It was twenty years ago today that Nine Inch Nails' second album, The Downward Spiral, appeared in record stores.
Despite being an album of relentless nihilism, aggression, profanity, and self-hatred, it is an album I still consider to be among the most beautiful music I know. For a while, I liked really loud, industrial music, but I've grown awfully mellow in my old age, and these days I'm much more likely to listen to something acoustic. (Even ten years ago, a friend described my taste in pop music as boiling down to "songs by whiny white boys". Which was not really true, even then. Well, sort of.) Nonetheless, I still listen to NIN, and, especially, The Downward Spiral.
I try to avoid explaining my musical tastes, since I spend much too much time analyzing most of my other tastes, and it's nice to have one analysis-free area of the brain. I haven't quite been able to escape an analysis of my love for this album, though. Because it's this album.
When we don't understand the attraction of a particular item, we often psychologize the people who do in a way that explains them as aberrant to us. My dislike of X is my norm, and so I have to tell a story to explain to myself your embrace of X in a way that maintains my norm. Some items have enough built-in prestige that the story of why I don't like them might force me to have to make some excuses for myself, but we usually still maintain some sense of the appreciator as aberrant. I have no appreciation, for instance, for Mozart's operas, and so even though I feel to some extent that that is a failure of my education and a signal of my plebeian tastes, I also have a sneaking suspicion that people who like Mozart's operas are kind of frilly, effete, decadent, and will, in all likelihood, be the first to die in the revolution. (This is, of course, entirely untrue and a terrible prejudice that you should not emulate or give any credence to.) Items built from the most repulsive of human desires and actions especially call forth such judgments. Plenty of people who don't "get" NIN assume that people who do are one step away from tearing the heads off small children.