Reznor’s career is the result of an ever-expanding range of skills and interests.
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IThis week it occurred to me that Pittsburgh had not fully embraced Trent Reznor.
The persevering musician and composer, whose early fame with the idiosyncratic alternative rock act Nine Inch Nails led to a dazzling second act in compositions for film and television, is not from Pittsburgh in the strict sense; He was born in New Castle and grew up mainly in Mercer. But as a scion of western Pennsylvania in general, few are more worthy of our civic pride.
I don’t mean it just as a matter of success – I mean it as a matter of evolution. I think Reznor’s career is what we should all strive for.
Nine Inch Nails grew up feeling dangerous in the 90s. The band had a lot of temporary members but is basically just Reznor. I remember a year-long ban on MTV in my house, inspired in part by the infamous video for “Closer,” a hypnotically disturbing creation that received contemporary allegations of trading in satanic imagery. I clearly remember my mother’s shock at the video – its series of disturbing looks and macabre characters, its footage of a squirming, squirming insect, its bondage-inspired outfits, and distorted figures.
By the way, that was the censored version of the video.
For 1994 – a year in which three places on the Billboard table at the end of the year were occupied by squeaky clean Swedish pop stars Ace of Base – it was certainly fire content, even after heavy editorial work (replaced by a “Scene Missing” title card) it is acceptable for broadcasts on MTV.
Nine years later, VH1 Classic – the older sister station of an already older network – called “Closer” the best music video ever made.
I don’t want to make the reaction to Nine Inch Nails sensational. While the plot was appropriately scary for suburban parents, the band has been critically and widely viewed as popular. Nine Inch Nails spent much of 2005 opening for David Bowie. Reznor did not deserve the breathless media anger and religious outrage that would boil his contemporary Marilyn Manson, nor would he receive the unfair scourge mainstream culture elevated towards hip-hop in that era.
However, if you watched the video “Closer” – or the slightly better and equally creepy follow-up “The Perfect Drug” – you wouldn’t have guessed that this guy would be making a Disney movie a quarter of a century later.
Backstage at the time, Reznor had his demons; In the 1990s, he struggled with depression, alcoholism, and substance abuse. Good or bad, these battles are somewhat evident in his musical performance at the time – and unlike other acts of the era that would be dubbed “shock rock,” exploring these battles feels real in Reznor’s music.
While it’s easy to draw a clear line between a healthier lifestyle – Reznor graduated from rehab in 2001 – and safer creative endeavors, I think that’s reducing. Certainly the release of Nine Inch Nails in the 2000s and 2010s is very different from albums like “The Downward Spiral”. However, listening to the band’s more recent releases alongside Reznor’s scores for films like “The Social Network” and “Bird Box” still shows variety and experimentation.
In other words, Reznor’s career is the result of an ever-expanding range of skills and interests. This is not the story of a man who made “Closer” and then developed in a straight line until he made the score for “Mank”. It’s the career of an artist who started in one place and expanded his interests and skills until he could do any number of things.
Later that week, the Golden Globes will announce this year’s winner for Best Original Score – a category in which Reznor, along with frequent contributor Atticus Ross, is nominated twice. The couple received nods for the score “Mank,” another departure inspired by Hollywood soundscapes from the Golden Age, and for the inventive music from the metaphysical Pixar film “Soul”. Reznor could well pick up another globe (he’s already won one for “Social Network”) and put this statue on a shelf that’s already heavy with Emmys, Grammys, an Oscar and the big plaque they give you to make it to the rock and roll hall of fame.
This is again the guy whose creepy music video made my mom turn off MTV for a couple of years.
It’s a career path to strive for.
And we should probably have a statue of Trent Reznor erected somewhere between here and New Castle. It won’t be a very literal statue; probably just a big, abstract silver thing. People will call it “terrifying and beautiful”.