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March 1992

Arriving three years late to the Nine Inch Nails party -- with a lot of questions

There are many people — in fact, you may be one of them — who devote much of their daily energy toward hearing about things first, even if those specific things don’t particularly matter. This has been exacerbated by technology; the degree to which a rock song is new has become nearly as important as how interesting it sounds, even though there’s no inherent advantage to hearing a song today as opposed to five weeks from now (when it will still sound exactly the same). I sometimes think it would be to my benefit if I never listened to any album until two years have passed since its release date. I suspect I would avoid a lot of crap whose only value is that most people haven’t heard it (yet). As such, I was confused by the people who, in March 1992, kept telling me how they’d been listening to Nine Inch Nails since 1989. March ’92 was when Trent Reznor got his first cover of Spin, with a headline touting the industrial revolution, a movement Mr. Reznor was said to be leading. Many, many readers (at least at my college) responded to this coverage by insisting that the story was irrelevant and that all the geniuses who attended Lollapalooza the previous summer had already been “stoked” about industrial crap, while everyone else was still slavishly devoted to Extreme and C+C Music Factory. And perhaps these geniuses had a point; perhaps when I am dying from colon cancer at the age of 64, my chief concern will be those lost years when I could have been listening to Pretty Hate Machine. We all live with regret.

Reznor still has enough dap to get his jowls on the cover of Spin — his mug was on last year’s May issue, and he hasn’t aged much since 1992 (it appears that sitting inside a New Orleans dungeon and hating yourself does wonders for one’s complexion). Back in ’92, I had numerous questions about Reznor:

-Is this person suicidal? -Why is this dude trying to make me think he’s gay? -If you’re a solo artist, why would you pretend you’re actually a full band? (This issue continues to elude me.) -Is the name Nine Inch Nails a reference to the spikes used to crucify Jesus? -Is Reznor saying that all his fingernails are nine inches long (like Freddy Krueger), or that he has nine nails that are each one inch in length (like Olympic sprinter FloJo)? -Are these lyrics supposed to be funny?

Sadly, none of these talking points are addressed in the original article. The story is mostly about the genre of industrial music and Reznor’s role at the scene’s vanguard. Nine Inch Nails were the best and most popular industrial band of all time; as a consequence, industrial purists usually assert that Nine Inch Nails aren’t an industrial band at all (this is a counterintuitive phenomenon that tends to occur with purists from all subcultures, musical or otherwise). Reznor even implies this himself: “For every band that I think has something to say, there’s twice as many that have realized the formula for industrial music: repetitive 16th-note bass lines, snarling vocals — usually unintelligible screaming about the horrible condition of the planet….Front Line Assembly is a textbook case — just monotonous, boring, uninspired bullshit. And they’re far more traditional and far more exemplary of ‘industrial’ than NIN is.”

This cogent remark raises two more questions:

-When Reznor delivered this quote, did he really say “NIN”? Because that’s actually harder to say than “Nine Inch Nails.” -What made his band different? Because, somehow, it was.

The answer probably has to do with a flawed hypothesis that was presented in the story’s fourth paragraph: The writer wonders if industrial music is becoming “the new heavy metal.” This, of course, is completely crazy; the only relationship industrial music has to metal is that they both sound better at high volumes. Kids who liked metal were the most skeptical of industrial music, because metal people (a) hate synthesizers and (b) will even hate guitars, if those guitars don’t sound like guitars. The reason NIN succeeded is because they didn’t cater to metalheads at all; NIN were for people who hated that shit. And that was a big audience. I realize some people probably figured this out in 1989. Well, bully for them.

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