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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Nine Inch Nails -- The Downward Spiral

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I remember it very clearly: the members of my youth group not currently on stage are all bunched around me on the back row of our Titian Avenue church. Those who are on stage are putting on a purposefully silly drama about the ill-effects of popular music on teenagers. One guy has tied his hair into Coolio braids. I'm not exactly sure what Coolio did to receive my youth group's ire, but everyone is getting a good laugh out of this kid's wacky hair. However, when the drama ends, things get a bit more dire. The kid with the Coolio braids' mom comes up on stage with a box of CD's.
If you grew up in a church when CD's were the main form of musical delivery, you know what is coming: it's time for an old-fashioned CD breaking.
As an ardent fan of "secular" music, I can only think of one occasion where I intentionally broke a plastic disc containing it, and I just ended up purchasing that album again a few months later. I am my usual defiant self at this church meeting, and none of the CD's in the box are mine. Truthfully, I don't even have a CD player by this point in history.
The Angry Church Mom pulls out a few choice albums from the box and pontificates on each. Suddenly, she is waiving Nine Inch Nail's The Downward Spiral in the air.
The Downward Spiral is Nine Inch Nail's breakout album. Unless you were stuck on Milli Vanilli in the early 90's, or not born yet, you've probably heard of it. I had because I saw the video for "Closer" on MTV and laughed hysterically when I realized what the censors were bleeping out of the chorus. To put that story in the past tense, I giggled thinking about it when Angry Church Mom held The Downward Spiral in the air, secretly hoping she would quote the lyrics for shock value. She didn't (truthfully, she is a pretty nice lady), but she did comment on the name of the band, asking the audience what other nails we could think of that were nine inches long. This comment was rather shocking, as I always assumed Trent Reznor was a fan of alliteration, and had not named his band after the implements used to hang our Lord and Savior from the cross.
It turns out my assumption was closer to the truth...Reznor just chose the name because he liked the way it abbreviated.
But still...The Downward Spiral is not an appropriate listen for a 12-year old kid. I'm coming up on the age that Angry Church Mom was when she went on her tirade. I haven't attended the church where the Angry Church Mom tirade was given in quite some time.
I still attend church, though. Like Stephen Colbert, I even teach Sunday-school. It's hard to think of someone from my generation getting up in front of a crowd of parents and teenagers, and telling them what they should or should not listen to. If such a person does currently exist, it is unlikely that that person would even comprehend Nine Inch Nail's The Downward Spiral.  A 12 year-old will most likely be unable to understand it, as well.
A teenaged Dylan Klebold most likely wasn't able to understand The Downward Spiral, either. I've spilled enough bytes on this blog talking about Columbine. I even wrote an editorial in my school paper after it happened (It was titled "Blaming Mario Is Not the Answer"). That editorial said the same thing I believe now: video games, movies, and music can't be blamed for what happened. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were already extremely messed up individuals. When Klebold's extremely depressive nature met Harris' total sociopathy, it was all over with. Klebold might quote lyrics from The Downward Spiral in his journals, but it's clear that he doesn't understand what he is talking about. He could have latched onto any available words, and given them whatever meaning he wanted. More than four million people purchased The Downward Spiral. Only one participated in a mass shooting (though sadly, as there have been so many mass-shootings since Columbine, the law of averages almost certainly proves that sentence false...and by that logic, I'm sure plenty of those mass-shooters also listened to Beyoncé). Did listening to Nine Inch Nails push Klebold further down his path? How do you push someone when they are already gone?
I could talk about The Downward Spiral itself now, but let's talk about me and let's talk about nihilism.
Nihilism is a system of belief which asserts that life is without meaning or purpose. I am simplifying for brevity's sake, but I don't think one could distill the philosophy much more efficiently.
Unfortunately, maybe more when I was younger, I've felt a tug toward nihilism. It always feels great to respond to people getting worked up about something by leaning back and saying, "Who cares. It doesn't mean anything anyway." In high school, a friend of mine had a shirt that pictured one kid asking another "What's cool?" "Nothing's cool, man," responds the other. I was really, really jealous of that shirt.
I think I probably get this bleakness from my father.He's done a huge 180 in the last 15 years, and transformed into one of the more optimistic and encouraging people I know, but when he was in his late 30's and early 40's, he was less a glass half-full guy, and more a "the glass will just end up empty, anyway" one. At that time, he was famous for sighing and muttering the phrase, "Life sucks, then you die."
I always found that perspective to be very seductive. I never minded tossing out a discouraging comment to someone who was riding high.
More darkly, several years before Columbine (I was born the same years as the killers), a friend of mine asserted that he had found dynamite in his grandfather's storage shed. When he suggested that he might set some off at a school dance to punish all the people he felt marginalized by, I encouraged him. I mean, I didn't think he would really go through with it, but still... Thankfully, he didn't.
So anyway, for whatever reason, it has always been easier for me to imagine the universe as a bleak and hopeless place without meaning. I guess you can say that for me, nihilism comes naturally. With all that said, The Downward Spiral is one of the strongest arguments against nihilism I have ever heard.
The album follows a protagonist who spits at and casts himself away from all institutions, humanity, and belief. In the end he ends up full of regret, puts a gun to his head, and ends it all. The Downward Spiral does not present this as a desirable outcome.
Thus, in the proper context, the chorus of the third track, "Heresy," takes on a different meaning. "God is dead and no one cares/if there is a hell, I'll see you there," feels great in an arrogant mouth,  much less so when it's sharing it with a shotgun. A mature person, even a staunch atheist, can make this distinction. However, I'm not so sure a 12 year-old can. I'm pretty sure Dylan Klebold couldn't.
I think it's pretty obvious now (and maybe even then) that a young Trent Reznor worked out a lot of his mental issues through music. He's been pretty clear that his protagonists are usually just stand-ins for himself. That 12-year old kid in 1994 probably couldn't have predicted that 19 years later, Reznor would be singing "I'm just trying to find my way/oh dear Lord, hear my prayer." If you survive, you generally grow out of the anger...
and speaking of the Lord, I think a lot of 90's Christian artists could hear the value in Reznor's music. Audio Adrenaline's "Some Kind of Zombie" is certainly informed by The Downward Spiral's "Mr. Self Destruct." Little distinguishes Mark Stuart's "I hear you speak and I obey," from Reznor's "I take you where you want to go." Have you heard Skillet's second, third, and fourth albums (ed. note--I love those albums).
I'm quite sure plenty of folks didn't pay any attention to the lyrics anyway. The music is so good, and so original, I think many people focused on that aspect. Flailing music journalists threw NIN into the "Industrial" category, but The Downward Spiral doesn't lean heavily on synths, and Reznor crafts plenty of its soundscapes out of organic noises...bees, moans, natural percussion. There are so many sounds here, it's almost unbelievable. There's a harshness, easily represented by The Downward Spiral character's chaos, in over-driven guitars, Reznor's violent snarls, but there's also a sense of calm that the central character seems to be seeking, represented by islands of quiet, pools of ambiance.
My personal favorite element is the "Downward Spiral" motif Reznor creates, backing the chorus of "Heresy" (how ironic), peeking in gently at the end of "Closer," and then fully expressing itself in the penultimate title track. This descending series of notes, whether by Reznor's conscious or subconscious intention, backs the protagonist's early mockery of faith and his later suicide. Again, this is musical depth a 12-year old might not pick up upon.
And now, finally, I reveal why I keep picking on poor, hapless 12-year olds. At the time of this album's release, and in the story I started this review with, I was 12. In 1994, I did not understand The Downward Spiral on a musical level. It took me five years to breakthrough to an understanding of what Reznor was actually doing, nevermind the lyrics. If the music just sounded like noise, why bother?
But what if I had understood the music? What kind of connection would I have then made with the lyrics? When I was old enough to get the music, the lyrical themes of the album made complete sense to me. I had a suspicion that following my darker thoughts to their logical conclusion would not be worth it...and nobody knows how close I came to doing that. Listening to this early 20's angst-ridden Reznor actually helped me to focus on more positive be optimistic. I could better understand the futility of focusing on my own bleaker impulses...but not everyone hears this album that way.
So what should we do then? Put parental-advisory stickers on works of art that might give impressionable minds the wrong one? How does that even work now that teenagers no longer buy things that grown-ups can put stickers on? Should we refuse to sell it to them at all? Try to make the artist feel bad?
There's a great quote from a Rolling Stone Reznor interview that some helpful soul linked on Wikipedia. It involves one of the many controversies around The Downward Spiral: the location of its recording. A young, and frankly foolish Reznor rented the house that the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate in, and built a studio in it to record this very album. He thought it would be a cool and interesting place to record, but in this  interview with Rolling Stone, he admits:

While I was working on [The] Downward Spiral, I was living in the house where Sharon Tate was killed. Then one day I met her sister [Patti Tate]. It was a random thing, just a brief encounter. And she said: 'Are you exploiting my sister's death by living in her house?' For the first time, the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face. I said, 'No, it's just sort of my own interest in American folklore. I'm in this place where a weird part of history occurred.' I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don't want to support. When she was talking to me, I realized for the first time, 'What if it was my sister?' I thought, 'Fuck Charlie Manson.' I went home and cried that night. It made me see there's another side to things, you know?

1994 Nothing/Interscope
1. Mr. Self Destruct 4:30
2. Piggy 4:24
3. Heresy 3:54
4. March of the Pigs 2:58
5. Closer 6:13
6. Ruiner 4:58
7. The Becoming 5:31
8. I Do Not Want This 5:41
9. Big Man with a Gun 1:36
10. A Warm Place 3:22
11. Eraser 4:54
12. Reptile 6:51
13. The Downward Spiral 3:57
14. Hurt 6:13

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