Part Three

The Downward Spiral redefines the conception of the human body by pushing it beyond the realm of corporeal or Cartesian "reality" into a cyberspace where the screams, moans, and cries emitted by I fuse with and filter into the music's structure. This transmogrification is nowhere more prevalent than on "The Becoming." The song narrates a fusion between I and an external body that (alone among all the tracks) has a name, Annie. As in "Closer," the tension at work in this song is markedly felt 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 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 rhythmic screams, the driving drums, and the synthetic melody remain consistent, while the voice continually elaborates I's position in a nether world between human flesh and an uncertain cyberspace. While the narrator states, "I am becoming," and "the me that you know is now made up of wires," thereby echoing the cyber-fusion of his body to an electronic You, 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 most 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. Like the crucial phrase "I want to fuck you like an animal" in "Closer," sexual imagery here 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 (images of musicians with guitars can be coded onto the sound of such an instrument), so that it is able to convey the pain of the previous section because it codes the motif of that section in "human" terms. The expression of "self" here, however, is a momentary respite that is quickly destroyed when the guitar disappears and the principal rhythmic and melodic motif is reinstated - only now instead of "human" screams the beat is composed of digitized blips and grinding noises. 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 music itself and the digital noise that comprises it, has become a mechanism for the production of pain in the narrator's body.

In all, this song delineates the confrontation between human and electronic bodies. As the final lines are repeated, there is an increased amount of digital 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. What emerges in this section is the very "becoming" which the title of the song suggests. Deleuze and Guattari use the term "becoming" to suggest a way in which bodies traverse, intersect, and interpenetrate various "planes of consistency," further and further blurring the borders between bodies, organs, organisms, and subjectivities. As they say, "Everything becomes imperceptible, everything is becoming-imperceptible on the plane of consistency, which is nevertheless precisely where the imperceptible is seen and heard" (252). By further and further pushing "desiring machines" into virtual borderlands between digital and organic delineation, Reznor enacts a becoming-imperceptible by heightening the abstraction of articulable discourse and sonic chaos

The reading of "The Becoming" as breaking outside totalitarian boundaries is mediated by the final few bars of the song, where the chaos subsides, and the acoustic guitar reappears, repeating the primary motif (sans vocals), until the song is abruptly replaced by the next track, which is ironically titled "I Do Not Want This." This conclusion can be read as a codification of the narrative within the borders of traditional musical structure, for it reinstigates the primary motif, "naturalizes" it through the acoustic guitar, and thereby reifies the "harmony" which "music" affirms. As an ending, however, is complicated in two ways. First, the vocals (the body of the narrator) do not return, a point which suggests a musical annihilation of the organic body or at least the loss of representability on the part of the narrator - You has wholly overwhelmed I. Second, the song (as such) has no coda, no conclusion, no finality; instead, it becomes yet another digitized narrative, which furthers the themes of anxiety and the yearning for transcendence which mark most of the other songs on The Downward Spiral. As a result of this, I would suggest that one of the main structuring points - a force that keeps the music moving forward - is the deferment caused by the inability to resolve the tension at work in the aggressive and terrorizing narrative. For this reason, the final song, "Hurt," is crucial in offering a comprehensive understanding of the album's overall structure.

IMAGE"Hurt" begins with what sounds like a faint wind, but is in fact closer to the static hissing of a computer or other electronic device. The hiss remains (muted) in the background as a keyboard motif and a stumbling vocal emerges, out of synch with one another, as though (because this song is supposed to be narrating the "after-life") there is a fundamental imbalance in the control of either the music or the voice has over one another. The narrator says, "I hurt myself today / to see if I still feel." As this narrator's continues to express his pain, the music gains in intensity when a guitar enters and the synthetic wind rises in pitch. The scene of death is expressly mentioned in the phrases "my empire of dirt" and "I wear my crown of shit," both suggesting a buried body or an abject space. Half-way into the song, however, the monotone yet painful sound bursts out, as the vocals cry, "what have I become?" while drums emerge, like a newly-discovered heartbeat. The hissing grows in strength as the narrator lifts the song upward, as though rising from the dead, longing for another chance, promising that "if I could start again...I would keep myself / I would find a way" - although a destination (to what?) is not mentioned. Again, as in the previous songs on the album, there is a continuous tension at work in the desire to express one's self and a desire to fall back within the technological dominance of the music, as if this alone will provide an escape. The tension is further frustrated by the music's own propulsion to expend or destroy any attempts to move outside its own limitations. In the end of the song, just as I proclaims "I would find a way" and supposedly resolve the anxieties pervading the entire album, the music suddenly breaks down - the guitar that was scattered in the background emerges in the foreground as feedback, and the keyboard disappears in the electronic hissing that overwhelms any conceivable attempt by the narrator to finish the sentence, and subsequently remains as the last vestiges of the song, spiraling out of control in a digital haze

"Hurt" ends like the other songs on 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 assert. NIN endings can be explained in many different ways. Perhaps Reznor is reacting to the very anti-commodification tendencies which are so cherished by "industrial" fans and musicians; perhaps he holds a decided unwillingness to resolve, to fix, to contain his music within discernible boundaries; or perhaps it is, in the words of Eric Weisbard, "yet another way of avoiding greatness" <8> (84). Weisbard's desire to read Reznor's music as not making the "extra-effort" to resolve and contain his songs might be on the mark in the arena of political economy, but his language (especially the words, "yet another") suggests that this inability to make "greatness" is standard for Reznor's oeuvre. On the contrary, in his other music - such as "Head Like a Hole," "Wish," and the 1994 song, "Burn," from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack - Reznor does not have difficulty fitting his musical articulations into standardized frameworks. What makes The Downward Spiral different from most pop music (including Reznor's own), is the thematic link Reznor makes between his own music and the cultural anxiety which technology and its depletion of human agency produces in contemporary society. Reznor's body, figured as it is between the noise of his computerized instruments and the narratives of pain, terror, and hatred, becomes the site through which the anxiety of technology is played out. In many ways, one could see this album alongside Kroker's notion of "modernism," which is principally conditioned by nostalgia. As he says, "Modernism is the state of feeling and at last of merely wanting to feel the phantom organ of totality" (Data Trash 43). In songs like "Closer," "The Becoming," and "Hurt," Reznor expresses the pathetic (Gr. pathos, melancholic, affecting suffering) desire to push himself into an unknown and unnamable totality that he does not understand. Reznor's "unknown," here, is the very technology which propels his music through his quest. Within this "transcendental" framework, however, Reznor is able to effectively propel this fear and fascination with technology into a commentary on a culture's obsession with machines. Reznor's music - its narratives of fear and desire articulated within a computerized framework of noise, screams, and drum programming - positions technology as the product of societal impulses to resolve all anxieties within a cyberspace of dead flesh, programmed minds, and totalitarian control.


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