Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pretty Hate Machine: Happiness in Suffering

This is a piece I did as a writing sample for school. Let me know what you think.

Trent Reznor, frontman and creative arbiter of industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails, has always been something of an enigma as a musical artist. While his roots lay in the burgeoning synth-pop movement of the 1980’s, Reznor’s development as a musician and composer are somewhat abstract, owing largely to the stark originality of his creative catalogue. By the early 90’s, Reznor had established himself as the father of industrial music, spawning a variety of well-intentioned imitators that never managed to replicate his commercial and artistic success. Strangely, though, this fame seems largely to have been retroactively attributed to Reznor’s early work; at the time of his 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine, the majority of critics either ignored or deemed the album mediocre at best. Despite this fact, Reznor has become recognized as one of the best composers, producers, and performers of electronic music in the world, though a great deal of his material employs traditional instruments.

Likewise, Pretty Hate Machine has developed as one of the markers of change in the popular music of the 1990’s, partially because of the excellence of its composition, but also because of the intense originality and striking honesty of its lyrical content. Instrumentally, the album relies heavily on synthesizers and electronic percussion, making sparing use of electric guitars as backing textures. Famously, Reznor recorded the album during a stint as janitor at a Cleveland studio, working exclusively by himself through the entire album. Reznor’s solitary nature at this time is apparent in the music; moreover, his intense loneliness serves as the album’s primary source of power. Drawing from this, Reznor finds time in the album’s relatively sparse ten songs to explore love, faith, addiction, and every possible response to each. Though his lyrics have an undeniable tendency towards the dramatic, Reznor’s musical and vocal skill never leave his words feeling anything short of entirely genuine.

Most striking about the music Pretty Hate Machine is the strange juxtaposition that Reznor creates from the very first beat. “Head Like a Hole,” the album’s classic opener, features an infectious dance club beat under Reznor’s frustrated growls against some nameless controller. This musical contrast continues throughout the album, and it partially explains why Pretty Hate Machine has garnered so much cult success since its release. More interesting, however, is the voice that rides the ever-present beat. Reznor’s always dramatic, often tortured voice lends to the music a presence that is inconsolably alienated, yet deeply human. This is a trend that is evident through the caustic rage of 1992’s Broken EP and refined to musical and lyrical perfection in 1994’s masterpiece The Downward Spiral, though neither album did so with the shocking originality of Pretty Hate Machine.

Beyond the melodrama of Reznor’s words, the most dominant trait of Pretty Hate Machine is the apparently solitary theme of every song. Tackling serious subjects like religion and addiction is no meager task for any songwriter, and Reznor’s strict focus on the individual makes them seem altogether inaccessible. However, the initially terrifying intimacy of his words betrays their unique beauty. Paradoxically, Reznor’s lyrics here are so intensely personal that they become undeniably universal. Consider the agonized confession of “Terrible Lie”: “Seems like salvation comes only in our dreams/ I feel my hatred grow all the more extreme/ Can this world really be as sad as it seems?” Here, Reznor’s religious torment, though based in personal questions, reflects the rejection of spiritual faith in an increasingly secular society striving to maintain religious influence. Likewise, when Reznor states in “Kinda I Want To,” “I know it’s not the right thing…but kinda I want to,” his rejection of sexual repression echoes a society in which youth were previously taught to ignore their sexuality entirely. More broadly, Reznor’s talent of humanizing the unrelatable translated into an album of uncompromising social power, establishing Pretty Hate Machine as the harbinger of a generational attitude that was reflected in all art forms throughout the 1990’s.

At first glance, the timing of Pretty Hate Machine’s release has as much to do with its relevance as does its content. Debuted at the end of 1989, the album has the unique position of being one of the last major works to arrive on the popular music scene before the decade changed. However, to state that the album’s release date is responsible for its importance would be to shortchange its quality. Specifically, Pretty Hate Machine’s themes seem both to mirror and to predict the angst and social disconnect discussed by more commercially popular bands like Nirvana. However, aside from some basic thematic similarities, the Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails strove to illuminate vastly different subjects. Where grunge explored boredom and apathy, Trent Reznor depicted a deep-seated personal disease that directly affected 90’s youth as a whole. In essence, Reznor cried the pain of a generation without a meaningful cause or sense of unity, one that did not fit the mold constructed by the social powers of its time. By picturing himself as an outcast, Reznor created through Nine Inch Nails a sense of common struggle in which the archetypal pariah became intimately human. Likewise, more than any other artwork of its time, Pretty Hate Machine and the deliberate honesty of its lyrics preserve the vulnerability of isolated youth while speaking to the common repression, fear, and religious anxiety of an entire generation.

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