back, shut up, and enjoy the ride.

The concept of "industrial music" dates back to Luigi Russolo's Futurist essay, The Art of Noises. In this work, Russolo declared that music, as it had been defined, was dead; in its place arises a new art form centered on the sounds, noises, and instruments of modern life. This, Russolo asserts, is music for people who live and breathe toxic air; who are secondary in importance to automobiles; who rarely (if ever) experience a moment of absolute silence. Since Russolo's time, numerous artists -- including Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and the first "industrial" group, Throbbing Gristle -- have shared a similar impulse to redefine modern culture's understanding of music and social behavior. Although each of these artists approached music differently, they all shared a belief that music served both an aesthetic as well as a political function. By channeling music into the space of noise and everyday life, these artists sought to awaken in their listeners a greater understanding of the ways machines, public spaces, and social conventions encouraged and influenced passivity, innocence, and complacency.

While Trent Reznor shares many of the attitudes found in avant-garde and "industrial" music, he is separated from the others both by his level of success and by his relatively standard approach to making music. NIN's first album, Pretty Hate Machine, was known specifically for the single, "Head Like a Hole," a song which employs many "traditional" pop formulas, such as verse-chorus-verse song structures, guitar riffs, and an anthematic (if cryptic) chorus (which goes, "Head like a hole, black as your soul / I'd rather die than give you control"). The lyrics, the edge in Reznor's delivery, the tape-looped drum, and the synthesizer-propelled melody are all linked to what is generally considered "industrial," but the song itself is wrapped in a package that is much more palatable for consumers than, say, Pigface's "Winnebago Induced Tapeworm" or Consolidated's "Sexual Politics of Meat."

The overt packaging of NIN has led many to castigate Reznor as a traitor to the industrial cause -- that is, someone who pretends to base his art on an opposition to mainstream culture but in fact steals these conventions for commercial and adulatory gain. For instance, Jason Fine of Option notes: "For all his talk about alienation, Reznor seems more interested in elevating himself above the crowd than in reaching out to make any direct contact" (36). Because Reznor positions himself at the center of his music, and thereby reinforces the "spectacle" of commodity fetishism, he effectively calls attention to his role in the music's production.

Of course, one can read this as Michael Jackson-like self-indulgence; but, if so, why does Reznor hide behind the name, NIN? In other words, isn't it possible that Reznor is doing more than simply grandstanding; that, in fact, he (like his sexual nemesis Courtney Love) has something to say above and beyond his own image. As Eric Weisbard of the Village Voice notes, "the key" to NIN's "triumph wasn't just adding extra guitars to Pretty Hate Machine's teenybop death disco -- it was writing an industrial song with the word I in it" (83). By personalizing his music -- situating his body as both the text through which the musical narrative is written and the site through which it is acted out -- Reznor problematizes the cultural production of icons by calling attention to his persona while simultaneously destroying it at every turn.

Weisbard writes that The Downward Spiral is "a themed set of songs about a horribly alienated protagonist who tries sex, religion, drugs, and whatnot, takes his life, then sings a song and a half from the beyond" (83). There are two figures in this drama - I and You. "I" can be largely associated with Reznor's voice, if not his body as well; but the figure of you, which (in Hegelian terms) necessarily works to shape and define "I," is uniquely ambiguous. "You" is, simultaneously, another person, a facet of "I," the listener, the music itself (acting in counterpoint to Reznor's voice), and, perhaps most interestingly, the technological instruments which creates the music.

Although "You" embodies different forms at different moments, the fact that this drama is enacted within a musical framework controlled and operated by digital technology is, to me, essential to understanding and appreciating the album. As Arthur Kroker notes, "Digital music ...foregrounds sound by making problematic the energy field of noise, reenchanting the ear and projecting complex sound objects outward into imaginary shapes, volumes, and liquid flows" (Spasm 47). Because digital technology repositions "organic" and mechanic sound within a computerized framework, the link between performer, instrument, and listener becomes uncertain, for the referent cannot be defined spatially in the same way a work of Beethoven's can be imagined according to the position of the musicians in an orchestra. Reznor's music, which combines traditional rock and roll instruments and computerized noise, reproduces the tension at work in the lyrical narrative, and suggests that the struggle to define and transcend the limits of subjectivity and ideology are specifically determined by the interplay between "human" and "machine."

The best example of this tension is the song, "The Becoming," which narrates a fusion between I and an external body that (alone among all the tracks) has a name, Annie. As in many of the album's songs, the tension at work here is evident in the ambivalent relationship between the vocals and the music. The song begins with a looping motif, which is a melodic line seemingly constructed out of electronic blips and beeps. Soon the motif builds with the addition of a heavy drumbeat and a circular swarm of moans and screams that emerge and fuse with the rhythm. The lyrics, which begin shortly after the screams, are centered upon establishing the interconnection between the narrator and an unidentified object, which seems to be a machine, as the line, "I beat my machine it's a part of me it's inside of me," would suggest.

For much of the song, the music and the lyrics are in synch - the screams, the drums, and the melody remain consistent, while the voice elaborates I's position in a nether world between human flesh and cyberspace. While the narrator states, "I am becoming," and "the me that you know is now made up of wires," there is still a push to break away and reemerge in the "natural" world. What is more, the protagonist exclaims, "I don't want to listen but it's all too clear," suggesting that the music itself is the force that drives this virtual universe.

The desire to escape the wires that bind the body within the machine is best felt in the musical shift that occurs half-way into the song, where the rhythm and melody abruptly stop and an acoustic guitar (echoing the melodic theme) emerges, bringing with it the "organic" connotations of that instrument. It is not surprising that, in this interlude, the narrator calls out to the tangible figure of "Annie," who would appear to represent both a desired release from this terrifying realm as well as a sexual object through which the narrator can articulate a "human" existence for himself. As is the case in other NIN songs, sexual imagery (embodied as it is in a female name) reinforces a drive toward self-definition, a need to call out, overpower, or otherwise gain acknowledgment from another in order to control one's own voice. Here, the acoustic guitar echoes the song's principal motif in a spatially defined way (that is, images of musicians with guitars can be coded onto the sound of such an instrument), so that it is able to convey both a sense of pain and a desire for release.

This expression of "human" emotions, however, is quickly destroyed by the return to the principal rhythmic and melodic motif. Now, however, instead of "human" screams the beat is composed of blips and noise. Likewise, as the spiraling motif intensifies, the lines, "it won't give up it wants me dead / goddamn this noise inside my head," are repeated over and over at an increasingly intensified pitch, suggesting that the dissonant sounds are slowly overwhelming the "humanity" of the voice, and both are "becoming" agents of the machines that create the music, while the body of the narrator is reduced to so much musical pulp.

In all, this song delineates the confrontation between human and electronic bodies. As the final lines are repeated, there is an increased amount of distortion in both the music and the voice, so that with each successive articulation of the refrain the words lose more of their shape, until they, too, become noise. This reading, however, is mediated by the final few bars of the song; a moment in which the chaos subsides, and the acoustic guitar reappears, repeating the primary motif (sans vocals), until the song is abruptly replaced by the next track, ironically titled "I Do Not Want This." This ending can be read as a codification of the narrative within the borders of traditional musical structure, for it reinstigates the primary motif, "naturalizing" it through the acoustic guitar, and thereby reifying the "harmony" which "music" (in its traditional, pre-Russolo form) affirms.

Such a conclusion, however, is complicated in two ways. First, the vocals do not return, suggesting a musical annihilation of the organic body or at least the loss of representability on the part of the narrator - You overwhelming I. Second, instead of a coda, or conclusion, the song (and the narrative) begin again, thereby reproducing the very ambivalence that marks the song (and the album) as a whole. In short, "The Becoming" ends like the rest of The Downward Spiral - sputtering to a halt, half-heartedly embracing traditional musical conventions, as if Reznor himself were incapable of conforming fully to the ideologies such structures represent.

Which is, perhaps, the point. After all, no matter how popular or successful NIN has become, Reznor is, fundamentally, an artist who refuses to let others tell him what to do. He accepted second-billing on a tour with David Bowie, even when the audience was only there to see him; he tours with and supports the Jim Rose Circus, Marilyn Manson, and Coil, groups that are as close to the "fringe" of pop culture as you are likely to get; and he releases videos showing animals disintegrating into dust, German scientists experimenting on a girl, a pig, and a monkey, and performance artist Bob Flanagan feeding himself into a meat grinder. Each of these moves have been questioned, ridiculed, or scorned by one or more groups in the mainstream of American culture, including the "family values" trilogy of Bob Dole, William Bennett, and C. Dolores Tucker, who last year singled out Reznor's music (along with that of his fellow Interscope label mates Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg) for its negative influence on today's youth. Such criticism, I think, only reaffirm that Reznor is doing something right. After all, the whole point of "industrial" music is to confront audiences with the noises and terrors that surround them every day, in order to emphasize the profound role which technology and the culture industry play in the shaping of one's attitudes and beliefs. If Reznor has accomplished anything, it has been to introduce dissonant and radical music (even in its filtered, popular state) to an audience of millions. In a world full of Muzak, this feat should not be overestimated.

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