Behold the atavistic power of Nine Inch Nails, a band whose name and symbol still triggers a very visceral reaction among loyal fans. Yet for all its potent visual imagery, as a vehicle, NIN revealed very little about Reznor. That's no accident as he stingily protected his identity for years, granting precious few interviews and generally remaining more of an enigma than Marlon Brando.
The fewer glimpses of himself he gave us - outside of his meticulously constructed five-minute video clips - the more his fans identified with him and scrawled "NIN" in permanent marker on their backpacks and insides their school lockers. He became a universal symbol for pain, the perpetually misunderstood, and indignant adolescent fury.
His fans waited for nearly six years for recently released With Teeth, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. But in 1999, The Fragile did, too. Then sales dropped sharply and to date, the album only sold 898,000 copies - a flop for a multi-platinum artist.
Between albums, one of the most purposefully guarded artists in recent memory pierced his self-imposed veil of obfuscation with a string of blog-like postings on his website. Using a Q&A format, fans filled out a field, sent it out to cyberspace, and Reznor himself would respond - if he felt the query merited his attention.
Fans weren't the only ones reading the blog. Many NIN news items from the past year - things like With Teeth's various name changes and expected release dates - came straight from Reznor's posts, not from his label's publicity squad.
When he's not expounding on the technical superiorities of digital surround with geek-like abandon or exploring the thematic thrust of the latest dystopian sci-fi novel from Ursula K. Le Guin, his ramblings paint a portrait of an artist hyperaware of his own decline yet unsure quite what to make of it. These posts don't show the angry, menacing frontman of NIN we knew, but it is perhaps the truest version.
To be sure, Reznor still has plenty of pent-up anger, which he unleashes:
On working with video directors: "When it works, it's great, when it doesn't … (see 'Deep' video)."
Responding to a fan incensed by the non-inclusion of a CD booklet with With Teeth: "[It's] a fuck you to an aging and outdated convention."
On Wal-Mart and the growing cottage industry of selling edited versions of albums: "Fuck edited versions, and fuck Wal-Mart. You don't see my records in there last I looked because I don't think there should be an edited version. A side note on good old Wal-Mart - ever noticed you can buy an R-rated DVD filled with profanity, nudity and violence - but across the aisle you can't buy a CD that says 'fuck' on it? If you're going to be a moral watch-dog, have some fucking consistency."
Thankfully, Reznor chases his digital tongue-lashings with dry doses of humor:
On changes to his pre-concert ritual: "I used to lubricate my voice in tequila, now I don't."
On potential new cover songs to add to the NIN catalog: "I was really hoping to do something unique and pertinent - like do an exact copy of 'Personal Jesus' - but it was already taken. Shit." (Referring to former friend and collaborator Marilyn Manson's recent ill-advised single.)
Or my personal favorite, in response to "what do you do when it feels like your (sic) being crushed from all angles?": "I write, play or listen to music. Or masturbate."
It's hard to say exactly what Reznor had in mind when he started his Q&A blog. After all, his artistic persona was never about connecting to the audience. In fact, in many ways, his aloofness fueled NIN's allure. In establishing this line of communication, he destroys much of what NIN was and leaves an oddly palpable version of himself in its wake. Some will no doubt chalk up his decision to a desperate, misguided bid for relevance. But Reznor's own words suggest a different interpretation: "It would be impossible for me not to question my relevance in commercial terms in light of what is considered fashionable these days … I have to question whether music and the public's taste are getting worse, or I'm just getting older and that's what happens. Or both."
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