Some Hesitated Remarks regarding a fictitious junior high school dance.

Jennifer1 stood anxiously on the side of the gymnasium along with the rest of the mothers as their children bounced around with energy that she and these other chaperones had lost a little over a decade ago.  She knew that Madison2 was on the very edge of a maelstrom that would suck her up and spit her back out as someone else.  And she was going to do everything in her power to make sure that her daughter didn’t turn into one of those kinds of girls.

From the moment they had stepped into the school, she had been on the lookout for any signs of trouble: boys who poked girls and ran away, girls who danced like Miley Cyrus.  She would make sure to find out who these children were and take out restraining orders to keep them away from her daughter.  So far the only sign of trouble seemed to be the DJ.  He had the wrong kind of sparkle in his eyes.  Not that he was going to do anything to the kids.  No, it was more like one of those pranksters alluded to in Fight Club who spliced pictures of penises into the middle of G rated movies just to fuck with the people fortunate enough to have families.  She’d known guys like that before, and she wouldn’t be putting up with that shit tonight.  Not when her daughter could enter puberty at any minute now.

But the music was just fine.  It was all music performed by musicians whose names were only familiar to parents of eight to twelve year old children3.  Music from the Disney channel.  Music from back when Miley Cyrus was still Hannah Montana.  She couldn’t name every single artist, but she knew enough of them that she was willing to give the DJ a pass.  Besides, the children were all doing little kid dances, which is what really mattered.

As she let her guard down, she found herself for whatever reason thinking of the guy she had lost her virginity to.  It was kind of an odd thing to think about, it wasn’t a guy she had thought of in years, decades even.  He’d actually committed suicide when the girlfriend after her had dumped him.  She had found out about that two years after it happened, and it was chilling, like she’d dodged a bullet.  She didn’t have to bear the guilt from that, at least not as much as the next girl had.  The first thought that went through her mind when she heard about it was “I bet she dumped him because of that song.”

That’s why she had dumped him.  The last time they had had sex, he wanted to listen to some song about fucking animals while they did it, and though it seemed OK at the time, the next day she couldn’t look at him without remembering that leering face he had while that song played in the background.  The worst part about it was that, for whatever reason, that song became immensely popular a few months later.  It was on the radio all the time.  They did replace the F word with a slashing sound instead, but that didn’t really make it any better: everyone knew what he was saying.  And every time she heard it, she saw that leering look on the face of that guy.  The guy who took her virginity.  She started listening to the Garth Brooks station.

Why was she thinking about this now?  Who knows.  There was something a bit off, though.  Was it indigestion?  Was it the music?  Was she just scared for her daughter?  There was something odd about the music.  Something in the background wasn’t quite right.  What were those lyrics?  Something about watching you?  The kids were shaking their butts and pointing their fingers at each other whenever he said “I’m watching you.”  The kids’ actions seemed innocent enough, but something about those lyrics felt a little creepy.  Something about a satellite?  Was it about the NSA?  Was it about sending naked pictures on your cellphone?  She decided it was worth googling the lyrics on her smartphone to find out.

And that’s when the music shifted into some minor chord, slowly at first, and she knew.  She could feel the shift, like something caving in beneath her.  She knew what was coming next, though she’d never heard this song before: a sonic cage surrounded her with a sound that seemed to come from some unholy organ.  She’d heard that sound before.  She heard it the morning she woke up in some guy’s bed and knew she was pregnant.  And knew this was not the man she wanted to raise her child.  There was that same dirge-y sound playing on his stereo while he was fixing his morning coffee.  At least he had the decency to not have sex to it.  And that same voice that was singing now had proclaimed that very moment she knew she was pregnant “the day the whole world went away.”  The same voice that had espoused her first boyfriend’s desire to “fuck her like an animal.”  The same voice that her daughter was dancing to now.  She didn’t need her smartphone to tell her that.  But it did anyways.  God dammit.

I don’t really know how to write a music review, but that little story is what comes to mind when I listen to this song from the Nine Inch Nails album I talked about two weeks ago.  After I wrote those nostalgic musings on individuation, I thought it was worth listening to the actual album.  Half a dozen listens later, I think I’m beginning to understand what it’s about.

If Hesitation Marks were a Clint Eastwood movie, it would be Unforgiven.  The bad man’s put away his addictions and violence for the good of a woman and the raisin’ of a family.  But not really if you look hard enough.  Trent Reznor doesn’t have to drop F bombs any more than Clint Eastwood has to spit on the ground disdainfully to know that everything  is not OK.  Trent can say he’s survived everything and Clint can say he’s not like that anymore, but we know different.  We know what’s going to happen when he grabs that bottle of whiskey.  And we know there’s going to be a downward spiral eventually.

But this downward spiral is different than the others.  It’s, to use Trent’s words, haunted.  You might think Nine Inch Nails has always been haunted, but no, not really.  Aggressive, certainly.  Scary, perhaps.  But not haunted.  Nick Cave is haunted.  And on this album, so is Trent Reznor.  And what haunts him are all those previous downward spirals that he’s miraculously survived.  None of those spirals gave a fuck if this was the end.  This spiral wants to go in the other direction.  This time around the spiral there are innoncent lives at stake.  This time around the spiral there’s the faint voice of love permeating that darkness trying to be somebody else, someone better.  But Trent Reznor can’t be someone else any more than Jennifer can separate Madison’s conception from her introduction to junior high school and her own deflowering when she was but a few years older than her daughter.

And that’s who we all are.  We’re the slackers.  We’re all fragile.  We’re all broken.  And no matter how much it might now feel that we’re up above it, we’re still the same people who were down in it twenty years ago.  It’s amazing we’re even alive, much less responsible for someone else’s.  Maybe we’re not cocaine addicts, but we were there when so many other things could have gone so terribly wrong. We’re the ones who kicked the habit.  We’re the ones who made it home because it was only a few miles in a straight line on back streets.  We’re the ones who were so drunk we missed our chance at the HIV virus.  We’re the ones who held our girlfriend’s hand on the way to the clinic and then left her to deal with that pain the rest of her life a few months later. We’re the ones who didn’t know you’re supposed to go longways with the razorblade if you want it to work. We’re the ones who didn’t have to risk our lives or lose our limbs on foreign soil after all, because the politicians in charge couldn’t get their shit together. We’re the ones who didn’t get shot by the gangbangers.  We’re the ones who didn’t get caught.

And by this point in our lives, for each miracle that has kept us going, we probably know at least one person who through poor choices, or perhaps just poor luck, didn’t.  Maybe among those souls no longer with us there are some we feel are more worthy of whatever jackpot we’ve stumbled into.  But it’s us that are here and have to live that.  It’s us that are here and get to live that.  We are who we always were, even though we sometimes wish we could be better.  Even though those who depend on us need us to be better.  We hold our children in our arms and want to tell them that they could have it all: our home, our stuff, our dirty little empires.  But we know inside that someday when it really matters we will let them down, make them hurt.  We don’t deserve life to be this good, but that’s exactly why we should live it.

And that’s why I keep listening to this new Nine Inch Nails album.

1-      Was the most popular name for baby girls born between 1969 when Lisa stepped down and 1985 when Emily took over.  If we are looking to jump on the generational balkanization bandwagon, perhaps ours should be Generation Jennifer.

2-      Was a unique flower who reigned for only two years before Emma took over.  I’ll let you figure out which two, based on the context of the rest of this story…

3-       I can’t list any examples here, as I don’t qualify yet.

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