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Trent Reznor’s Uneasy Virtue: Looking Back on The Downward Spiral

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In 1994, Nine Inch Nails auteur Trent Reznor totally disturbed my peace of mind with his full metal paean to self-loathing and destruction, The Downward Spiral. It was a somewhat shocking turn of events for me. I’d never been a fan of synth noodlers, had no interest whatsoever in industrial music, and was not habitually interested in guys who rocked it in leather hotpants, fishnets, and opera-length latex gloves, but somehow, I rigged myself up to a pair of headphones and gave it a full day in court. It was all over after that: I was a total slave to his grind.

Almost universally praised by critics, The Downward Spiral was improbably launched into the stratosphere by “Closer”, the danceable hit single with the chorus least likely to please the FCC. After that, drunk frat boys, kid sisters and liberal arts majors like me joined Reznor’s misfit industrial goth audience, and that year, we all bore witness to a tour so headlong and ferocious, that it’s a wonder scorched earth was not left in its wake.

The night I saw the “Self Destruct” tour, Reznor, who was beside himself about sound problems and a failed attempt to accompany his most plaintive moments with a film clip featuring rotting animals, hurled a microphone at the mixing desk with all the adrenalized strength of a furious five year old in a grown man’s body, and told the projectionist he was fired over the PA with a growl so rumblingly and gutturally pissed off that the sweaty, vinyl coated moshers down front were momentarily rendered attentive out of what I can only assume was an instinct for self-preservation. Before that, Reznor had destroyed several keyboards and a guitar, and had physically menaced the rest of his band in such a way that I was genuinely concerned that someone would put an eye out. Before the night was over, he’d spent a good five minutes writhing around with his hands in his pants, and ended by shuddering over what was left of his busted-up keyboard.

All of that’s to say nothing of his opening acts of special freakishness: The Jim Rose Circus, featuring “Mr. Lifto’s” amazing cinderblock lifting nipples, and Marilyn Manson, wearing latex underpants with a strategically placed hose. I mention them only in passing because compared to Reznor’s pure physical intensity, howling rage, desperately emotional and subversive sexuality, and seemingly bottomless despair, they were barely memorable. Trent Reznor was clearly the biggest freak in the building, and it took me months to explain to myself why a good Christian girl like me loved it so much I could barely breathe. How could something so dirty feel so clean?

At the time, I was a student of aesthetic theory and literature, and, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, enthusiastically immersed in egg-headed postmodern and feminist readings of everything from Victorian poetry to The X-Files. Needless to say, I dutifully set to work, using a full arsenal of academic instruments as forceps to hold “the text” at a safe, scientific distance, and made an effort to solve the problem of how a creature like Trent Reznor could menace and thrill me at the same time, and why he and his super loud art project made my skin crawl in the most delightful way.

Reznor’s most pivotal topics, I determined, were power, and opposing it, absolute subjectivity. The Downward Spiral was obsessed with duality and control, but while the literal surface presented itself as a typical melodrama of beset masculinity, the contradictions to that reading came in waves. Reznor backed tearful vocals with the buzzing menace of devouring machines, or paired virulent resentment with a jazzy, soft-shoe rhythm, moving between silence and thunder with shattering digital precision, and leaving only a hair’s breadth between a whisper and a scream. With its layer upon layer of almost literary sound, and constantly shifting foregroundings of literal and figurative sense, Reznor’s noise never anesthetized, and as much as you were aching to respond to his gentle come-ons, he never let you forget that he was a dangerous, blood-letting animal.

Meanwhile, Reznor’s narrative “i” systematically distanced itself from the archetypal powers of the Ultimate Object (all you out there who’ve ever read any postmodern or feminist theory will know the object of which I speak), and framed icky self-loathing and masochistic sexual stylings in so much raw competence and aggression as to manufacture a positively riveting relationship between itself and his audience. If the confluence of Reznor’s literal and figurative sense rejected The Object and it’s Powers, he was so clearly and impressively the master of them that his performances were a veritable exercize in penetration. It was that charismatic mixture of over-intended, pure, dominating egotism, and totally Julia Kristeva, Powers-of-Horror -worthy abjection that fueled the production of slavish armies of sweaty teenaged dominatrixes and boys in fishnets and eyeliner, each one feeling all naughty and conflicted, except in their desire to make sweet love to their cornstarch-coated rock and roll fetish doll: a reaction which placed Reznor firmly in a position of ultimate-object-bearing power, which only justified his legitimate reasons for nuclear weapons grade angst. Good shit.

Best of all? It was theater. If Reznor was St. Sebastian onstage, he was also the geeky computer genius with a long enough attention span to spend months cooking this shit up all by his lonesome. If he was a ferocious, screaming beast on his record, he was soft-spoken, articulate and thoughtful in interviews. In an era marked by entire rock shows of shoe-gazing gas station attendants and audiences who never looked at the stage, Reznor’s high drama, pure competence, and sharply focused intention was like an oasis of cool, clear water in an endless desert of the bone dry earnest authenticity of virtuous, by-the-numbers guitar rock.

At his best, Trent Reznor’s got a laser eye for structures that house diseased meaning, a rage for what’s real and worthy, and the sheer force of will to break everything that isn’t strong enough to withstand him. The sharp intelligence of the record alongside the violence of Reznor’s aesthetic fearlessness made the emotional rasp in his very human voice all the more excruciating. Reznor was often compared, in those days, to alt-rock’s undisputed heavyweight champion of angst, Kurt Cobain, but where Cobain’s words were often chaotically imagistic and difficult to pin down, Reznor’s were simple, unabashedly linear, and absolutely lacking in a single shred of hip ironic detachment. By the end of the last song, on The Downward Spiral, one had the unmistakable sense of teetering on the brink of the nihilist void with Reznor’s narrative “i”, now reduced to a stripped down, elemental consciousness that had eviscerated itself of moral and emotional certainty, but whose mind was still terrifyingly and unflinchingly engaged. It was a dreadful prospect, but one which felt like a kind of extreme, if uneasy, virtue.

If The Downward Spiral was a work of destruction, it was also an incredible creative accomplishment. As eviscerating as it was, it more thrilling than depressing, because Reznor had set the bar so high: ultimately, The Downward Spiral held the promise – in fact, could be adequately followed by nothing less – than an almost alchemical transformation. Either that, or death, and Reznor seemed too purposeful for death. It thrilled me beyond expression how little I could imagine what that process could possibly consist of, and I was on the edge of my seat as to what would happen next.

Little did I (or Reznor, to hear him tell it nowadays) know that The Downward Spiral would become a grim script for the next several years of his life, as depression, anxiety, addiction and fear spiraled out of control. Years on pins and needles elapsed before another sound emerged from the Empire of Dirt, and when it did, it was 1999’s The Fragile, a sprawling and often gorgeous two disc epic that painted, often wordlessly, a massive, oceanic picture of psychological impasse and a deeply troubled inner life so vividly that it was both riveting and impossible to digest. It lacked the hermetically sealed precision of The Downward Spiral, which gave it a courageous vulnerability, especially coming from the world’s biggest perfectionist, but in an essential way, it was something of a disappointment to hear the unmistakable sound of a continued downward trajectory.

With all of Reznor’s intrepid will turned to desperation, it felt a little wrong to revel in it. For the first time, in Reznor’s angst-heavy history, a Nine Inch Nails record was actually depressing. The Fragile didn’t thrill me, it worried me. It’s one thing to enjoy a destructive narrative, and another to enjoy watching a man eat himself alive. I listened to it a few times, put it away, and skipped the show. Transformation seemed a long way off.

Cut to: 2005. Some issues take time to resolve, apparently, and Reznor’s long awaited return from a personal hell is in stores tomorrow. If I had somehow stumbled over a copy of it, and it happened to offer nothing less than the enormous aesthetic satisfaction of a derailed narrative put to rights, a blowhard like me could never resist writing about 10,000 words on the subject, right?

Next up: With Teeth.

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About Jaime Nichols

  • Bryan

    Some very interesting perspectives in here… The performance element has always been a vital part of Nine Inch Nails’ power and ability to connect with people beyond those traditionally suited to “that kind” of music, that to have the power roles happening within that Audience/Performer symobiosis broken down is some fascinating stuff.

    Even more exciting is the notion that Reznor himself — obvioiusly no stranger to Master/Slave relationships — may have been on some level knowingly orchestrating this dynamic. I think there’s definitely some evidence for this in his body of work, and the famed precision with which he designs and executes every single element of the presentation of NIN.

    Now that Reznor seems to be in a healthier mental state then before, I would gather the parasitic flavor of that performance relationship would not exist in the “With Teeth” era. So what does he have in store next?

  • Kate

    I really enjoyed this article, especially as a lead up to finally hearing his new opus – “With Teeth” (not like he didn’t have any BEFORE this). Often artists like Trent are not looked at by the masses as the figures they actually are. They are frequented by culty fans, banging heads and lifestyle copycats that are in it for the emotional rush and the communication that their less than happy lives have a powerful companion. And he has given them all those things and a good show to boot. Like Dylan, Trent’s a (techie) “song and dance man.” However, those who can lay down something truly unique, with great style and substance, and find a way to keep that up over time and distance by actually GROWING and MORPHING into a better artist and a better self (through the obvious ups and downs of an actual human life)are few and far between. The question is always “do they have it in them to actually jump into the crucible and come back out unscathed?” The weight you give in this piece to his previous work is well worth the read, and entertaining to boot. I can’t wait for the next review from you of his new effort. Thanks.

  • wondering

    The Ultimate Object = God? Or, Cock?

  • steff

    Stop using fucked up long confusing words..just get to the fucking point…god….u ppl,i was sitting here reading this huge long babbling lecture sounding like u detest againsed the guy,then at the end u like it?
    like seriously…i dont get you!!…ugh your blogs suck the bone!!
    ps:Trent is amazing at what he does,and he if extermely gifted ^.^(see now thats getting to the point, not your blog thinger that is making everyone in it look like complete jack offs…like MANSON!)

    Steff(the one who gets to the point)

  • gonzo marx

    Steff..it seems as if the sequipedalian tendencies of some writes irks you due to what you perceive as a lack of elucidation and clarity

    nonetheless, some find a distinction as well as a rareified sense fo satisfaction from placing persnickity prose in paragraphs

    now..go to fucking dictionary.com and look shit up to add to yer feeble branipan before ya open yer pie-hole, twink…

    Excelsior!

  • http://crazyjaneski.typepad.com Jaime

    Steff, I thought I made it pretty clear in the first paragraph that this article was totally an appreciation of the way Trent Reznor is awesome at what he does.

    Sorry I lost you like that…

  • Sarah

    Hopefully after Steff graduates from junior high school, she will like be able to like comprehend what Jaime is like saying. To me, it didn’t seem like Jaime was “sounding like [she] detest againsed the guy” when she spoke of Trent Reznor, but was wondering why she was so fascinated with his music and lyrics.

    Steph, if you think this is a “huge long babbling lecture,” wait until you get to college (of course, I’m not holding my breath for that).

    Sorry, I just have a low tolerance for ppl who cant spell or use punktuation an right in all lowercase and fucking use “fucking” all the fucking time cuz they cant find another fucking word in theyre vocabularry, so I guess I shouldn’t spend that much time on the internet, right?

    Anyway, in response to Jaime’s post, I thought it was very interesting to read a review of this album from her perspective rather than the same-old “it wuz a dark heavy depressing CD that wuz really kool an made me want to slit my rists to feel trents pain” perspective. I’m curious to hear what you think about “With Teeth,” so I’ll head over to read your post that I just found on that.

  • Rachel

    I agree with u Steff. I thought your comment was very honest, trent reznor is amazing at what he does.