A mopey, diffident teenager named Michael Trent Reznor played Judas in his school’s version of Jesus Christ Superstar. He would become an international rock star but his image was so sinister and sexually provocative that his hometown of Mercer wouldn’t honor him in any overt public way.
Reznor’s band Nine Inch Nails was inspired by the more mindful, angsty European synth-pop of the 80s, but kicked out the specific-protest songs to create crunching cut and paste fanzine rock of dark personal expression and musical homage. He basically recorded almost all of NIN’s debut Pretty Hate Machine by himself, and it is a unique transitional album of pop eras, underground into mainstream influence, and an a subconscious raging catharsis of mundane and withering powerlessness.
PHM 33 1/3 author Daphne Carr lives in Manhattan, but she grew up in Reznor’s brown and brittle Ohio, and like the demigod of dance-noise, has turned the doomed feelings of her adolescence into words that have an enhanced capacity to create hope to others. As an editor, she is the series captain for Da Capo Best Music Writing series (an annual book sweeping the magazines and blogs and zines for unique, creative content); helped out with the critically important Ellen Willis anthology Out Of The Vinyl Deeps; has contributed meticulous and majestic writing to EMP Pop Conference anthology Listen Again and various superb periodicals such as MOJO, Venus Zine, The Nation, and others.
Carr was gracious enough to talk with me at length about her crucial volume in the 33 1/3 book series, and I thank her deeply for her insights and good humor in enduring my obsessive, occasionally obnoxious questions. (Also, I am very sorry, Daphne, that this interview is appearing a couple of months after it was conducted; I have no good enough excuse to give other than making rent kept getting in the way. And I wanted this to be my next 33 1/3 Odyssey, so apologize to the KEXP Blog reader as well it took this long to get this transcribed and prepared for you. All apologies.)
Hot Topic recently closed here on Broadway in Seattle. I was kind of surprised that there was little or no coverage of this in the music press here. It reminded of the wonderful writing you did about the chain earlier in the decade -- some of the economic-musical ideas of which seemed to have been carried over into your excellent 33 1/3 on Nine Inch Nails.
The thing is, Hot Topic existed more in a generation of people who still believed in a concept of generational divide. We were sort of doctrinated into that idea -- I’m 32, so my parents were hippies. So they were really counter-cultural and oppositional to values of Eisenhower-era America. But we don’t have those beliefs so much anymore; young teenagers don’t have that sense of opposition anymore. Which is what Hot Topic sells. If no one’s buying opposition, then nobody’s buying at Hot Topic.
And so much of that stuff has become so mainstreamed -- like I said somewhere else, I don’t know if the cultural revolution’s greatest achievement is that black nail polish is freely available ... but that is the by-product of it. The sort of queer, gender-fuck visual-culture is (now) omnipresent, which I’m happy for. But that’s not even a niche for Hot Topic anymore -- but it is something now that it’s dispersed, part of it is due to new distribution networks. And those are some things that Trent Reznor very early on adapted to, and tapped into, because he has always been an early adopter of every kind of digital and, I hate the word “democratic” used in this sense, but user-oriented technology.
He always seemed ahead of the game, even if you didn’t seem to (in the book) artistically connect with everything he’d put out. I sensed from the book that after a certain point in the 90s you felt that his contemporary work wasn’t really that essential to you anymore, but you do have this admiration of him in a commercial way.
My personal narrative with Nine Inch Nails is that I moved to New York City in 1997, you know, all of a sudden Think Fellers Union was too mainstream. So if I was buying anything on a major label, I felt ashamed of it. So there was a period of “indie rockist mentality” that I went through, and fortunately I survived and came through the other side of. I can’t really say that I love Trent’s late 90s posture, but he was in the middle of some pretty serious drug problems. When he got sober and started doing all of the Creative Commons oriented stuff, the remix projects, and then started doing his own record label, and started doing all these really cool, kind of old school industrial style multiple art projects, and he spun games and different stuff like that, he really got back to his roots of being part of this cyberpunk culture. You know, I really resisted that narrative, of him as a cyberpunk ...
I don’t think you used that word in the book.
No, I definitely didn’t, because there have been other books written about Trent’s early years, and they definitely talked about cyberpunk. It’s a very cliched and dated thing, but I think inasmuch as that’s still a sub-thread of a sort of utopian desire for technology to bring us positive change, I do think that he’s one of those people. At the same time that he’s hyper-aware of alienation and decay and those types of things.
Trent seems still interested in “things” and you have an interesting defense of it; and Ellen Willis did too, writing about its pleasures, even in rebellion. How it’s got its own effect, even if it’s not finding something subversive in the shopping mall record store.
I really loathe this sort of knee-jerk Marxist idea that somehow the commodity form has oppressed us from the truth, you know, of human existence. It’s very romantic, in a way, but I see a lot of that that still exists: You see that in marketing around organics, and locally produced food, and all of this slow food movement stuff, that somehow we can escape the commodity form. And I think that that’s a very romantic philosophical stand-point, that’s not very useful for large populations of industrial people living in cosmopolitan areas. So rather than try to escape that, or try to deny it, and make yourself distinct from it, you should sort of critically examine it, and still be in it. It’s a contradiction but it’s a contradiction we all live in.
I don’t think that there’s hypocrisy in shopping. I’m not like a Thomas Frank person; I don’t think there’s hypocrisy in shopping for items that ask you to critically engage with consumerism.
Hot Topic was carrying vinyl in the late 90s; you could find LPs by the Dead Kennedys in shopping malls through them.
The scary thing is now, on a lot of levels, Hot Topic is one of the largest distributors of alternative music culture in the country -- like brick and mortar. They still have 680 stores open. It’s the alternative, but it’s also the only. It’s not even the alternative anymore. It’s the alternative to Best Buy.
This is one of the things I’m obsessed with in one of the chapters of the book, is the concept of micro-generations: They have a really specific group of people coming through that store. For him that store is important for them to sort of negotiate their identity. And it’s that most hated part of awkward teenagedom. It’s the antithesis of authenticity. It’s so abject, you know? This plate glass window exists so people can stand outside and look at them, like a mall pet store or something. I think it’s really sad when adults make fun of Hot Topic. Because it betrays some inner psychic wound or something. Like you just want to give them a hug and say, “You know, it’s OK that you used to be a Goth kid in the suburbs. So was I. We’re so cool now.”
(Christian alternative label) Tooth & Nail does a lot of business through Hot Topic.
It makes a ton of sense, that’s where the C28 stuff comes in. Evangelical Christianity is all about selling Jesus as a counter-cultural icon. And it completely makes sense because it’s cool, right? The conquest of cool is the central concept of marketing, since the 60s.
I sensed a kind of a valid defense of Catholicism in your book; people wrestling with the existence of God, and between that and (organized) religion, but it’s all in imagery of course. Portions of your 33 1/3 reminded me of Joanna Russ’ science fiction novel The Female Man, and the idea of Christ as this bleeding and suffering person whose values are more aligned with women than men in the history of mankind.
Yeah, that completely makes sense, absolutely. A very feminized body.
It seems with Trent’s androgyny, and the sexual masochism he sings of, it reminded me of what Russ wrote about. I was wondering how that reflected in your own perceptions of Catholicism.
Whoah, that’s a complex question! Well, I think with Trent that there’s his bodily self, and then his performative self, and they’re always in this weird contradiction. Which is something I tried to get out when I was writing about the piano -- because he’s playing this extremely feminized, nineteenth-century parlor instrument, and he’s beating the shit out of it to sort of ritually destroy that feminized space. You know, until he got married and had a kid, I was really wondering-- I mean, I know about his relationships with women, I’ve talked to a lot of different folks, but he just existed in such a queer space to me, in such a homoerotic space, that didn’t really have any space for women’s bodies. So I was just really shocked when he did a 180 and became a family man, shut down the theme park and shut off the lights in a way.
I was happy to read that at the end of the book -- I didn’t know he ended up a happy family man. And now he’s such a successful but commendable independent businessman with his music. It’s a great ending -- but I actually wanted to begin this whole thing asking about the lack of women’s voices (in the book), about the fandom (there).
You mean the people I interviewed?
Oh, yeah. Well, you know, I said in the intro, that it was a coincidence turned into a strategy, and now I’ve been working on a project including Maura Johnson and others writing about fandom, or writing through fandom, and you know there is so much-- pretty much anyone who does fandom studies is a feminist. And they’re talking about reclaiming women’s values, and uses of music, and performance of music in daily life. And so you get a lot of writing about women’s use of music at least in an academic way; at the Ellen Willis panel, I sat next to Rob Sheffield, and I was like, “Well, you know Rob, my book is kind of like ‘Talking To Boys About Masochism And Misery.’” Because if I was going to name this project, it would be that, because I tried to treat the men as I would have treated the women, inasmuch as I expected them to create a space of intimacy with me from the get-go. To be revealing of their inner-most selves with me through their discussion of music, and listening, and imagination, and desire. And in giving them permission to go into these emotional places with a stranger, I was sort of able to, not push for it, but eventually I did get a lot about their contradictions of trying to be a man. In a very emasculated, poverty-stricken, hopeless space. What does that mean? And I think, for example, the person in the book named Broken Machine, talks about this feminized space that he’s in where it’s his mother and his sister, and he’s in art school, and he’s surrounded by all these women, and he’s saying to me, “I hate women. You know, I think that they’re idiots, but I tried to make a really rationalized argument about it, so I tried to write this all down, but I didn’t have a rational argument about it, I was just terrified.” And to say that to a stranger -- to look someone in the eye and say, “You know, I hate women, they’re evil.” He was so self-conscious and self-reflexive about his fandom. And lived like ten minutes away from where Trent Reznor grew up.
If I was going to do this in a more empirical way, the fact that I interviewed everyone solo, and in a private space, allowed me to get into these very intimate places. If I had to get the men together to talk about their fandom, I think I would have gotten a completely different story; I think I would have heard a lot more about anger, and I’d heard a lot more about male comraderie. But I didn’t do that.
I think you’re right; but after noting this, I also noticed that you have such a diverse amount of voices. And there’s a lot of men who are talking about being objectified as weirdos, or marginalized. They have a lot of different backgrounds -- even though they’re economically challenged for the most part -- and clinically depressed a lot, there’s still so many different stories.
You know, I thought it was going to be super easy to find these people! And I thought that people would want to talk to me. And then they would sort of clam up. You know, I’ve done a lot of music journalism, and I’ve done a lot of ethnographic and oral history interviewing, so it was kind of shocking to me. But usually I take a lot longer to establish an intimacy or credibility before I turn on the microphone. I didn’t really have as much opportunity this time. But yeah, it was pretty shocking -- the difference between the 20 year olds, and the 40 year olds. Mostly it was hard for me to not finish the sentences of the 20 year olds, because it was clear that they were still figuring stuff out. And the sort of ritual practice of listening and making sense of your life through music they were just kind of at the beginning of that. And I was feeling very sympathetic to the emotional space that I knew that they were in, and where they would have to go before they came through it.
And that’s why I really like the first one -- Dave, in the chapter “Head Like A Hole.” Because his story to me is like the most-- he was bi-polar, and heavily medicated and homeless, and he came through it. And it’s very similar to Trent Reznor’s story in that it’s also very happily ever after. And very improbable.
Here’s a guy I related with, who’s connected now; but at one time he was completely disregarded, because most people believe he really wouldn’t have a future.
Yeah, and I never really talked to a stranger in that way. Where he was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m just the kind of person that society would throw away. And I knew it, and I was throwing myself away.’ And it was through listening to Nine Inch Nails that I understood that was not uncommon for people to feel this way. And while it wasn’t uncommon, that it was a problem, you know, and that it needed to be fixed.
He had years of addiction and being on disability, and now for ten years has been working with developmentally disabled kids.
I think it’s great, and he has a line in there where he says something like, ‘I don’t let all these kids know that I was in this institutional system. But because of it I have a lot of empathy for them.’ And it’s a cliche but I think it’s true that many of the best mentors, and people who work with folks like that have lived through it themselves and they can really, really create strong bonds through it.
Dave was just someone who literally found my post, in the bathroom, at a Nine Inch Nails concert in Blossom, and he emailed me, and we met at Dennys. And he had a broken off synth key in his hand, from one of the shows like fifteen years ago, that he brought with him. And it was such a treasure. And I couldn’t believe that he would take it out of the house. I probably would have framed it.
Back to Catholicism ... it seems as if the whole book ...
Well, I think it’s half and half. The “Ringfinger” chapter is evangelical, “Anonymous” is Catholic.
I don’t want to get too personal with you ...
You can totally get personal with me! All of the Amazon interviews trashed the book, because it’s not about what Trent Reznor had for breakfast before he recorded this stuff, and, you know.
Well, I thought you got to all the important musical questions I had while I read the book; my guess is the negative reviews are from people who didn’t bother to finish reading it.
I would have loved to put even more in. I had this fantasy of rewriting the book every five years. I just feel it would be a fun experiment, to just sit down and rewrite the whole thing. From a different perspective, each five years. After doing it, I realized this was the research I needed to do to start doing a (straight) biography of Reznor.
I really love how you discuss the areas you both grew up in, about Ohio, and how your family invested in steel, and how everything changed. And you end up staying with your father after your parents are divorced, and you discover fanzine (culture). Every chapter in here could be a book (about various aspects of alternative music and economics), and that’s the beauty of this 33 1/3.
I go on late night binges where I buy books on the Internet, and they all come in the mails three weeks later and I have no idea what happened, and I also buy URLs I’ll think will eventually be successful. And so when I bought the “Remember the 90s” one, I was starting up the research for the beginning of the Hot Topic chapter, which was setting up Nine Inch Nails and synth-pop and industrial as the kind of future music of the late 80s. You know, coming over from Europe and taking over an American industrial-metal tone; but becoming a part of this fledgling alternative dance community, in in U.S. But then your fucking Pacific Northwest stoners show up and poop all over the future!
You didn’t mention Seattle once in there!
That’s not true! Because this is one of the most important sentences in the book, which is, ‘And then came October, of Nevermind ...’. You know, because Reznor came off of Lollapalooza -- he came in as an unknown and came out a rock star. He worked his ass off. You know, he’s a really dynamic musician, and he got up there, and gave a great show. He won the audience over, and he was poised to go and kick ass. And then, you know, Nevermind comes out, and this is not the 90s we were going to have. OK.
There is an aspect of mourning the danceable heavy music explosion that didn’t quite happen in the 90s ... the positivity, feelings that might have otherwise come out of that in then ... I mean, people ended up moshing to everything, and NIN came along with that, but the way that Pretty Hate Machine is produced, where it’s rock music based more on Prince and other things that were now coming out of the Midwest ...
I think Nine Inch Nails is extremely queer. It’s not post-racial by any means, but I know people from all different backgrounds who love Nine Inch Nails, because it’s funky, and it’s got good beats, and it’s sexy, and it’s perverse.
And from that area you go all the way back to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and how early playing out Trent was in with soul musicians of the time ...
He was a session musician, an amazing session musician in Cleveland. And who are the people making money in Cleveland in the 80s? It wasn’t the indie rock or the underground alternative people, it was 80s funk music.
And that’s part of the sound of that first record.
Right. And trying to trace the history of pop music in Cleveland based on racial divide was, uh, difficult. But I wanted to go back and register that URL of the 90s besides it was just a cheap cash in of my nostalgic youth, is that you know, I started doing all this research about early Lollapalooza, and I realized that there’s not really any comprehensive book about Lollapalooza. There were some tour diaries published, and there were some small things here and there, but the definitive history or oral history ... you have hundreds of books about Woodstock. And it happened a few times. Once, and then again. But Lollapalooza happened all through the 90s. And it was so definitive of an entire cultural force. But we’re so ashamed of it, you know?
Why are we ashamed of it?
Well, at the Ellen Willis conference they asked this question that was so embarrassing that no one would answer it, which was: Ellen wrote about Dylan, and Janis, and all of these artists as if they were voices and the spokespeople of her generation. And she worked through all of these political and philosophical and erratic ideas, through these voices. Who are these voices of your generation? And you know, nobody would touch that question with a ten foot pole. And later I was reading the tweets about it, like, ‘I can’t believe no one mentioned Nirvana.’
I was in 8th grade when Kurt Cobain died. I didn’t have very much to say about my ‘erotic self’ in 8th grade. We just don’t have whatever that cultural center is to be able to do that. And all of the so-called stars of that generation, who are mainstream, have fallen so greatly: Courtney Love, Billy Corgan ... that’s why I’m horrified. I was doing some retail therapy and walked into a store and saw a t-shirt that said, ‘I Was A Product Of The 90s.’ And I thought, ‘I should get one of these shirts.’ But I think it means ‘Born In The 90s,’ and all of the clothes in the store are baby doll dresses and grunge fashion that is straight out of Courtney Love, a closet from 1993. And it’s so odd to me because there’s no center there; they’re not playing the music. They’re playing synth-pop and stuff, because ... (Michaelangelo) Matos used to have a book that he liked a lot, called ‘What If Punk Never Happened?’ and I feel ‘Like Alternative Rock Never Happened?’ is a much better thing, because you never hear any of that shit on the radio ever. I mean, I never hear any of it, unless it is very edited down. Maybe Red Hot Chili Peppers, but that’s it. And it hasn’t aged well, and I don’t know if the stewards of memory of our generation, and I will take partial responsibility for it because I’m one of those people. And I’m working on this Ann Powers anthology, and it’s really interesting to go back and read all of her work from the 90s into the 2000s, because it seemed like one day rock music stopped mattering altogether. New Kids On The Block happening all over again. And then 9/11 happened and erased all the history of that aspect of the 90s.
Ambitiously musical, transgressive, personal into universal statements about marginalized daily existence would no longer be popular ...
Yeah, and extremely critical of the government, and American policy. I think of SPIN Magazine in the 90s in which every single issue had an article about the AIDS crisis and national health care related to it. And those kinds of critical, political engagements that were part of the project of the alternative culture went out the window after the ‘war on terror.’ In a frozen moment, when people stopped giving a shit about anything.