Saturday, July 18, 2015

33 1/3: Daphne Carr, "Pretty Hate Machine"

This was easily my favourite of the handful of books in the 33 1/3 that I've read.  Much like a number of recent books in the series, it's ostensibly about the titular album although it contains almost no information about the making of the album and no new interviews from any of the principals involved.  It's about Trent Reznor's role in shaping 90's alternative and mall culture, why his fans are driven to obsession over his music and lyrics, and the Rust Belt towns that serve both as a backdrop to Reznor's upbringing and to characterize the frustration and despair felt by so many of the people who grew up with his music.  It was a difficult book to put down, although I frequently had to in order to revisit my own memories or look up further information about the decline of the once mighty northern US manufacturing sector.

Most of the book consists of testimonials with NIN fans, assembled via a series of interviews with people Carr encountered on message boards and friends of friends who still live near to where she grew up in Ohio.  The oral history genre is in good hands as long as Carr is holding the reigns.  She collected a motley crew of nobodies with fascinating stories to tell, all of them.  Each of them live in the Mercer to Cleveland corridor where Reznor grew up and got his start.  She features people from broken homes, lapsed fans, young professionals, dreamers who still hope of escaping their dreary communities, and those who have given up and have accepted the reality of spending the rest of their lives in unglamorous small town Ohio.

Their stories elicit sympathy, pride, and pity, sometimes all at once.  There are bad endings and happy endings.  But their transcend class structure and international boundaries -- their voices are familiar to any formerly teenage NIN fan.  I'm not used to reading about NIN in the same way you'd read about idol worship of 60's and 70's music stars from the generation before mine.  People my age easily bought into the mythology of the Beatles and the Stones, even if you weren't a huge fan, you still got it, you understood why people drank the Kool-Aid.   The spectre of NIN as a hero of the black clad suburban teen of the 90's looms large amongst the kids even further removed from the classic rock era.

I was surprised at the praise heaped on "The Fragile".  Many of the subject didn't start listening to NIN until later in the 90's, they were too young to absorb "Pretty Hate Machine" when it was first released.  They became obsessed during the long layoff between "The Downward Spiral" and "The Fragile", and the latter was the first NIN album they got to experience firsthand.  By the time of "The Fragile", my fandom had run its course, I was sick of the horrible Reznor clones he had inspired and couldn't stand Marilyn Manson or the wave of industrial-rock and horrible nu-metal that had sprung up to carry the torch that Reznor had dropped.  I viewed "The Fragile" as the last straw, an act of misguided indulgence by a millionaire drug addict whose forced anger and rage seemed like a quaint relic of what had once been real feelings expressed by a real person.  Interestingly, many fans who were ten years younger than me saw it as his masterpiece, "The Wall" for the 90's generation.

"Pretty Hate Machine" came along at the perfect time.  Rock stars could still celebrate being rich and famous and untouchable in the 80's.  Duran Duran (who were awesome, this is not a knock on them) would make the most glamorous videos imaginable and people lapped it up throughout the Me decade -- yes, yes, more yachts, more beaches, more beautiful models, what's what we want from our musical heroes, that's how they should behave.  PHM came along at a time when a critical mass of young fans wanted to listen to music that better represented what was happening in their own lives.  For the most part there was no internet, no social media.  We obsessed over NIN by listening to the albums countless times, fandom was spoken about in hushed tones among trusted confidants in high school lest the greater populace accused you of being a disturbed freak.  Reznor was untouchable in a different way because he seemed like one of us, and yet besides the lyrics and the occasional fantastical rumour (did you hear he's recording an album in the Sharon Tate murder house??), information was scarce and a cult of personality developed to fill the void.  Celebrities now are almost too real, they tweet their lives in real time, and appear on countless TV award and reality shows.  Social media has sold people on the illusion of getting closer to their idols than any generation ever had before. It's become cool to tweet bikini body pictures from luxurious beaches and to flaunt one's wealth wherever possible.  Envy subsides at the relatively low price of giving fans a bit more access.  It's cool once again to be a rich music star.

That's what makes the second act of Reznor's career so interesting.  Carr explicitly calls for someone to write a comprehensive biography about his post-2004 body of work multiple times in her book.  He's gone from being a junkie that time forgot (c. 2003, rock had vanished from the top of the pop charts and NIN couldn't have been any less relevant) to having a successful comeback with NIN, a pioneer of marketing music over the internet, an Oscar-winning composer, and a key player for Beats and Apple Music.  He seamlessly became one of the rich, beautiful people and I for one am still not sure how exactly it happened.  

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