The Myth and the Machine

[11 October 2009]

By Dan Johnson

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails exploded from the creases of late ‘80s American culture atop the TVT records release of Trent Reznor’s infernal Pretty Hate Machine. Through TVT and later Interscope, Reznor’s outfit crafted one of the most celebrated catalogues of our generation from a cocktail of equal parts post-Reagan alienation, classical musicality, and a kaleidoscope of digital, raucous noise.

History has largely relegated the youth culture of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s under the dubious title Generation X. Figures such as Kurt Cobain and Trent Reznor carried the banner for a seemingly directionless generation wrought with disenchantment and a rage-infused hopelessness. Words like “grunge” capture an idea of a slovenly apathy and muddy frustration with a greedy, sucking world that seemed apt to swallow everything of worth.

The humanistic side of Nine Inch Nails captures lyrically a glimpse of a potent generation who arrived too late for the party that was the ‘80s, and too early for a near–future apocalyptic ending that some seemed to be waiting for with baited breath. From the beginning, Nine Inch Nails embraced a dark thematic cynicism characterized by this bleak, hollow search for meaning.

Like many of his contemporaries, Reznor’s lyrical standpoint resonated with the question of control and belonging. His words echo with the bitter elixir of someone who does not fit in, but still struggles with the essential hierarchies of ‘80s American life: religion, government and society. The institutions of church, state, and camaraderie that had once been the mainstays of a homogenous, seemingly happy “morning” in America were now greeted with a backlash of suspicion. As Nine Inch Nails’ generation grasped blindly for self-identity in individualism, the band’s lyrical invectives against the traditional apparatuses of love, popularity, faith, and obedience rang with a most ‘90s detachment.

While the band’s thematic statements found their roots in the hollow happiness of the preceding decade’s prosperity, so too did NIN find their musical forbearers in the digital sonic exploration of the previous decade. A generation before, as the first rays of light from the dawning Information Age crested above the social horizon, increases in music-making technology lent themselves to a heavy and authentic sounding incorporation into popular music. Synthetic drums and sampling in hip-hop and electronic music mixed with incredibly broad synthesizer capabilities and the tones within production-oriented music like new wave or industrial. Visionaries used the breadth of instrumentation possibilities to create a phenomenal spectrum of aural textures in music. Furthermore, producers like Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Gary Numan showed that technology could manipulate sound to create any kind of space in two channels of stereo sound.

In an age where American youth became disenfranchised with the existing institutions and trappings of society, the sound of popular music became an alternative, an escape. Through systems of digital sound, artists like Trent Reznor explored not only their alienation, but also the seemingly infinite channels of the Information Age. Through the synth portal his cloudy, deranged detachment simultaneously asked common questions about the relevance of past sounds and social hierarchies. The band’s iconic releases coincide with massive changes in American life through technology. The overlapping narratives of Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails within the control of the recording industry and western culture moving through the Information Age combine in the band’s music as a sonic collage questioning the role of man in the machine.

The late mythologist Joseph Campbell theorized in 1988 that “myths are public dreams.”  In its major label era, Nine Inch Nails’ music bellowed with very popular dilemmas about identity within society—both in the lyrical statements of alienation and a strong synthetic presence in their sound. At a tumultuous juncture of understanding in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, the band embraced a public dream in which a raucous engine of sound helped Reznor escape the pitfalls of social hierarchy. His is the public cyborg myth of a man and his machine—the loner within a convoluted, powerful brand of mechanical music.

Inside his meat locker of decadent sounds, Reznor helmed his pretty hate machine, his conflicted digital vessel that he used to negotiate growing anxieties about his inevitable attachment to a variety of systems. Questions about interpersonal relationships, celebrity, religion, government, and even record label contracts became manifest in the band’s musical statements.

The mythic story of Nine Inch Nails as a cautionary tale can be read and heard in the lyrical and musical evolution of their catalogue. Raw, disenchanted, and noisy, the albums of Nine Inch Nails warn about the allure of technology and systems of order by exuding a depraved, chaotic sound that consistently reinforces the need for touches of humankind’s individuality and basic nature.

Pretty Hate Machine (1989) and the Broken EP (1992) are Nine Inch Nails’ precocious flirtations with synthetic sound and fame in the record industry as an escape from the pedestrian and infuriating systems of ‘80s American life. Heavy, semi-electronic anthems such as “Terrible Lie” and “Head Like a Hole” mix noisy guitars with choppy samples and boiling keyboard statements in bitter indictments of control and conventional religion.

Increasingly digital, the remorseful ballad “Something I Can Never Have” laments the impossibility of love or contentment in the social hierarchy of Reznor’s native Ohio. Finally, the drum machine loop and synth sweeps of “Wish” caps off the band’s cautious and imprecise techno-baptism with the assertion that truth or meaning can’t be found in the trite, complacent society of old. But with the growing embrace of digital music as a powerful, elevated voice against tradition, the timbres of this chapter whisper and roar with the naïve notion that maybe perfection could be found in the technology saturated future.

The Downward Spiral (1994), one of Nine Inch Nails’ most celebrated accomplishments, is a decadent mechanical masterpiece. The album itself tells of a becoming or a transformation. With the promise of fame and a music career, Reznor became a prominent artist at Interscope. This album can be heard as a perverse consecration of this marriage. Somewhere between the holy ecstasy of sensual vows and the empowering enslavement of selling one’s soul to the devil, The Downward Spiral encapsulates a bipolar mastery of sound that is both egomaniacal and soulless.

The self-engorged rapture channels sophisticated electronic elements and raging beats in a potent blasphemy of God on “Heresy” and the masochistic, abusive “March of the Pigs,” a song whose unrelenting verses equate humanity with swine. The lynchpin in the album’s air of transformation and digital mastery is the ultra-sensual “Closer”. The song’s avatar (courtesy of Mark Romanek’s iconic video) is a human heart beating only with the assistance of a grotesque machine. In the song itself, belching synth percussion and bass overlap with a distinct 16/16 clicking mixed hard left to establish the song as distinctly mechanical. Building with tremendous force that oozes with misplaced sexuality, “Closer” plays like a sensual ‘90s love duet between a man and his mechanical love. In a moment of ecstasy and grace, Reznor’s vows “you can have my everything”, “you get me closer to God”, and “you are the reason I stay alive” seem to worship his mechanical companion, music, in the moments before a sultry climax of industrial crescendo.

But with this sickening zenith comes a bitter afterglow. Closer than ever to personal completion in his music, Reznor remains alone. Unable to maintain the high, much of the second half of the album laments the loss of humanity. This very real and personal specter of addiction and self-destruction looms in the album’s last track, “Hurt”. Haunting minimal guitars and clean whispers glow until the song’s final crushing feedback chord, which sounds as if it is swallowing the remnants of Reznor’s soul.

The Downward Spiral was a jarring experience for Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. A grueling tour schedule combined with the loss of family, addiction, and the pressure from Interscope for a new masterpiece found Reznor inexplicably enslaved by a fresh system of control of his own making. After isolating himself in the Nothing Studio in New Orleans, Reznor and producer/accomplice Alan Moulder constructed The Fragile, the band’s much-anticipated 1999 double-album. Within, the chaotic narrative of sound is disorderly and tells with textures and words the story of a man clinging desperately to what’s left of his humanity.

As the mellow tempo buzz noise of “Into the Void” leads listeners into the second disc, the lyric “tried to save myself but myself keeps slipping away” captures the dichotomy of the album. Walls of digital sound prominent in tracks like “The Day the World Went Away” bleed into the understated clean piano lines and harmonies of “The Frail”. The Fragile is the ultimate battle for Trent’s soul, with increasingly potent digital devils vying against soft acoustic angels for the man’s destiny within Nine Inch Nails and his system of control.

In the interim between the molting landscapes of The Fragile and the 2005 follow-up With Teeth, Reznor had a revelation and resurgence, or in the vernacular, got his shit together. Sober and in-shape with a shaved head and new muscles, he emerged to support his new album with the spirit of rebirth and an unassuming collection of songs whose relative lack of digital complexity scorned his previous successes. This album was Reznor’s first toothy bite at the hand of fame that had fed him so much poison.

With Teeth still incorporated heavy bits of drum machine and metallic synth parts with a digitally inspired package design. However, heavy reliance on clean piano, traditional guitar tracking, and guest drummer Dave Grohl fashioned the band’s most traditional rock album.

Confident, Reznor uses the album to take aim at addiction and control with grinding guitar anthems and lyrical gestures. Nine Inch Nails begin to explore the metaphysical, or as Reznor puts it, “I’m losing focus / Kind of drifting into the abstract in terms of how I seem myself”. And with equal parts digital guitar and clean piano, the band uses sonic equilibrium on “Right Where It Belongs” to question the nature of reality itself.

With Teeth finds Reznor unconcerned with acceptance by any machine—social or acoustic. The album encourages the band to construct songs with a balance of human and mechanical instrumentation in an appropriate ode to its spirit. As a result, it sounds independent and confident. Moreover, it sonically presents the notion that the road to autonomy and freedom lies in a self-aware refusal to serve any entity beside yourself.

This rock star declaration of independence gives fuel to the next act in the band’s public myth. The brutal sonic battlefield of Year Zero (2007) is a vision of a dystopic near-future totalitarian state run by religion and homogeneity. Rich with allusions to the mechanical control Reznor experienced throughout his life, the album stings with bitter critiques of authority and fervent encouragement of individuality and rebellion. Most important, the album is the band’s most digital work, relying heavily on bit-crushed keyboards and electronic beats to exude a sense of the bleak promise of a future in any machine. The ethos runs counter to the band’s early unspoken impulses, which pointed with bright loops and samples towards an encouraging distant reality of human perfection within technology. Instead, Year Zero paints technology as a conflicted vehicle for both rebellion and totalitarianism—an agent of discord.

The murky sludge of an industrialized society not unlike our own is expressed through a variety of synthetic environments. Nearly every aural aspect of the album’s heavy-handed mixing is veiled with some aspect of distortion or digital alteration. Bit-crushed washes on “God Given”, crackling hisses of cacophonous modem guitar in “The Beginning of the End”, and the nature-crushing churn of industrial rhythms mimicking our society on the apocalyptic “In This Twilight” all paint digital noise as a shade of destruction. The thinly veiled allusion to technology as a great destroyer resonates as the larger motif of this unsettling warning of an album.

From Pretty Hate Machine to Year Zero, Trent Reznor and his Nine Inch Nails released music that was emblematic of larger social trends of man in machine. The pressures of the recording industry, as well as celebrity, love, religion, and camaraderie, fashioned the work of the band by imposing the will of a system onto a very prolific individual. The music from this era in the band’s history abstracted the conflicting pains and pleasures through a mix of the mechanical and human, the sorrowful and the aggressive in their music.

While these signature animosities and sonic combinations of Nine Inch Nails lingered in their post-major label efforts, the 2008 releases Ghosts I-IV and The Slip echo with the chords of autonomy. The moody ambient quadruple album and its more traditional sister were released in primarily digital format through Reznor’s front, the Null Corporation, and the band’s website. In a time when the overburdened record industry machine was questioning its own relevance, Reznor’s personal creative visions pioneered free digital releases in a public affront to the very system that had helped breed Nine Inch Nails. Coupled with the band’s recent decision to suspend touring in favor of exploratory out-of-the-box music making, Nine Inch Nails have helped set a precedent for creativity and self-vision that can be heard as a victory for the individual artist over the money-making machine.

Beneath all of the convoluted and complex layers of man and machine-made sound sits an important underlying message of slavery. The Nine Inch Nails catalogue, though unintentionally so, speaks volumes about the necessity of individuality and the dangers of losing personal autonomy within a system. Whether it is the lyrical foment of a figure caught in celebrity, contracts, or addiction, or the all-consuming noise of feedback and crushing bits, an overriding distrust of the machine makes Nine Inch Nails a deeply emblematic icon of our age.

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