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Trent Reznor: Brilliant Artiste or Giant Baby?

It’s a tough call

A new interview with Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor over at Vulture has raised a troubling question with frightening implications: Is the alienated, once sexy-angry man who wrote the darkly erotic album Pretty Hate Machine now a joyless curmudgeon who can’t appreciate anything the kids are doing these days, and most certainly is not and will not ever be on Snapchat? Or is the man who penned the darkly acerbic breakthrough masterpiece Downward Spiral simply a brilliant, misunderstood artiste who correctly argues that social media has ruined everything, no one creates pure true art anymore, and the world is full of loser sellouts? Tough call. Let’s go to the text.

Trent Reznor is a 52-year-old brunet who still fronts what is routinely considered one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Yes, it’s been a long time since Downward Spiral came out in 1994, but in the time since, Reznor has put out six other NIN albums, done a number of side projects, and, given that he won an Oscar for the score of The Social Network, also winning at film scoring.

He’s beloved by fans as well as critics, who love his weird, dark, complex abrasive music and rate his latest work, the new EP Add Violence, as some of his best work. Music critic Steve Hyden just described the EP as uncompromising and great, painting Reznor as “the rare rock star who can indulge his arty, esoteric impulses without sacrificing his more populist instincts.”

But uh, get a load of how he spends most of the Vulture interview time whining about how it’s definitely not the ‘90s anymore—splitting the difference between sounding like a highly intelligent if combative maker of good weird dark things and a giant baby who can’t find anything good to say about the way the world has changed.

First, as a brilliant, misunderstood artiste, Reznor explains how immersive music used to be when you had to track it down yourself and spend more time with the fewer records you could get your hands on. He smartly points out that artists should be protected from some degree of compromise in order to make the music they want, not just the music they think will sell (unless making music that sells happens to be what people want).

He admits that as a sensitive artist, it’s hard to be on the internet and told constantly what a piece of shit you are:

Another problem is that it’s too easy to listen to the opinion of the anonymous basement-dweller, and that’s bad for art. Criticism hurts. Hearing someone say that you’re a piece of shit or that the song you’re insecure about sucks is harmful.

And I have a hard time unhearing that stuff, so I really had to learn not pay attention. When I did Pretty Hate Machine, I didn’t think anybody was going to hear it. Then suddenly it was, “Hey, X amount of people bought your record and it’s time to write a new one.” And you’re thinking, I wonder what they liked about that other record I made? What if I want to take a detour into free jazz? How is that going to go over? When you’re not thinking about the audience, you can make more pure art.

That’s a valid point; artists should be free to go off into the woods and make art and be left alone. And they used to, back when bands were developed more by labels and could make a bad record and keep going at it. But things have changed. And Reznor acknowledges that it’s different for artists today, who have to make sacrifices he never did:

The avenues of being able to pay your rent as a musician have changed dramatically. I get it. Do I think it’s bad that a band explores ways to get paid for their music? Ultimately no.

But rather than be sympathetic really, he ends up acting as if the fact that he personally doesn’t have to make those choices means he’s in some rarified artist air he chose, when in fact he was enormously lucky to have benefited from establishing himself in the 1990s, in an era before Napster changed everything:

But I don’t feel governed by it and I don’t feel restricted about whether or not representing myself in a certain way might close down licensing potential with certain key demographics. Thinking about profits and sponsors is not conducive to strong artistic thinking. I don’t know if I’m just older and not seeing it, but I don’t feel like there are a lot of strong stances out there.

Reznor admits he’s not even sure anymore if “there’s an audience out there for what I do.” He also points out that even as he lobbies for more mystery in artists, he’s guilty of overexposing himself, too:

I’ll give you a good counterexample: I appreciate what Radiohead has been doing the last few years. You’re not saturated with stories about them. They’re not in the press constantly talking about stuff. They create an aura that makes you more interested in what they’re doing. That’s a good position to be in versus what I’m doing right now, which I’m sure is ruining people’s impression of me.

Yet in almost every answer he gives, there’s a contradiction and tension. He hates getting all that shitty feedback, yet laments not getting any feedback:

Are you asking if anybody’s noticing what’s happened to the way we consume music or if anybody’s noticing the effort you’re putting into Nine Inch Nails?

I think maybe they’re related. We’ll agonize over the most minute of details, and a lot of times we never receive feedback. It doesn’t feel like people live with music as much as they used to, and that music’s role isn’t quite as important as, say, it was to me.

Elsewhere, there are a lot of entries in the Giant Baby corner, where we have a series of comments that make it sound like however it was when he was listening to music is How it Should Be.

Knowing About Your Favorite Artists Is Bad

Growing up, I didn’t know what Pink Floyd looked like and I didn’t need to know. In my mind, they looked like fucking wizards, man. I remember seeing a picture of Supertramp — and I loved Breakfast in America — and I was like, What the fuck?

Also:

Forget just photos: I didn’t know anything about them. Something in me needed the people making the music I loved to seem larger in life. I needed heroes. David Bowie was a fucking alien, you know? As it happens, he was a fucking alien. I was lucky enough to be friends with him and he was even cooler than I’d thought. But demystification is a real problem. There’ve been people whose music I can’t like anymore because I’ve seen them bitching on Twitter about a waiter like a fucking asshole.

And yet, here is Trent Reznor giving interviews, admitting to knowing a whole lot about David Bowie and still worshipping him, while also demystifying himself and bitching about something.

He Just Doesn’t Understand the Pop Music Today

I’m not saying pop music isn’t well-crafted or the people who make it aren’t wonderful, but it’s not for me. I’ve asked people, “What is it that’s good about Drake?” I’ve said to my friends at Apple: “Explain to me why.” As the old guy, I don’t see it.

He’s Bitter That He Hasn’t Gotten the Credit for His Role With Beats Music

My experience with Beats Music and then at Apple largely was dismissed from outside, maybe justifiably, as here’s another celebrity moron holding up a phone and expecting some sort of credit. That kind of situation, which mine isn’t, would be insulting to the people that actually are doing the important jobs. And I don’t want to hear about “Ashton Kutcher’s a fucking tech genius.” I don’t give a shit about that. He seems like an asshole.

He Got to Be Shocking, But Other People Can’t Pull It Off

Did the 27-year-old me know it would be shocking if we put out a version of that video where there’s a naked penis and performance artist Bob Flanagan gets ground up? Yes, I knew it would be shocking.

But:

One avenue where it seems people are trying to be provocative is by seeing how gratuitously sexy something can be. Take the “Anaconda” video. Is that supposed to be sexy? How about we just have full gynecological probing in a video? There’s a vulgarity to it. I don’t know. Maybe lines are being pushed in that way and I’m just blind to it.

The internet called him on that one, though:

https://twitter.com/carlylewis/status/890270165912473600

He’s Bummed Everyone Is Such a Sell-Out Loser:

Something that’s struck me as a significant shift, and I don’t know when it started, is when the corporate entity became a benefactor as opposed to a thing musicians shunned. When I hear Grizzly Bear in a Volkswagen commercial, it kind of bums me out. I like Grizzly Bear a lot; I don’t want to think of a fucking car when I hear their song. But somewhere along the line it became okay to get in bed with a sponsor. More specifically it became okay for rock bands to talk about. When I started to hear musicians talking about their sponsorship deals as something to be almost proud of, it bothered me. I remember having a conversation with a well-known EDM artist. Half of the brief conversation was him humblebragging about how many corporate sponsors he’s got: I can’t do this thing because I don’t want to piss that sponsor off and I can’t do that thing because I need to make sure this other sponsorship deal stays in place. That’s not what the spirit of being a musician or a rock star is. Why are these people even making music? I’m doing it because I have to get something out and I feel vital when it resonates with someone else. When I can get paid, too, that’s a nice consequence.

Over at Slate, Franz Nicolay astutely notes that Reznor’s comments sound naïve in a world where licensing and selling out are now literally the baseline requirements for making it in a post-Napster world.

He Dodges Questions About Whether Fans Are as Passionate Now

Don’t you think a Lorde fan is just as passionate about her as you were about David Bowie and Pink Floyd? I never quite understand why older music fans assume younger ones are less emotionally engaged with the music they love.

I fully get that. I don’t want to sound like I’m a Luddite clinging to the good ol’ days when life made more sense. I try to put myself in the shoes of someone consuming things in new ways. But in the pre-internet caveman world that I grew up in, the album was an escape, and you read things into that cover artwork. Music became the canvas I could project onto; it became my story of myself. I hope it’s not just a concept to think that music still can perform that function for some faction of the audience.

For what it’s worth, the interviewer calls Reznor out on some of this stuff, telling him it sounds like he can’t “see beyond [his] own emotional paradigms about this stuff.” Reznor admits he sounds like Cranky McCrankerton:

Yeah, it’s tough not to veer into a get-off-my-lawn attitude. My complaint — I was thinking about this earlier today for some reason — and it’s not so much a complaint as it is an observation, is that I grew up in a little shitty town outside the range of college radio. I had FM radio, I had Rolling Stone, and later, I had a subscription to Village Voice, which seemed like it came from different world. That kind of cultural isolation made discovering music exciting. When I went to college in the early ’80s and discovered independent record shops, it was like, I’ve got so much catching up to do. I’d never heard of XTC, then I’d learn they had six albums for me to listen to. I’d never want to discredit the feelings of the 16-year-old who completely relates to Lorde, but there’s something to be said for not having the ability to just skip to the next song, not having endless playlists, not having unlimited choice, not having to choose music over video games and endless television and looking at mindless humblebragging someone is doing on social media about their awesome life. You used to actually have to decide to spend time with music rather than just idly picking it from a plethora of options.

That said, most of the people in my social media feed reposting the article were white guys who were around in the 1990s (and also in bands) who hail Reznor as a genius speaking truth to power in this interview.

It’s obvious that Reznor is saying something true —the music industry is still broken; everyone sold out (except him); we are oversaturated with more choices than ever in a far-too-fragmented environment; what is an artist to do? The interview is very long and Reznor addresses these complicated contradictions honestly, but it’s clear he’s also struggling to reconcile himself to a vastly different music world he can’t quite get a handle on, even as he’s managed to survive on better-than-fine terms than many artists working today will ever experience.

But this is not exactly revelatory. Most successful artists are complicated, contradictory beings — insecure egotists in a world where they are both sure of and completely unconvinced of their own genius. In conclusion, then, Reznor is a bit of both: A brilliant artist, and a giant baby.

He’ll be okay, though — he’s still a super successful, critically lauded talent making exactly the music he wants 30 years after his first hit record. Rare air, indeed.