I don’t know why I want to do these things, other than my desire to escape from Small Town, U.S.A., to dismiss the boundaries, to explore. It isn’t a bad place where I grew up, but there was nothing going on but the cornfields. My life experience came from watching movies, watching TV and reading books and looking at magazines. And when your culture comes from watching TV every day, you’re bombarded with images of things that seem cool, places that seem interesting, [and] people who have jobs and careers and opportunities. None of that happened where I was. You’re almost taught to realize it’s not for you. — Trent Reznor
One of a handful of musicians I followed for years and have studied in great detail is the industrial rock band, Nine Inch Nails. Founded, developed, and organized by Trent Reznor as a one-man show for most of its existence (Atticus Ross joined as an official member in 2016), Nine Inch Nails (NIN) represents the lone mainstream example of its subgenre; the band is an intricate yet pulpy mass of synthesized and analog elements, its hard rock power chords and electric guitar riffs as tenacious as its electronic instrumentals are groovy and creepy. The band’s style combines so many aesthetics that each album or extended play (EP), from Pretty Hate Machine (1989) to Broken (1992) to The Downward Spiral (1994) to With Teeth (2005) and beyond, has multiple tracks to which you can rock out, work out, dance, or slash your wrists.
That description of NIN’s sheer range may sound both hyperbolic and melodramatic, but it’s true. NIN’s work, like that of many angst-ridden musicians, became the aggressive, rebellious anthems of countless adolescents throughout the 1990s and 2000s, but unlike similar alternative rock artists such as Three Days Grace, Linkin Park, Green Day, My Chemical Romance, Avenged Sevenfold, Thirty Seconds to Mars, et al., they were difficult, though not impossible, to parody. Even the band’s most controversial and extravagant project, The Fragile (1999), contains more variety and catchy tracks than most bands’ entire discographies. Reznor’s songwriting and multi-instrumentalism have made him a true musical jack-of-all-trades, as well as a master of several genres, able to produce music for both electronica fans and hardcore rock ‘n roll enthusiasts; these diverse talents have also extended to Reznor’s film scoring, winning him an Oscar for The Social Network’s (2010) soundtrack before writing the music to David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Gone Girl (2014), and HBO’s Watchmen (2019), among others.
I started following NIN in high school thanks to the diverse tastes of my peer group, and soon wallowed in their music when I hit rock bottom in college. What appealed most to me about NIN’s versatile sound, whether the songs were aggressive, groovy, creepy, catchy, or all of the above — and I suspect what appeals most to many of their fans — was how difficult it was for others to make fun of us for listening to them. NIN’s violent, depressing music touched upon so many popular musical genres that few could extensively criticize their albums without being self-deprecating. With the nonstop recycling of prior decades’ work in popular culture, NIN sounds as contemporary as they ever have (see 1980s synth movements), yet their sheer diversity of style allows their discography’s angst-ridden lyrics room to breathe. I’m a fan of Linkin Park (rest in peace, Chester Bennington, you miserable bastard), but it’s straightforward to satirize them and their melodramatic screaming, like many of their aforementioned new millennium counterparts. It’s far more complicated to lampoon NIN since their cumulative aesthetic is so damned creepy and unsettling, like making fun of David Fincher’s Se7en (1995).
That was the core appeal of NIN for me: Their use of multi-genre songwriting to glorify, for lack of a better word, depression and suicidality. Trent Reznor by no means has a monopoly on angry, malcontent rock ‘n roll, but for my part, wrapping myself in their disturbing lyrics, infectious beats, and violent guitar riffs made me feel powerful despite feeling unhappy for so long. I may have wanted to kill myself for several years (five, to be exact), but the NIN discography was the best musical remedy for that suicidality. The music spoke to feelings I could not, and better yet, that music was good enough that others couldn’t poke fun at me for drowning in it. They could be creeped out by my obsession with them, disturbed even, but as any depressed person will attest, one will accept repelling or even threatening others before becoming a subject of their mockery.
That phase of my life is long dead, as I’ve noted in other essays. For a time, so did my following of NIN. Half a decade (~2015-2019) passed with barely a nod from me to Reznor’s angry vocals or Ross’ catchy electronic hooks, and I feel that was for the best. Then, over this most recent New Year’s holiday, I revisited my NIN library for reasons unknown. I remain about as healthy and content as I’ve ever been, with little to no need for the angry NIN classics of “Head Like a Hole,” “Closer,” “Discipline,” “Into the Void,” or “Only.” And yet, those songs and others still resonate with me because they’re damned good music. You don’t need to be depressed to appreciate their music, just like Reznor himself doesn’t need to be emotionally compromised (he’s happily married and has five kids) to write good music (he released his 9th studio album, Bad Witch, in 2018).
I think that’s the moral of the story, here — we don’t need to be miserable to be our most interesting, creative selves. Though my current mindset is, to a certain extent, a function of the lessons I learned while a depressed, anxiety ridden, hardcore NIN fan, my newfound happiness allows me to have the most fun I’ve ever had rocking out to that same, weird, depressing, scary music. Listening to music you relied on during unhappier times of your life only illustrates how much progress you’ve made. Thanks to revisiting my favorite band after all these years, I now fully appreciate how there is no longer a “depressed me” or a “suicidal me” or a “downtrodden me” — there is only me.