The Actual Events: Nine Inch Nails and The Apocalyptic Imaginary

On Year Zero and the 2020 Black Lives Matter Protests

Dystopia, An Emotional Landscape of Gnashing Unrest, the First Evangelical Church of Plano, Yawning, Distorted Synths and Guitars, Slow-Churning Sludge Metal, BDSM-inflected, Monochromatic Starkness, As Scorched Earth as Possible, Nowhere to Hide, A Daydream of the End of the World

God Break Down the Door

Protests, like concerts, can sometimes be overshadowed by the logistics of their operation. In 2020, it seemed many people unfamiliar with the movements and rhythms of a demonstration were puzzled by the atmospheric extremes at play, the natural surges in energy, the herding and constant shifting of direction to either avoid police, protect the disabled, or look out for those present on their own.  

Fremont Street is the site of any number of flashing, crowded, loud events, like the Life Is Beautiful music festival. In the early evening hours of a gathering I attended in downtown Las Vegas last May, it was difficult to discern who was there to march and who, given our proximity to Fremont, was merely a bemused tourist. Everyone in sight was wearing a mask or bandana and while blackbloc (identity-obscuring dark clothing including masks, sunglasses, etc) wasn’t the only style, it certainly seemed to be the go-to for people wishing to appear discrete. 

Headphones aren’t a good idea during a protest, but I knew it was going to be almost impossible to focus amid the multitude of things I’d be hearing and seeing if I didn’t have a way to dampen one sense. I had Nine Inch Nails on shuffle and it seemed like Trent Reznor, NIN’s frontman and primary songwriter, was narrating the mood of what I was seeing. The thundering drums and gleefully spat “Take a good look because you’re full of shit” on “You Know What You Are,” against a throng of masked protestors yelling at patrolling police vehicles. The slow melancholy of “14 Ghosts II” on the walk to my car after. As more and more people streamed onto the sidewalk outside the primary gathering point at Container Park, legal observers from nearby law firms circulated in brightly-colored shirts throughout the crowd, distributing small pamphlets listing citizen’s rights, as well as pre-scripted dialogue in case anyone was detained by the police. This was the beginning of summer, after the Strip and the state at large had been shut down. Ahmaud Arbery, 25, had been shot in Georgia by a white father and son. Breonna Taylor, 26, had been murdered in Kentucky during a no-knock search by plainclothes officers. George Floyd, 46, had been choked to death for over eight minutes by Officer Derek Chauvin in the company of three other Minneapolis policemen. Those losses broke through the media bubble. Consequently, the faces of Arbery, Taylor, and Floyd floated above the crowd on makeshift signs and posters. 

The summer felt dystopian, and was typified by the devaluation of black life; by government apathy towards a growing pandemic; by the continued ignorance of the inhumane situation at the border of Mexico and the U.S.; and by the chaotic, racist, jingoistic animosity emboldened and defended by a reality TV star turned president. What exactly was the country doing about this? Those who took to the streets and remained there no matter the danger didn’t wait for an answer, forcing national attention onto issues that, despite the lip service paid by the media and people spectating on social media, still persist without any real remedy.

These seem to be the two categories under which Trump-era art is classified: balm or wake-up call. In the work they’ve released since 2016, NIN doesn’t play into that particular binary; in the five albums and EPs the band has put out, they have sought to delineate an emotional landscape of gnashing unrest, one that is designed to be sonically evocative rather than simply lyrical. Because of that resistance to the prescribed purposes of art under this administration, their music felt even more resonant to me as the year drew on. In 2020, I experienced the malaise borne from isolation and quarantine, and the specific anguish of repeatedly witnessing apathy in the face of black death. Since then, I’ve felt encased on all sides by those who can only nod in sympathy. Reznor’s lyrics echo what I’ve been grappling with: a psychic intensity that reaches out to oblivion, a flirtation with decadence and ugliness that reveals caustic, often restless truth. On the track “Love Is Not Enough,” the title alone a fitting rebuke to generalized calls for empathy over the year, Reznor sings: 

It never really had a chance

We’d never really make it through

I never think I’d believe

I believed I could get better with you

In Vegas, some of that restlessness was palpable on the street as the sun went down. It felt hopeful to be in the company of hundreds of strangers ostensibly gathering for the same cause. A chorus of shouts listing the names of black men and women who had been executed by the police popped up throughout the congregation. Several BLM protestors carried automatic rifles, circling the fray, eyeing patrol cars as they passed, keeping their armored backs to the street. Professors and students from the university walked in pairs, passing cars honked in support with children cheering in the backseats, and disparate individuals with hidden spray paint cans were preparing to mark buildings. But I also had a worrying sense that this particular protest, which was engulfed by a growing police presence at its edges and was developing in a way that suggested it would feature far less property damage and violence than those in other states, was something pleasantly distracting and melodramatic for a large number of the group. 

For one, dozens of people were documenting their presence at the protest, and, inadvertently, the presence of strangers who could be identified by the authorities later. This action included the photographers in question making the concerted effort to either remove their masks to show their faces or posing with loose bandanas as if they’d done something transgressive. For another, some bystanders commented that they hoped to be present if and when anything newsworthy occurred.

Sometimes, the actions of the state engender feelings of hopelessness. Most often, as in those select moments before the demonstration, I find myself enraged by certain people’s passivity and carelessness. It seems Reznor feels the same way about this kind of dynamic, and I found his aggrieved point-of-view on especially clear display in songs like “Me, I’m Not” and “Survivalism” from Year Zero, songs I scrolled through to drown out the noise. “I got my propaganda, I’ve got revisionism,” he sings on the latter. “I got my violence in hi-def ultra-realism.” 

Year Zero is a concept album that targets the Bush administration, in office at the time of the record’s production, and the disinterest of a future American public, which has ceded most of its rights to the government. It’s 2022 and the world has reset its calendars to 0000 following worldwide chaos wrought by hurricanes, war in the Middle East, the release of a bioengineered virus, and nuclear strikes against Iran and North Korea, among other threats to humanity. Terrorist attacks spark a renewed patriotism in the populace, allowing the government to enact authoritarian, racist programs that, among other outcomes, consistently disappear people. An organization called the First Evangelical Church of Plano preaches a message of fealty to the occupying administration, equating divinity with violence and conquest. Pharmaceutical corporations infuse the water supply with mood-suppressing drugs designed to engender feelings of comfort and gratitude. Meanwhile, dissident factions around the world target police and civilians. Those who prefer violence bomb stadiums; those who prefer peace tag walls and distribute literature online. A team of scientists send back evidence of this broken future into the past in the hopes that they can prevent this reality from coming to pass. These transmissions take the form of the album’s songs and multimedia material (USBs left in bathrooms at concert venues, numerous websites detailing fictional characters, a staged police raid at a performance). Year Zero’s inventiveness is sprawling, though it reveals gaps in Reznor’s imagination, particularly in terms of how he sees those on the receiving end of the state’s violence. For the most part, an indistinct population the world over is subject to cruelty and torture. Almost all characters who are given more specific backstories are white. Almost all the perpetrators of terrorism and unrest are not. Drilling deeper into the material, it’s clear that Reznor is attempting a kind of sardonic, exaggerated commentary on how the U.S. views foreign countries. But it’s still a stretch. 

Back in the actual 2020s, Black Lives Matter protests across the world expanded their scope to amplify the longstanding issues of indigenous groups and other marginalized people. By and large, they were attracting tens of thousands of participants, often shutting down traffic and defacing iconic monuments. Unrest came swiftly. In the U.S., radical groups pressured politicians to engage with previously fringe ideas like prison abolition and the defunding of police. But, as the summer drew on, white and non-black allies seemed to be sitting on their hands. By August, any widespread fury they expressed seemed short-lived, or misguided, and the organizers and agitators who kept the work of disobedience and disruption alive were left at the mercy of increasingly violent authorities. As so often happens, the focus of so-called allies waned or shifted elsewhere. 

With time, Bush’s successors have made life even more luxurious for the rich and more financially and materially perilous for non-white people. As progressive domestic issues like sex worker and trans rights continue to sour in favor of neoliberal agendas, NIN’s sound following Year Zero, synonymous with the band’s political outlook, has become more abrasive and cataclysmic. Lyrically, Reznor has always been interested in mining the idea of control, on the micro and macro scales. With NIN, subjects like addiction, greed, and lust are exemplary of a loss of individual control, while bureaucracy, surveillance, and exploitation evoke control metastasized, on a larger, societal level via institutions and other power structures. Reznor is well-versed in digital and analog sounds, and his music reflects his meticulousness. Disk drives whirr, data bits ping, glitching, scratching electronics give way to wailing guitars, all while propulsive bass drums and metronomic rhythms undergird alternately loud and softly-spoken lyrics. Although first perceived as an industrial rock band, NIN has come to encompass any number of genres, from ambient to EDM to metal to new age.  Between 2016 and 2018, the band released the Trilogy, a project comprising two EPs and one album that react to the election of Donald Trump. In the Trilogy, Reznor phases through pessimism, doubt, and a fiery vision of doomed humanity amidst yawning, distorted synths and guitars. At the beginning of the protest, I played one track, “Ahead of Ourselves,” from the 2018 album Bad Witch on repeat.

Obsolete, insignificant 

Antiquated, irrelevant 

Celebration of ignorance 

Why try change when you know you can’t? 

A cynical anthem that rolls around in its own indifference, but one that also inspires agitation, the song vocalized my fear, then and now, that society would do almost anything to belittle or commodify the death of black people and anyone else it deems expendable. A friend who I had seen not long before arriving at the demonstration expressed skepticism that peaceful action would be effective in provoking change. As a dense bloc of demonstrators began moving towards Las Vegas Boulevard, and dozens of stragglers peeled away, and excited white men with bandanas over their faces pushed forward to be at the front, and small groups of teenagers took selfies, and pickup trucks with “Trump 2020” flags roared by, I couldn’t help but feel he might be right. Protest tourists are nothing new. What worried me, though, was the idea that the crowd could be underestimating the threat consistent civil disruption could pose to authorities and the very real danger the police posed if our vigilance slipped. Vegas cops aren’t special, and those of us who have regularly clashed with them know their propensity for profane intimidation and easily hidden physical harassment. But passing conversants throughout the march whispered how “I’ve, like, never even been stopped before,”and how “impossible” it seemed that agents of the state could enact violence so easily. By the end of the night, SWAT deployed tear gas and tackled almost anyone who crossed their path. Video of the police’s excessive force circulated on social media, along with footage of people commenting on it. We were in a developing part of town with trendy new businesses and potential housing ventures worth millions of dollars, so the police’s actions were not entirely surprising. On the slow-churning sludge metal track “Burning Bright (Field on Fire)” from the 2016 EP Not The Actual Events, Reznor intones:

Oh burn, motherfucker

Carry the carcass and throw it on 

Pull up a chair and watch 

The flies come roaring out.

The lyrics echo through a cavernous background that blends guitar and percussion with the sound of a crowd cheering, and Reznor’s delivery is almost sarcastic. More than most NIN songs, it conjures an immediate, prototypical image of fiery hell. That night, and every other night where a police precinct or large chain store or patrol vehicle was set alight, the image transformed from hell to cleansing fire. 

Another Version of the Truth

Nine Inch Nails is, like Radiohead, a band whose discography might be best listened to backwards. Sometimes, a straightforward chronological experience is too intimidating for a listener, especially if the artist has a large discography. When listening linearly, it’s also easy to overestimate the works of the past, to write off newer endeavors as simply retreads or unimaginative filler. When experiencing NIN’s output in reverse-chronological order, a listener might sense the band’s scope narrowing, from a sprawling soundscape that, in its newer works, flirts with glitch-filled oblivion and the not-so-unwelcome end of the world, to close, personal intimations of depression, loneliness, and paranoia in its older ones. Such subjects, coupled with the BDSM-inflected, monochromatic starkness of the band’s stage performances, to some, signal antagonism. But that antagonism is not all-encompassing; Reznor has demonstrated real verve when working with other musicians, and especially when engaging many different musical styles. He has collaborated with numerous people over the last 20 years. A classically-trained pianist (he once described his musical beginnings as “not very punk rock”), Reznor has a melodic ear, which allows NIN’s musical purview to extend in almost any direction, while maintaining a recognizable sound. The varied ways that that sound has been utilized and banked upon in Reznor’s multifarious projects could be a reflection of his wide-ranging musical sensibilities. Or it could be a response to feelings of insecurity and stagnation. Speaking to the Village Voice in 2017, Reznor said, “My natural state is one of not feeling good enough—that’s kind of where I reset to.” 

NIN’s aesthetic and symphonic transformations, in tandem with Reznor’s evolution before, during, and after his drug addiction during the ’90s and early 2000s, mark shifts in the band’s public personae and preoccupations. The narrowest view of NIN confines them to a kind of underground subculture, a feature of an uninviting alternative scene that attracts the desperate, the profane, the unhinged. It’s no secret that NIN operates in an arena of melodrama and extremity. But the struggle with addiction is not associated with a single genre or form of expression. Nor do feelings of being ostracized, underestimated, turned on, jealous, overconfident, apathetic, or cynical. In this space, there is room for the perverted and the sacrilegious, feelings that grow with loneliness or abandonment. Where Reznor differs is that he makes no attempt to justify or legitimize these feelings; they exist as they come, often without reason or warning, or as part of a longer legacy of anguish. Instead of offering a more straightforward message of hope, NIN embeds itself firmly within a roiling psyche that, in its most triumphant songs, revels in life as a thing not to be endured, but constantly reshaped and remade. Catharsis comes at the expense of naked witnessing.

Reznor’s career-long fixation with pain continues to unfold new pockets of meaning that shift to accommodate the context of the listener. In my case, it brought Afropessimism, black academic Frank Wilderson III’s latest book, to mind. A memoir that also combines Wilderson’s critical theory work, Afropessimism charts key moments throughout the author’s life and uses them to contextualize the titular theory, which endeavors to answer the question of why antiblackness persists as a driving force in the world. Earlier last summer, in the midst of protest, while listening to NIN, I had read Afropessimism at the bookstore where I work, during a season where anti-racist reading had been heralded as the great cure for bigotry it never turned out to be. NIN captures a despair at the direction of history, at the simultaneous indifference of and intentional social harm perpetrated by ordinary citizens. This despair is evocative, but not entirely nihilistic. Wilderson goes further, rejecting the world entirely, specifically because of the anti-blackness it’s built upon. Even though he highlights brutality and world-weary antipathy, Reznor’s lyrics could never approach the gravity of the critique found in Afropessimism, precisely because Wilderson’s analysis is so pointed. In an interview with LitHub, Wilderson said, “The real estate of my writing chooses not to focus on how people make it through the day. I want to be as scorched earth as possible with the stuff I leave behind because I think, to quote Jared Sexton, if you look at the archive of Black writing there’s just too much writing about our plans, not enough writing about our pain.” 

Such pain can be threatening in its capacity to overwhelm. “That’s part of the horror of speaking, of writing,” Maggie Nelson writes in The Argonauts. “There is nowhere to hide.”

If you are, like Reznor, a writer who works in the public eye, the negotiation between writing and hiding is undoubtedly trickier. Something of the pop star biopic narrative plays out for the musician, at least as far as the press is concerned. In his publicly-available story, he has been on the receiving end of pressure from record companies and feuding associations with unsavory celebrities like Marilyn Manson over matters of ego and money. In addition, there is the reporting about Reznor’s fastidiousness in the studio, increasing dependence on alcohol and cocaine, a federal investigation into the alleged contribution of NIN’s music to the 1999 Columbine shootings, and a significant lapse in output. On tour for The Fragile (1999), the band’s long-awaited third album, Reznor overdosed on heroin that he had mistaken for cocaine. “You tend to accumulate dramatic bad things when you’re in that place,” Reznor said to the Guardian in 2013. “I was so deep in the throes of addiction that it was shitty, but it didn’t seem that much shittier than a lot of other things, other surprises that kept happening.”

Cleaning up involved reflecting on earlier personas “that had run their course.” It also meant engaging outward. By then, the internet posed a threat to the music industry by disrupting the distribution of music via Napster and other file sharing technologies. There were also far right conservative agendas present in every American presidency since NIN’s infancy. In 2006, there seemed to be an opportunity for NIN to utilize its foundations in industrial rock and lyrical provocation to explore Reznor’s “daydream of the end of the world.” 

The Line Begins to Blur

What does it mean when your project is apocalypse? 

During the protests in Vegas, I had the dizzying notion that the people who willingly enact (or turn their back to) pandemonium (anti-black lynching, the separation of migrant families, paranoia brought on by ubiquitous data mining and surveillance)—cops, judges, senators, landlords, CEOs, world leaders—feel that the project is anything but. In their policies and Senate floor orations, they see a constant return to order, a straightening out of temporary kinks in the system. And they do so with avid public support by well-meaning people who wish to be hopeful about humanity’s propensity for kindness and generosity. Throughout the pandemic, I kept hearing about nationwide proposals for the defunding and/or abolition of police departments. Now, I see more Blue Lives Matter bumper stickers and pickup trucks defiantly trailing American flags than I did before it. 

There’s no doubt that Trent Reznor’s whiteness and masculinity, inflected by self-loathing and rage, can feel incongruous as a soundtrack to a black movement. The varying ways he writes about control, in the context of obsession, pleasure, authoritarian regimes, or the thrall of the void, can often seem rooted in a hedonism descended from privilege, from a place where the question of escaping rock bottom need not include worrying about how one might afford to do so. Much of that lingering suspicion drifts away when you view the undertaking of NIN as a reminder of how flaws in humanity manifest, how they can be succumbed to, and how they might be fought against. In that sense, distrust of institutions and organized systems of all kinds comes as part and parcel of NIN. Reznor seethes with frustration at the ways that American society seems to consistently act against its own purported interests. Which, given what I had seen and participated in last summer, makes the band’s music a potent chorus to turn to. 

Some of the results can be a little on the nose, especially on Year Zero. When looking out at the expansive fictional world that accompanied the album, allusions to dystopian classics like 1984 and A Clockwork Orange feel trite, unimaginative, perhaps even dour for the sake of mood. The most interesting bits of lore (like the gigantic hand, featured on the album cover, that purportedly descends from the sky in select areas all over the world) are, of course, the least fleshed out. But when Reznor really swings, more often than not, he ends up touching on something salient. The vicious hallmarks of George W. Bush’s presidency—the horrifying images from Abu Ghraib, the American government’s blackbagging of civilians and persons of interest to the U.S., the defense of imperialism—all haunt the album. 

Also, when one chooses to look, specific pieces of Year Zero mythology (there are over 80 fan-documented entries for the extended universe on the NIN wiki) seem prescient given that they were created between 2006 and 2007. In one story, a member of an underground resistance group called the Spiders attempts to draw attention to the swarm of surveillance cameras popping up around an unspecified city. Starting in 2016, Washington D.C. began the Private Security Camera Incentive Program, which extends rebates to “residents, businesses, non-profits and religious institutions” for installing security cameras and registering them with the Metropolitan Police Department. In the world of Year Zero, microchips meant to monitor convicts are used to keep tabs on all citizens. In 2020, Homeland Security used drones to spy on protestors in 15 cities around the country. In Year Zero, free expression is targeted as sedition, silence used to inhibit imagination. In 2012, a potentially apocryphal story published by the St. Louis news station KMOV claims the CIA used the song “Somewhat Damaged,” from NIN’s The Fragile, as part of a playlist of songs used to torture inmates at Guantanamo Bay. (The story was later taken down.) 

The cumulative effect of this fiction vs. reality parallax feels like falling down a rabbit hole where paranoia and fear are legitimized by the bewildering number of atrocities and human rights violations committed on a daily basis. In The Dread Gorgon, Caroline Alexander writes, “The Greek language offered wide-ranging terminology to calibrate different shades and effects [of fear]…Fear can be krúoeis, chilling, freezing, numbing; or smerdaléos, a huge and terrifying adjective…Fear turns warriors green, jabbers their teeth, trembles their limbs. It can be deinós, dread or awe-inspiring, a term used frequently of gods…”

On NIN’s less conceptual albums, an emotion can become a harbinger of the end, a kind of creeping awareness of the unseen abyss, like deinós, where all your worst fears and hidden desires might reach out to pull you down. On a project like Year Zero, where subtlety is thrown out the window, it means focusing on and recreating moments of real political violence and projecting them into the future. By the end of the album, lyrical decay and a grating wall of sound gives way to a more open, vacant space. The nightmare isn’t over necessarily, but where it goes is less certain. Reznor’s voice and his bleak perspective opens up on “In This Twilight,” the penultimate track. 

But the sky is filled with light

Can you see it?

All the black is really white

If you believe it.

By the last song, “Zero Sum,” when he sings “The truth will come out, it always does,” what for a moment seemed like hope is merely warning. In 2020, Donald Trump lost the presidential election but refused to concede. Key members of his staff proceeded as if no handover of power was going to take place. Liberal support for the incoming Biden administration was tempered by left-wing skepticism that the “return to normal” Biden campaigned on was tantamount to dumping progressive policies like universal healthcare, expanded workers’ rights, and the downsizing of the U.S. military. What would it take for meaningful change to occur? Would hagiography and idolization merely shift focus, from one prospective savior to another? Would Trump’s legacy of disregard and career brinkmanship always overshadow the crimes committed under favored liberal icons like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama?

After the election, Trump’s base laughed in the face of what they thought to be a fraudulent vote count and liberals gloated by pointing out the irony that this time Trump had lost the popular vote and the Electoral College. But the status quo still hung in stasis. Legislation passed in Florida and Ohio expanded the “Stand Your Ground” law to legalize the execution of people engaged in “criminal mischief.” Prop 22 in California granted Vons and Albertsons the ability to dodge labor protections and benefits for its workers by classifying them as independent contractors. Far right groups migrated from Twitter and Instagram to apps like Parler, online spaces that supposedly protect against censorship and promote free speech while simultaneously broadcasting bigoted remarks and outlandish conspiracy theories. 

Mainstream Democrats deride any attempt to point out these and other worrying moments in the current timeline—rather than an uncritical focus on the fact that there won’t be another Trump term—as contrarian and unhelpful. But public restlessness at the lack of progress being made by elected officials grows daily, as folks grow impatient with Congress’s struggle to aid poor and unemployed families, and local courts fail to indict police misconduct. Those black and indigenous thinkers accused of ungratefulness, hyperbole, or selfish agenda-pushing once again become vital leaders of a rehashed national conversation. Meanwhile, grassroots organizations and collectives who envision a longer view of progress continue on. “Over and Out,” the final track on Trilogy-closer Bad Witch, describes a similar kind of cycle, one where a creeping impatience signals an impending vacuum, where options for mutual renewal and redemption are erased. 

I think this keeps happening (Time is running out)

Over and over again (I don’t know what I’m waiting for)

Feel like I’ve been here before

Over and over again.

In 2017, from the same Village Voice article profiling Reznor, David Fincher says, “Part of the reason to go looking for Trent is his dissatisfaction…There can be incredibly beautiful melodies, but there’s always this tendency for what’s underneath it to be haunting. You have this beautiful melody sitting on top of this thing that is making you somehow dissatisfied with the beauty of it, and that’s a really interesting conundrum. It’s like those two things are nesting together. And that feels like the human condition to me.”

Fincher gets something right: the more you sit with NIN, the more you hear a restlessness that feels inseparable from Reznor’s often-alluring music. But thinking the human condition is beauty tied up with dissatisfaction seems like an unfinished thought, to say nothing of a selective view of NIN’s music. Reznor doesn’t seem to create dissonance purely for the sake of mood or a literalized metaphor of duality. He combines emotions that feel slightly perverse when placed near one another. There’s an almost bemused disposition that strikes after one has been exposed to enough degradation and chaos. Violence can beget humor. Following a BLM gathering in North Las Vegas in the summer, I walked back to my car with two friends. We had just sat in the sun for hours, listening as local pastors, activists, and musicians gave speeches and performed. On the way, we passed several groups of cops, chatting on the hoods of their cars, some in riot gear, others in plainclothes. At one point, I slipped off the sidewalk, nearly twisting my ankle, and an officer said, “Don’t hurt yourself now.” Not a concern, but a warning. I snorted, then started laughing. That’s what absurdity inspires, even if everything is burning. 

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