The Erotics of Trent Reznor
Nine Inch Nails made videos where machines ate people’s organs — and were the last rock band to write a great love song.
I do not think Trent Reznor set out to become a tween sex icon. That he became one, anyway, is beyond doubt.
My memories of Nine Inch Nails fandom, all set in middle school or high school, are inseparable from the context of adolescent thirst. Reznor was the muddy, thrashing, be-tank-topped body on my girlfriends’ bedroom walls. He was the ball of raw, pained energy, post-Cobain, pre-Catalano, through which we learned to fetishize male self-pity. Pretty Hate Machine was handed to me, in secret, on my twelfth birthday. Owning a Nine Inch Nails CD was a key to a secret club, a rite of initiation. You couldn’t play NIN where your parents could hear it; you couldn’t let them know what you knew. There were songs on there. Songs about fucking.
The Fragile, the last Nine Inch Nails album I bought in stores, is twenty years old this year. Reznor has an Oscar and a wife and a paycheck from Apple. Like countless musicians — Harry Styles; the Beatles — he has shed the stigma of being some sweaty, shameful girl secret, and become an artiste. A legitimate musician; a part of the pantheon. By which I mean, mostly, men like him.
But men don’t get Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor might not even get Nine Inch Nails, really. Watching the latest season of Black Mirror — in which a pop star played by Miley Cyrus sings Nine Inch Nails songs with peppier lyrics; this symbolizes how degraded the music industry has become, or something — I was reminded of how iconic Reznor is now, how Beatle-like his stature has become. But I was also left feeling that Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker (a man, famously) didn’t really understand the punchline to his own joke.
It’s not that teen girls would love Nine Inch Nails songs with different lyrics. It’s that teen girls loved Nine Inch Nails songs with those lyrics — all that jocky, cocky, screaming rage, all that raw male power that was supposed to scare or exclude us, was relatable. Teenage girls get rage; they get self-hatred. Teenage girls know what it’s like to want to cuss and scream and fuck and thrash around incoherently because you don’t have the agency to do any of those things. Don’t open your eyes, take it from me, I have found you can find happiness in slavery: What is that but the feminine condition, sung REALLY REALLY LOUD?
Teenage girls understood Trent Reznor. They wanted to be Trent Reznor. Teenage girls also wanted to fuck Trent Reznor, not just because he was fuckable — he was; to this day, looking at a photograph of Trent Reznor in the early ’90s feels like looking into the sun — but because it was the quickest shortcut to becoming him.
There is another thing about Reznor, too, that men don’t understand; something even I didn’t really understand, until this year, when I got sucked into a rip current of nostalgia and started playing The Fragile on repeat. That is: Trent Reznor may have been the last man to write a real love song.
What man sings love songs, in 2019? Frank Ocean, maybe. But Frank Ocean is an exception. In the world of Top 40, the love song belongs irretrievably to the Sensitive Guy. You know him: He’s a gnarly little hobbit, like Ed Sheeran, or a coked-out male model, in the John Mayer mold. He has an acoustic guitar, which he strums tenderly, as he would strum your clitoris. He may rap, over the acoustic guitar; he is very white, and yet, this does not stop him. He sings about your bo-dayyyyyyy. It’s a wonderland, he loves the shape of it, you think the bo-dayyyyy is ugly but he wants to love the bo-dayyyyy right. And so on.
This is supposed to be non-threatening because it’s played at a low volume. (To the Sensitive Guy, women are gentle, skittish creatures, like deer; he knows we would flee if he ever raised his voice, or plugged that guitar into an amp.) It is, nonetheless, serial-killer creepy. Whenever one of these mouth-breathers starts crooning about my bo-dayyyyy and how he loves watching the bo-dayyyyy sleep, I wonder when he’s going to peel my skin off and wear it to church.
The alternative to the Sensitive Guy, I fear, is worse. To escape him, we must flee into the wilds of indie rock, where the Clever Guy lies in wait. Clever Guys write love songs, supposedly. Upon inspection, most of these songs are about how clever their singers are. Witness these lyrics, from the new Vampire Weekend album:
We go together like Keats and Yeats,
Bowls and plates, days and dates,
We stay united like these old states,
It’s how we go together.
There’s the literary allusion; there’s the little tongue-twister on “Keats” and “Yeats,” which look alike but don’t rhyme. There’s “United [like] States,” which, like the non-rhyme, subtly indicates that these people don’t go together, and in fact points the listener to a contemplation of the fractious and polarized nature of contemporary American politics, which… well, I could go on, but the point is that this song is also just cutesy nursery-rhyme bullshit. It has no passion, no urgency, no sex. It’s allusive for the sake of containing allusions; more concerned with making the emotion literary than with making it real.
Compare any of the above to the chorus of “We’re In This Together,” the lead single off The Fragile:
You and me, we’re in this together now.
None of them can stop us now.
We will make it through somehow.
A child could have written these lyrics. There’s seemingly no craft involved. The opening statement is a cliche any editor would cut; the protagonists’ seemingly overwhelming obstacles (“them,” and also “it”) are never defined; at one point, Reznor rhymes “now” with “now.” He sounds, more than a little, like a doofus; there’s no effort to disguise or tone down his urgency, no fine rhetoric. The emotion is laid bare and defenseless; the paucity of Reznor’s language gives it no place to hide.
Trent Reznor just wants you to know that he loves you. He wants you to know it so much, in fact, that he’s screaming it at the top of his lungs. This is what I mean by a real love song: A man who gets out there and tells someone “I love you,” no bullshit, no pretense, as loudly and clearly as he can.
This goofy bluntness is all over Reznor’s work. The title track of The Fragile is just Reznor repeating the phrase “I won’t let you fall apart” at different levels of ear-splitting volume; on Pretty Hate Machine, he complains about getting dumped “after you just taught me how to kiss you,” like he’s a fifteen-year-old for whom Frenching is both very complicated and a huge deal. Even that infamous proposition in “Closer” — the song that taught an entire generation of straight women to masturbate — is remarkably straightforward: I want to fuck you like an animal. I want to feel you from the inside. Well, sure, we’ve all had nights like that; don’t send it to my DMs with a dick pic or anything, but if I’ve come home from the bar with you, why not? Shoot your shot.
My girlfriends and I used to listen to “Closer,” giggling, because it had the word “penetrate” in it. What strikes me now, as an adult, is that Reznor also sounds perilously close to giggling on that line; “you let me penetrate you,” he says, dropping his voice to a whisper as if he’s afraid someone will overhear. As if he’s just not sure he can get away with this one, even now.
It would likely horrify Reznor to realize I see him this way. You don’t make fifteen different videos styled to look like snuff films if you want to be known as a softy. But here’s the thing about softies: I respect them. It takes strength to be vulnerable. It takes courage to lay all your tender, urgent, poorly phrased feelings out in the open, out where someone might stomp on them or laugh at them or point out that you rhymed “now” with “now.”
I don’t need a Sensitive Guy; in my experience, guys who try to seem Sensitive never are. I don’t need to be cajoled into sex by some guy who tries to make it seem unthreatening. Sex is threatening, just like love is threatening, just like there’s a threat in any desire; love can break you, rip you open, and if you are very lucky, you will be in love enough to be destroyed by it, at least once. Even when you recover from that kind of love, you won’t be the same. Screw Bob Flanagan. Screw the fake snuff films. Love is the machine that rips your dick off and feeds your organs to the meat grinder, every time.
Not many guys, at the end of the day, are clever enough to be kind.
I don’t need a Clever Guy, either. I have known plenty of men who were more interested in seeming Clever than in seeming passionate or affectionate or loving. Our time together was rarely pleasant. This world is full of clever guys; guys with podcast pitches, guys with grad school debt, guys with tight fives and dank memes and ironic Twitter accounts in the voice of Marianne Williamson’s bath salts dealer. Guys with great bookshelves, with dazzling wits, with erudition and political acuity and drinking problems and personality disorders and a long list of ex-girlfriends you’re not supposed to talk to because they’re all “crazy.” Like I say: Lots of clever guys in the world. Not a lot of guys who are clever where it counts. Not many guys, at the end of the day, are clever enough to be kind.
I’m smart; I might be smarter than you. I’m tough; most women have to be. If you try to neg me or intimidate me, I will leave you by the side of the road, looking like a raccoon that wandered in front of a semi. I have been in this world for decades now, and I have seen some shit in my time, and I am not looking for the feeling of being dazzled. I want love. Blunt, goofy, stupid-sounding love, a feeling so big and so real that it cannot be phrased but simply. I want a guy who can look me in the eye and say, clearly and directly, we’re in this together now. I don’t need coy. I don’t need clever. I need a love so big you have to scream it. I need you to be man enough to scream.