Trent Reznor, a.k.a. Nine Inch Nails, has rapidly 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 brought together such diverse musical genres as techno and metal, industrial and D.I.Y. rock and roll. His music - which blends punk rock's energy with the technological sophistication of industrial and dance music - has brought Nine Inch Nails (NIN) increased commercial success, as well as critical adulation. Roger Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, for instance, 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 commercial music industry. True or not, this is quite often the way the mainstream press perceives Reznor; in fact, he is known more for his violent and sadistic lyrics <1> and outrageous stage antics than for any music he has ever produced. At the same time, the so-called "alternative" press often castigates Reznor, questioning "whether the rage that fuels [his] 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 fundamental ambivalence at work in the music of Trent Reznor. Although his background falls within the decidedly anti-commercial industrial scene, his musical approach and excessive theatrics place him very much within the long tradition of commercial rock and roll. What seems to bring these juxtaposed musical camps together is, uniquely, Reznor's own position within his music. As Eric Weisbard of The Village Voice notes, "the key" to Reznor'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 positioning himself at the center of his music, Reznor is not only able to resolve the contrasting musical attitudes but fundamentally question the role which music and the music industry play in the shaping, defining, and controlling of human bodies, subjectivities, and ideologies.
The concept of "industrial music" emerged during the late 1960s and early 1970s with such groups as Throbbing Gristle, Eisturzende Neubauten, Can, and Kraftwerk. These early bands, marginally positioned within the all-encompassing "rock and roll" culture, found their inspiration in the "cut-up" techniques of William Burroughs, the musique concrete experiments of Edgar Varese, Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Gesang der Junglinge," and (of course) John Cage - all of whom rethought the concept of "music" by incorporating into their compositions the industrial noises of cars, airplanes, and other machines; the multi-tracking (cut and paste) effects which recording technology makes possible; and the eerie sounds of early synthesizers. Many of the artists that made up the early industrial scene studied under these early pioneers, and took with them many of the overt political motives behind such radical music. Jon Savage, in his overview of the "industrial culture," notes that one of the central tropes at work in the movement's development was the belief that the dissemination of information is the central political struggle of the late 20th century, and that the goal of their music should be to denounce contemporary culture's obsession with commodities ( Re/Search 5). In order to achieve these idealistic goals, industrial music sought to stay as far to the fringe of the music industry as they possibly could. Much of the music, consequently, was recorded and released by independent companies, or by the artists themselves; likewise, the music was principally relegated to non-traditional instruments - like electric drills, cars, and washing machines, not to mention synthesizers - in order to produce the most disconcerting musical experiences possible. The impulse of industrial music was to shock and provoke the audience into listening to the sounds of a culture's excesses, and (perhaps) to reconsider the role such excesses play in the social control of human beings.
In the years since Can and Throbbing Gristle released their first works, the music and the movement which they personify has dramatically changed; in some ways, it has become part of the mainstream it was once wholly against. In most circles, the term "industrial" has been eradicated in favor of an array of words - ambient, techno, rave, acid house, jungle, tribal, hip hop, punk, and gothic. For others, industrial is simply another aspect of the larger "alternative" universe. Despite the changes in terminology, however, the impulses and the approach to music shared by both Cage and Throbbing Gristle - to wake people up, to attack arid cultural norms, and the black-humored examination of "all things gross, atrocious, horrific, demented, and unjust" (Re/Search 2) - continue to be found in many contemporary groups, from Consolidated, Skinny Puppy, and Ministry to KMFDM, Moby, and Nine Inch Nails.
While Trent Reznor shares many of the impulses and desires which drive "industrial" music, he is separated from his contemporaries 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, heavy guitar riffs, and an anthematic (if cryptic) chorus ("Head like a hole, black as your soul / I'd rather die than give you control"). These 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, the "deeply disturbing, very discomforting and psychologically traumatic" music of Skinny Puppy ( Thompson 108). The difference, I think, is the role played by Reznor himself in the musical narrative. In much electronic or industrial music, the human agent who makes the music is decidedly absent, replaced by anonymous sounds of engines, drum beats, and voice boxes. This is the case for groups like Kraftwerk and Devo, where the uniformity of group members is used to represent the uniformity of an technologically-driven culture. Reznor, on the other hand, is always at the center of Nine Inch Nails - in video, on stage, as well as in the music <2>.
Because Reznor himself is so central to the success of NIN, he has often been criticized 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 the conventions of such music for commercial and adulatory gain. For instance, Jason Fine of Option (an "alternative" music magazine) notes: "For all his talk about alienation, Reznor seems more interested in elevating himself above the crowd than reaching out to make any direct contact" (36). To go "above" the crowd, here, is to be larger than life, to reach the status of a "His Satanic Majesty," Mick Jagger, or the "King of Pop," Michael Jackson. Reznor, in other words, is too interested in embracing success, and, as a result, has made his own body the key signifier of his music, rather than the "message" it conveys. In this, Reznor's opposition to "industrial" music stems from his interest in the performative realm of art, where (following Adorno) the spectacle of the body (both the music and the musician) is bought and sold, rather than standing against such commodification. Fine goes on to say that "even in the most wildly synthesized, alien-sounding moments [of The Downward Spiral, there] is a bristling, relentless, unmistakably human energy that sucks you in" (40). Reznor's body, in other words, is so overwhelmingly present within the music that it becomes a dangerously enticing object of spectacle, distracting the listener by supplanting the significance of the musical text with a fetishistic link between the listener's desires and the work itself.
Reznor seems aware of the criticism levied at him from colleagues and critics alike, but his reaction to that criticism is unique. In an interview with Rolling Stone writer Jonathan Gold, Reznor notes that, "essentially NIN are theater. What we do is closer to Alice Cooper than Pearl Jam" (53). While this statement can be read as a tongue-in-cheek commentary about current attitudes in popular music, it also demonstrates to what extent Reznor is cognizant of his own role within the music industry. Rather than allowing himself to fall into the trap of seeking to merge with his audience without the intervention of corporate power structures that filter down the message a band wants to convey (like Pearl Jam), Reznor sees himself as a cartoon (like Cooper) that borrows the trappings of popular media in order to sell particularly fashionable desires.
The NIN "cartoon," however, is a decidedly monstrous object,
continually opening up taboo subjects and desires and blurring the
boundaries between sensory impulses and "whole" bodies in ways that are
traditionally silenced in the popular media. This is most evident in
the videos, which are at once graphic, frightening, and visually
enticing. The clip for the song, "Closer," is a multifaceted collage of
images ranging from severed human heads, writhing snakes, and old men
behind a dark screen to "crucified monkeys; sneering industrialists
straight out of a German expressionist print; siblings with their hair
braided together; and Reznor himself, spinning in midair so out of
control he cannot even touch the ground" (Gold 52). Another, more
graphic video, Happiness in Slavery, <3> shows
performance artist Bob Flanagan removing his clothes, climbing atop a
large mechanical apparatus, and allowing numerous instruments to shred
his hands, chest, and genitals before the device shuts its lid and
grinds his flesh into a pulp. Both videos share an obsession with
graphic themes, and can easily be read as sheer exploitation, using
nudity, violence, and spectacle merely to lure audiences in for shock
value. This reading, however, discounts the fact that it is the forces
of science and technology, the yearning to discover how a body reacts
to suffering, that effectively allows the bodies in these videos to be
manipulated and destroyed. Hence, the videos demonstrate the phallic
desire to locate the transcendental significance of an object, an idea,
or an emotion that is under examination - a fetishistic action that
replicates the very process of watching and enjoying music videos
themselves. In the music of Nine Inch Nails, this play between power
and its material situation is worked out within the musical space of
narrative structure and technological control. Within a musical
environment wholly controlled by computers and MIDI interfaces, the
artist must merge with these technologies in order to produce the
message s/he wants to convey. NIN's The Downward Spiral
deals with the suffering, confusion, and ultimate terror which such a
link produces, and as a result suggests the role played by the
discarded flesh or "data trash" that have become human bodies in a
world of virtuality (Kroker and Weinstein).
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