20 Years of The Downward Spiral

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.

still from the music video of "Closer"
Perhaps we are, indeed, on the verge of psychopathy (at least some of us). But the same could be said for lovers of Thomas Kinkade paintings. Personally, I feel a lot safer with lovers of the dark, repulsive, and nihilistic than with lovers of life-is-a-glorious-cycle-of-song kitsch, because I can't help but wonder when the pains and disappointments of life are going to cause such folks to snap. I assume that to be human means building up a lot of nastiness in our animalistic core, and art allows the structuring and expression of that nastiness, a filter for the excrement of consciousness.

It's no coincidence that I fell in love with The Downward Spiral when it was released. I was a senior in high school that spring, and faced the excitement and terror of moving from rural New Hampshire to Manhattan for college. Everything was uncertain. I had begun to accept that my sexual identity was not entirely heterosexual, and though I knew ACT UP said silence = death, I mostly believed sex = death, because what other fate could there be in the age of AIDS? I've never been comfortable with anger, and yet it was an emotion that continued to boil up in me because I felt no ability to be who I wanted to be, no ability to even quite know who the person I wanted to be even was, and while the great wide world was alluring, it was also overwhelming. Typical adolescent angst, but at its apex in those days for me, and something for which The Downward Spiral could be a kind of soundtrack.

Adolescent angst goes away, and with it many of the talismans used as balms against it. But The Downward Spiral, while powerfully capable of speaking to an adolescent on the precipice of terrifying adulthood, contains much more than that, and that's why it has stuck with me. The complexity of the soundscape, for one thing. That's where I keep finding the beauty in this music: there is a richness to it, a depth born of all the overlapping notes, chords, beats, and noise. That depth is given power through variety — there is a diversity to the sounds that remains beguiling. The power of the noise comes from the aching quiet that flows across it all. Trent Reznor's voice reaches points of absolute scream, certainly, but there are also moments of tenderness and exhaustion and even, perhaps, momentary peace. The imagery of the lyrics is often wretched, but there's also a defiance to the words, an acknowledgement of so much that is atrocious in life accompanied now and then by a stand against it. For instance, the end of "The Becoming", which still makes my heart skip a beat: "It won't give up, it wants me dead/ Goddamn this noise inside my head." The last words song on the album are from "Hurt" and are at least somewhat hopeful: "If I could start again/ a million miles away/ I would keep myself/ I would find a way" — sure, you could interpret that as a suicidal moment, but back in 1994, faced with heading off to a place that at least felt like it was a million miles away from where I'd spent the previous 18 years of my life, I didn't hear it that way at all. Céline Dion's recording of "The Power of Love" made me want to kill myself; "Hurt" gave me reason to live.

One of the things I continue to appreciate about the album is that though the speakers in the songs are generally self-absorbed and sometimes utterly despicable, I find room to think about a world beyond them. This is most obvious with "Big Man with a Gun". I'd grown up in a gun shop, and I knew (and know) the macho allure of weaponry intimately. I don't know of another work of art that so succinctly gets at that allure, the psychopathic virility that is so often the masculine ideal. The song is not remotely subtle. Its lyrics' blunt vulgarity is appropriate to the throbbing noise of its music. A copy of the song should be sent out with every NRA membership card.

There's a kind of pathetic, aggressive, self-loathing masculinity to most of the songs on the album, and this, too, I find fascinating and powerful. From early on, I heard the album as telling the story of a man who aspired to masculine ideals that he couldn't attain. (I wouldn't have been able to say it that way 20 years ago, but it's basically how I was listening to the songs together.) I got a copy of the first NIN album, Pretty Hate Machine, soon after Downward Spiral, and quickly decided that the later album was a kind of sequel to the song "Something I Can Never Have" — there, the speaker is "starting to scare myself", and in Downward Spiral, song after song is all about that scare: trying to express it, trying to escape it, being consumed by it.

The songs on Downward Spiral were, yes, sometimes pure catharsis, and loud enough to wipe out the wounding world beyond their noise. But they also invited, and still invite, a kind of analysis and narrativizing that are, I think, extremely healthy. I spent more hours than I'd like to admit wondering about the meaning of specific lines and even words in the songs, wondering why particular sounds appeared in particular places, analyzing whether I thought the narrator was admirable or disgusting, strong or weak, me or not. I built stories in my mind to justify what was going on in the songs, and entire epic tales to explain the world between them.

Now, 20 years later, I still respond to the musical choices on the album, to the often powerful lyrics, but I also have what those rare pieces of art we encounter at just the right time give us: the memory of vivid early experiences. The world of 1994 and its accompanying years comes back to me through the music I listened to so obsessively. I am not nostalgic for those years. I wouldn't want to live them again. I am vastly happier now. But it's good to have some contact with that lost self, to feel a bit of the way back to what I don't want to fully recover. It's easy, too, to feel that the person I was then — so young, naive, stupid, bewildered — is gone. But he's not. Some trace of him lives in my perception of these songs now as I listen to them yet again. Twenty years is a long time, and it is no time at all.

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