Trent Reznor’s shiny new unicorn

So apparently Nine Inch Nails came out with their first album in four years sometime in the past week, and I didn’t even realize it.  The truth is, it’s probably been close to ten years since the last time I bought one of their albums.  But for some reason it seems important to talk about it here.

Our generation didn’t really have a voice the way others did: we didn’t have a Beatles.  We had many voices: Nirvana, Tupac, Axl Rose, Madonna, the Beastie Boys, Pearl Jam, Ice Cube, and for the sake of this post I’m going to include Trent Reznor.  I’m sure I’m leaving out your favorite band, feel free to add it to the list.  I think the voice of our generation is the collection of all of these voices layered on top of each other, kind of like a Nine Inch Nails song.  But unless our name is Trent Reznor, we probably couldn’t comprehend such a thing, so maybe we should just do it in sequence.  Imagine picking the three songs that most epitomize each of these artists, along with those you would add to the list, and then listening to that collection of music.  What do you hear?

It’s somewhat of a cliché to say that your generation had the best music, and I’m not going to do that.  But I do think our music did something more profoundly, or at least more powerfully than the music of any other generations we’ve shared time with.  Our music individuated harder than the others did.  Of course you can say something about standing on the shoulders of giants and all, and that’s worth considering.  I mean after the Who and the Clash smashed their guitars the bands that followed them up had to up things a notch.  But by that logic, the Millenials should have the wildest music around, and I have to admit that My Chemical Romance never once scared the shit out of me.  Listening to the music of the late 60s, there’s certainly as much drugs and sex in their rock and roll as we had in ours, but the voice of the other they were kicking against in order to satisfy their hedonism was generally more subdued.  “I hope I die before I get old” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “I’d rather die than give you control.”  This is not to say that Nine Inch Nails is a better band than The Who, but that their music individuated harder: it feels more like someone is being flipped off when you listen to it.  If you compare the music of the 60s and 70s to the music of the 80s and 90s, it’s like there weren’t any boundaries getting in the way of self-expression back then.  There was no Tipper Gore slapping Parental Advisory stickers on their record albums. There was no mom in their songs nagging about a job, throwing away pornography, or withholding Pepsi Cola.  60s countercultural music was just a description of what they wanted to do, and there appeared to be little need to describe what they had to overcome in order to accomplish it.

I can think of two exceptions to this generalization of 60s music being less aggressive towards the other: Respect and Live at Folsom Prison.  But Aretha Franklin’s argument was much too reasonable to really be considered individuation.  And inmates at Folsom Prison?  Yeah, I’ll grant that probably on the average those guys individuated harder than our generation did.

So it’s almost 24 years since Pretty Hate Machine came out, and apparently there’s been some vilification of the most recent offering by Mr. Reznor.  This happened.  I hesitate to mark him down for this album, mostly because I’ve spent less time listening to the music from it than you’ve spent reading this article so far.  But I will grant that the first five seconds of anything he’s done before sounds quite a bit different than the first five seconds of anything I’ve heard from this album.  The recent album sounds like the sort of thing people in bright clothing might want to dance to.  And perhaps, as Henry Rollins once said, “you are astounded that they can be so smooth, how they seem to pass through life (or the dance floor as the case may be) as if life itself were some divine gift.”  And it infuriates you that the man who once convinced you that these sorts of people just might owe you a great big apology could turn around and make music for them.  I get that.  And I’ll admit that when I hear a series of bright plinky sounds like these my mind goes to the same place as it does when I get a call from a telemarketer.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the music is bad, just that I’ve been conditioned to not enjoy it.

The thing is, we can’t expect Trent Reznor to be the same drug-addicted ball of hatred pissing on every bit of authority that he was twenty years ago.  I mean, most of us don’t have that luxury either.  According to the last link I posted here, we’ve literally become the Man.  Not because we wanted to, but because of erosion and attrition.  Whatever stands we were making against corporate corruption were doomed to failure before they even began.  We took what we could get for survival: health insurance in exchange for getting up early.  And when we started having families, we gladly took on more responsibilities that we didn’t really want but were more than qualified for in order to make a decent life for our offspring.  It doesn’t mean we like it, any more than it means that Nine Inch Nails new album is happy just because of those bright plinky sounds.

Chuck Pahluniak said every generation hates to see the ballads of its revolution become the background music of television commercials.  I think we’re still waiting on that particular rendition of Closer.  In fact, if you show me an elevator, grocery store, or dentist’s office playing that rendition of any Nine Inch Nails song, I’ll eat my Fluevogs.  The closest we ever got to that was when Johnny Cash recorded Hurt.  And I, for one, think it’s a good thing when the Man in Black can make the mainstream care about both himself and the artists he’s covering before scooting on out the door to the afterlife.  It’s better than having a song you once thought was profound slip through the background filtered out as you weigh important decisions such as which brand of lunch meat is the better value.  And something tells me that whatever else happens with his bright new plinky sounds, they won’t suffer that particular fate either.

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2 Responses to “Trent Reznor’s shiny new unicorn”

  1. I think people forget how poppy Pretty Hate Machine was. Sure, it was about rather dying than giving The Man control, but it was also about jealousy and emotional insecurity and lust and longing. Then there was Broken, which was fucking angry, and then the Downward Spiral which of course is considered Trent Reznor’s Magnum Opus. Trent has stated in interviews that this new album is a juxtaposition to TDS, it’s looking back 20 years later and examining it from the perspective of someone who came out of that spiral. “Everything”, the “unicorn song”, starts out sounding like something ripped off from early REM but during the chorus shifts to classic punk fury. There is a tension to it– the happy chord progression is covering up the nastiness, but the nastiness can’t help but rear it’s head.

    Also it’s catchy as hell and I’m fine with that.

    • I listened to the whole album last night after writing this post, and I think there might be something to what you are saying. I approached this article, as I do most things I’ll write, from more of a nostalgia perspective: what was Nine Inch Nails to some of us 15-20 years ago. There’s no way we could hear anything now the same way we did then: both the artist and his audience have changed too much. I basically was giving him permission to have an album that sucked, but after listening to the whole thing and not just tuning out after five seconds of high pitched plinking sounds, maybe it’s not such a bad album after all.

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