I’m not quite sure exactly the moment I fell out of love with Nine Inch Nails, but I’m pretty sure it was around the time when a specific jock whose pox-marked face is burned into my memory punched me in the back of the head for no good reason. When I got up, I realized he was wearing a shirt with the NIN logo on it, and I suddenly realized that the assholes had won.
I’m over all that now (mostly), and I’ve been able to revisit Trent Reznor’s greatest achievement, 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine, and realize that it has been canonized by age and should be treated accordingly.
Daphne Carr thinks the album is a classic — probably even more than I do. She spent two years collecting oral histories for the latest installment of the venerable 33 1/3 series, and in my opinion, has put out the best book of the series.
(Also we should note that Daphne helped edit the Ellen Willis collection I raved about the other day. The fact that she has two books she’s helped work on come out in such a close period of time should speak volumes.)
If you don’t mind me asking, when did you first discover Nine Inch Nails?
I don’t remember entirely, but surely it was “Head Like a Hole.” I remember the day the radio switched formats from Top 40 to alternative. The station was Cleveland’s 107.9 and their new call letters were WENZ. They played R.E.M.’s “The End of the World As We Know It” for a day. Well, maybe it wasn’t a day but they play it for hours at least. It was 1992, the summer between eighth and ninth grade, minor league to big league. That station was dedicated to NIN, and I’m sure I became so within months myself.
I find it really interesting that you spent about two years collecting the oral histories of various NIN fans. When did you come up with the idea to compile them into a 33 1/3 book or was that the plan from the beginning?
The book pitch was to collect oral histories of long-time fans, so that was always part of the project. I was really inspired by the My Music project, which collected everyday fans’ experiences of music, and by Dan Cavicchi’s work on Bruce Springsteen fans. I found the folks from a variety of sources. I flyered NIN concerts, trolled the NIN web boards, and asked my Ohio high school friends. One of the interviewees was a supplier at my mom’s work. He happened to wear an NIN shirt one day and she scooped him up for me. Thanks, mom. I wanted to put a middle section devoted to fan ephemera as well—home made patches, shirts, doodles on folders, collections (one of my interlocutors called his collection “The Shrine”) —but I was already 10k words beyond my limit when the manuscript was done and something had to give.
The people you talk to are all from the Rust Belt, as is Reznor. When you take a look at American industrial music from Big Black, Nine Inch Nails, Wax Trax! Etc. is it fair to say this sort of music could only have come from that region?
Well, I can’t actually say yes or they would take away my post-structuralist anthropologist membership card, which is dear to me, so I have to say that plenty of folks have made sparse, brooding, electronic music with atonal chanting/singing in environments that weren’t the post-industrial Midwest. I think the socio-economic conditions that make industrial (and as I argue in the book, late ‘80s hip hop) so salient to so many people can be found in a lot of different places. Right now the esteemed music scholar Tim Lawrence is writing about “real estate determinism” in the NY downtown avant pop scene of the ‘80s, so perhaps he would be willing to go there with the question.
There is something about PHM that sounds like the region it came from, and a big part of the book was the attachment people from the Rust Belt have/had with PHM and Reznor. What do you think it was about PHM that resonated so much with these people?
My contention in the book is that the lyrics, vocal performance, instruments, and arrangements are pretty well tuned with one another to produce an overwhelming sense of despair, loneliness, abandonment, and isolation. PHM is very much about being in one’s head, trying to sort out either religion or relations or life in general, and not really trusting anyone else to have that discussion with. I think that resonates a lot with suburbanites, and with teenagers in the suburbs especially.
I don’t think NIN is particularly more important for people in the Midwest (indeed, Southern California seems to be the heaviest concentration of fans), but that it means in a certain way for them because many of the fans their come from second or third generation post-white flight, socially isolated suburban lives. Their grandparents worked for and believed in the good life, in progress, and now there they are sitting in some bulldozed cornfield split-level with expectations but few opportunities, disconnected from the city, and wondering why and how it all turned out this way. NIN helped several generations of those kids come to terms with the drastic reduction of their American dream, or the realization that motivations and desires behind that dream were deeply fucked. As for the distinct sonic relationship between NIN and the Midwest, Reznor has a faint but discernable Western PA accent, nasal and flat on the vowels, so that could be part of it.
You obviously have an attachment to NIN if you were willing to write a book about PHM. I’m curious what did you think when he won the Oscar for best score? Happy, bummed, apathetic, or did it just seem like the normal flow of the Trent Reznor story?
Even if I hadn’t written the book I would have been proud. Reznor and Atticus Ross are talented musicians and beat the odds for what is usually a more “traditional” composition field in the awards. Did you see the NY Times talk he did with Jon Pareles? Reznor showed the film’s opening sequence as it was originally scored – for an Elvis Costello song. It was so jerky and high-energy, making the Zuckerberg character into a John Hughes-ish anti-hero. Watching the sequence with their music, I can see how it’s not just good music for Trent/NIN, but good scoring in general. That sequence is disconcerting. It sets the whole tone for the film, showing from the first moment that Zuckerberg is deeply pathological in his selfishness.
Plus, think about it. Now when Trent’s watching the wee one on the playground he make small talk about how he got a Grammy for “fist fuck” and Oscar for Facebook. Way to go, dad!