The bulk of work by Trent Reznor under the heading of ‘Nine Inch Nails,’ according to my very current whimsy, is the kind of music that speaks to an irreconcilable relationship between an individual and the greater social world. Between angst, disgust and rage at the sheer naked use of power by ‘pigs’ great and small; to the hypocrisy inherent in moral codes used and abused by the institutions that foster them; in that great disjunct between the way it seems things ought to be and the way they actually are – the music screams in pain and then laughs in bitter sardonic irony.
The night of October 3rd, 2013, I had the pleasure to catch the spectacle live at the Montreal Bell centre. Nine Inch Nails raged at the whole mess of it all.
The music brings to bare not just the pain of these contradictions but the very socialization process – the arbitrary disciplinary institutions that regulate our behaviour in schools, churches and even – perhaps especially – at home. Like the repetitive Orwellian boot-stomp thud that starts the song titled “Mr. Self-Destruct,” the music not only identifies and criticizes these injustices but takes a very form that embodies them. The internalization of the master’s scheme of norms – for instance, on the same 1984 vein, Winston voluntarily accepting death and loving Big Brother – (not to mention a whole variety of other works that illustrate the terrifyingly effective ways in which human institutions can force their subjects to not only adhere to behavioural regulation, but accept, internalize and proselytize it to others) comes again with another NIN classic “Head like a Hole” – to a veteran fan of this music this reference may seems old hat, but hey, it’s a classic, so shut up.
Head like a Hole
Black as your soul
I’d rather die
Than give you Control
Bow down before the one you serve
You’re going to get what you deserve.
The bloody genius of this song is that last line that speaks to that essential disciplinary phenomenon of a broken will. During the concert, as par usual for every tour, the final cadence had Trent raising both arms in mock deference and bowing down before the crowd. The singer no longer writhes against the imposition of authority, but accepts it, and not only acts accordingly, but thinks accordingly – this is “deserved.” It’s not enough that I bow to you, but I must believe that it is right that I do so. It speaks of that second layer of manipulation where the disciplinary institution does not stop at the mere acquiescence, or compliance, in the actions of the subject, but must go further to make the subject actually believe and internalize the norms within; they must think that they deserve whatever punishment is applied to them. Deep and scary. Alternately, I think it is a bit shallow to merely see the last line as some kind of vendetta claim (ie. you’ll get yours!) – the bulk of the other lyrics in the song, and in others (“I am your whore” in his classic, “Starfuckers Inc.” for example) make it pretty clear to me that Reznor needs to say something about complete submission; and in HLAH is pointing much more along the lines of obedient internalization in his mind when writing in this tone.
God, money, I’ll do anything for you.
God, money, just tell me what you want me to.
God, money, let’s go dancing on the backs of the bruised.
God, money, I’m not one to choose.
Bow down before the one you serve
You’re going to get what you deserve.
The second part I love with this song is the implication of the first two lines in the chorus. Generation to generation, the discipline enforced by parents to children, teachers to students, priest to churchgoer, all create patterns of behaviour and expectations of compliance that by repetition and simply habit can escape the acknowledgement or reasonable understanding of even the very actor perpetrating the annihilating discipline on the subject. It’s not only so bad that the will of the lesser must be broken, but the intelligence, the moral consideration, of the authority might not even be capable of recognizing what they are actually doing to the other.
Power is empty of the perspective that might look beyond the views and expectations that demand they enforce discipline. The soul is black, or perhaps the heart is black, because like any rat, or obedient servant, or anyone else overly accustomed to being validated by disciplinary forms, the only way of verifying that something is right is with approval rather than reflection. Like the older sibling that likes to chastise the younger, the same way they are chastised by their parents – the self-worth of the authority is found only in perpetrating the same control and objectification that moulded them. The soul is black because they can’t think outside the frame – their heart has not been filled with anything other than the rewards of obedience, and they go on perpetrating the same exercise on others – blind to the possibility of anything worthwhile outside their comfort zone. Sometimes a diversity of experience, can illuminate these invisible cues and strings – for others enough repetition just buries them deeper.
I listened to the words he said but in his voice I heard decay
A plastic face forced to portray
All the insides turned cold and grey
There is a place that still remains
It eats the fear, it eats the pain
The sweetest price you’ll have to pay
The day the whole world went away.
This kind of transposed interpersonal manipulation is a social problem that will probably never go away – how can humanity authorize, legislate or educate away the very force that allows the spread of these ideas in the first place? What is the cure for weak and controlling wills, when they constantly pop up everywhere like a variation on genetic defects?
It’s pervasive and inherent in any society with social interaction that one should set norms and others follow. Often the very notion that we can subvert them is packaged in a form that carries with it its own regulative structure.
While we often speak of the value of critical thought in education, I truly wonder how critical it really is. When evaluation consists in frequently regurgitating the same material onto the page, or rehearsing a scripted and acceptable form of ‘critically reflective’ essay, we tell students we are giving them independent thought when really we just narrow their minds to believe it only takes this form.
In a class of hundreds, there are no rewards for independent thought, just rewards for towing the line fed to you in lectures, and then delivered in point form to the grad students who will mark you on your repetition. To be ‘argumentative and reflective’ is just a rehearsed pantomime, fed to them from their first lesson, to be imitated in tone, speech and voice, and at this level never truly questioned, but only judged by comparison with others peforming the same tricks.
You keep looking but you can’t find the woods
While you’re hiding in the trees.
The empty-minded parrot of authority is a common theme in Reznor’s work, from this initial huge hit to even more recent songs like “Bite the Hand that Feeds,” he continues to push at the regulatory boundaries that describe and encapsulate modern life in many forms – family, church, office, school, you name it. Each album (well, honestly the first three or four – Pretty Hate Machine, Downward Spiral, The Fragile, With Teeth…) exists in this no-mans social zone – alienated from the hypocrisy of socialization itself – a limbo between isolation and a conceptual prison.
See the animal in the cage that you built
Are you sure which side you’re on?
Better not look him too closely in the eye.
Are you sure which side of the glass you are on?
…and then somewhere in the middle of each fever-pitch album boiling with the industrial beats, frothing with bubbles of social agony, Trent Reznor gives us the eye of storm – some calm, tranquil peace where one can’t help but imagine the emptiness and longing that comes in tandem with such disenchanting thoughts. So many of these songs of his, “A quiet place,” “the great below,” “right where it belongs,” and of course “Hurt,” come at points where it seems at the rage has been exhausted, with only the socially-alienated subject’s isolated vulnerability remaining and staring into the void. Emotional solitude, sensitivity, the great sensitivity that comes with loneliness, the invisible witness to all that is and all that could have been… I can’t help but think it echoes in everyone’s heart at some point with the passage of time, how they have all gone through various relationships, friendships, seen all moments rise and fall, and like the layers of life under turbulent waves they stare back at the murky depths and feel a bit confused and empty… victim to forces beyond their understanding.
“What does it all come to?” We seem dropped in a world that lacks any such final resolution. We spin about madly filling our immediate and not so immediate desires, talking, teaching, laughing – without any coherent picture about where it really goes, except back to more of the same.
If you look at your reflection,
Is that all you want to be?
What if you could look right through the cracks?
Would you find yourself… find yourself afraid to see?
Like an isolated tantrum, these albums pause at some point, and for some reason or another, end up waiting and pondering, taking a deeply-inward-looking moment. Having extricated all attachment to a hypocritical, unjust and brutally painful society, we are now left attending on something we could not explain, like some unknown force pulling itself onto the mind through the night, maybe the hope of someone else sharing the same thoughts – the secret network of NIN fans! Many of these songs speak of some lost destiny or fellow creature that was lost but can still be felt (Great Below). Either way, through all the darkness of these albums, these touching pieces emerge like the first light of dawn. It reminds me of a commentary in the “Global Metal” documentary on Japanese metal bands – like X Japan -that have albums alternating between full-on rage and then sweet piano ballads. So from all this can we conclude thatTrent must be big in Japan? Most definitely!