Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Immortals #94 - Nine Inch Nails

Nine Inch Nails are the most popular "industrial rock" band of all time. So yeah, Trent Reznor got famous, but just technically.

No era of popular music was ever as accepting of naked emotional release as the 1990s, but as the grunge boom snowballed out of control, we lost our sense for deciding quality from insistence, meaning any two-bit lump could and would be signed to a multi-record deal worth many major label millions for our eagerness to confuse earnestness with talent. This would be taken to even further extremes (bordering on the grotesque and/or humorous) in the early 2000s with nu-metal and emo ascendant, but in 1994, that shit was juuust about to ripen. And so, after a modestly successful (but only cautiously embraced) also-ran debut called Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nails was ready set the new curve.

The resulting album, The Downward Spiral, feels pretty transparently like exactly the record Steve Albini and Brian Eno's hyperneurotic trust fund kid would make. And not really in a cool way, but I fully get how it would have been taken that way 15 years ago.

In hindsight, I think the most compelling thing about the album today- like so much about the alternative/industrial genres- are its peripheral associations. No matter how schlocky Mark Romanek's video for "Closer" seems in a post-Saw-franchise-society, the truth is it's actually every bit as vital as the song for most of us, and probably more. Johnny Cash had a knack for stealing the songs he covered by virtue of the indelible, unmistakable mark he left on the source material, but I think we can all tell that he had an easier time of it elevating album-closer "Hurt" by virtue of the patina of superficiality it carries when eventually filed away in the Reznor oeuvre. I mean, Bowie himself wrote the damned piece in the original "Immortals" issue of RS, and for a while there in my thought proccess that alone seemed as interesting thing to write about as anything else related to The Downward Spiral.

And it was. And that's why I just said that. Yet Michael Trent Reznor remains a semi-famous, sort-of rock star... and a damned millionaire to boot! Does that dredge up any of the anger we were supposedly feeling and embracing in the 90s? Not really.

What were we talking about again?


Steven said...

How much of our fuzzy feelings towards Reznor come from his crazy fan-friendly approach to his business? It's like he's single-handedly waging a war on copyright law. And winning.

Reznor may not be the revolutionary musician we thought he was, but he's certainly a shrewd (visionary?) businessman cum artist.

Brendan K said...

Dunno that I really have fuzzy feeling for Trent Reznor, but that's largely because I obviously don't take much from his music. That said, I definitely have a theory on internet-friendly artists releasing their own work- I don't think it makes fans like you more.

I guess NIN wouldn't necessarily HAVE to have become more popular since making the move from major label hype, but wouldn't he have at least been demanding more of our attention (if not dollars?) That's a roundabout way of saying that the media machine tied to major labels gave us what we wanted when we were impressionable kids: a big, famous rock star. Working independent of that might be a more efficient business model overall, but I suspect it's also a coping mechanism to maintain a profit from a smaller margin of overall audience.

Hava said...