This past Saturday evening, as happens from time to time, I returned home from a late night of pub karaoke feeling pretty wired. I sang three songs that evening, and was still somewhat jittery from the experience. Those of my readers who have done any performing or public speaking know that there can be a kind of shakiness and high-alert feeling you carry around with you, even an hour or two after you’ve stepped out of the spotlight.
Because I was very much awake, I turned on the television to find something to watch until I felt ready to go to bed. I happened upon “Austin City Limits”, the PBS show featuring live concert performances from Texas’ capital of weird, and a performance by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails. Much to my surprise, I sat down and watched the whole thing from start to finish. I came away strangely impressed by what I heard, but glad that I have been able to choose a different way to confront the deeply human concern we all share over nothingness.
Back in high school, when Nine Inch Nails – or “NIN” – first became popular, I was never attracted to their music. NIN was a very different sort of group from the metal hair bands and pop-rap acts of that time, even though they went on tour with Guns N’ Roses, of all people. My musical choices tended to be less on the full-out-sensory-assault end of the spectrum, where acts like NIN tended to congregate, and more on what the British refer to as the “shoe-gazing” end of things. So when I sat down to watch this concert, I had no clue what to expect.
For starters, I was blown away by how engaging the band was. NIN frontman Trent Reznor – who looks better now at nearly 50 than I remember him ever looking in his 20’s – is a dynamic, charismatic performer, reminding me of a more techie, introspective version of punk legend Henry Rollins. His bandmates and back-up singers were, like him, all intense, focused musicians: and they had to be.
The music itself was unbelievably complex. There was hardly anything melodic about it, even when there were actual choruses. There were unexpected rhythm/volume/pitch changes, and unusual combinations of harmony and dissonance. This was combined with a lyricism which, while unfortunately often scarred by profanity, expressed a very deep understanding of very human things: pain, loss, etc.
In a brief interview, Reznor commented that the band’s new album, from which the concert took its material, was probably the closest he had ever come to creating a musical composition based fully on dreams and stream-of-consciousness thinking. That certainly came across during the show, particularly in its semi-conscious waking and nightmarish moments. However there was also something else going on.
There is an underlying tension in all of mankind regarding the fundamental question of meaning versus nothingness. How you choose to answer that question is going to have a significant impact on how you treat yourself, other people, and the world you live in. And this debate, this exploration of whether there is any meaning out there, is something Reznor and his band tapped into rather powerfully in this performance.
To their credit, if one can move past the regrettable language and imagery in some of their lyrics, NIN do so in an almost contemplative way. Despite the level of sheer noise they can achieve, particularly when expressing anger and frustration, this is not a toe-tapping kind of music, but rather something demanding that the listener actively engage his brain. Is it pleasant? Well frankly, no: it’s decidedly unpleasant. But is it real? Oh, very much so.
This kind of creative exploration is in fact as old as mankind itself. Look at the Book of Job or some of the Psalms, study the black paintings of Goya, or read the work of Virginia Woolf or Charles Baudelaire [N.B. whose birthday is today.] Throughout human history, you’ll find men and women staring into the abyss, and not finding it easy to avert their eyes from the possibility that there may very well be no meaning to all of “this” around us.
I see and understand what Reznor, et al., are trying to say. And quite frankly, I respect them for saying it. Here, there is no papering over the hard things in life with a shallow, feckless sort of veneer, as so often occurs in contemporary culture.
Where we part ways, however, is that I am a Christian, and a Catholic one at that. So even as I witness, and at times experience first-hand, the kind of painful emotions which Reznor describes in his music, I choose to find hope and meaning in such suffering. Rather than simply pointless, cruel occurrences, these are opportunities for me to come to understand Christ better, and hopefully draw closer to Him.
That doesn’t mean I always succeed, of course. I can complain and moan and…well yes, swear….about perceived slights, abuses, or injustice, when I give in to such feelings. However I hope that, over time, I’m getting at least a tiny bit better at accepting these things, even if I am very far indeed from perfection.
That being said, one has to give credit where credit is due. I wouldn’t recommend picking up the new NIN album to listen to in the car on the way to work, any more than I would recommend you purchase a print of “Saturn Devouring His Children” by Goya to hang over the dining room table. However the fact that a rock music concert caused me to pause, listen, and reflect, is something which for me, does not happen very often at all. And in the end I’m actually rather grateful I had that opportunity.
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS’ “Austin City Limits”