Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Daphne Carr’s contribution to Continuum's 33 1/3 series, Pretty Hate Machine, has been on my list of things to read since last spring, but other commitments prevented me from fully delving into it until now. I realize now that sitting near me all this time was an engaging work of radical contextualism, one that seeks to literally transform rather than revere Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 album.

Carr writes that the book was inspired by my book Tramps Like Us, which is cool (thanks for the shout-out, Daphne), but I have to say that she moves beyond my limited self-analysis and scholarly representation of fans’ voices to fully embrace the notion that not only musicians make music. She makes it clear that an analysis of Pretty Hate Machine that addressed only the songs on the album, or only the creative process of Trent Reznor, would be a distortion; the album has had such a resonance since its release that the only way to make sense of it is (to quote ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger) to “start in the middle and work outward in all directions.” Carr's analysis is not for the narrow-minded; it unabashedly connects the 1999 Columbine shootings, goth culture, Reaganomics, early rock'n'roll, the history of Youngtown, Trent Reznor's life, industrialization, slum clearance, historic preservation, Hot Topic, cultural contradiction, and American despair.

Despite the breadth of her vision, her specialty is the pithy meta-statement, perhaps learned at the hands of postmodernist theorists, but skillfully honed, here, to the memorable bon mot. (“Hot Topic was where sellouts sold the idea that selling out sucked).” What's most interesting, though, is the slyness of her insights. They often lurk in the background, suggested in word choices or absences in descriptions, finally jumping off the page to clonk you on the head. My favorite moment is her chapter on Cleveland, which starts by linking the cancellation of the Alan Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball in 1952 to the story of rock’n’roll’s erosion of racial segregation. It’s a well-written description of what is now a conventional story. But then, in the next paragraph, she suddenly flips that truism on its head to reveal Alan Freed’s involvement in Screamin’ Jay Hawkin’s African cannibal/coffin act, which pandered to white racist fantasies and drove Hawkins to cope through drug-use. In a final rhetorical twist, Carr sums it all up by making all these connections a foundation of Nine Inch Nails’ complex appeal, announcing, “This is the story of the first goth-rock stage show.”

The most controversial (for those who want to hear only about Trent Reznor) and the most moving (for those who want to understand the power and legacy of this album) are the ten chapters that each feature a fan talking about his or her experiences with and around the album. Like the Bruce Springsteen fans with whom I conversed in the 1990s, each person has an extraordinary story centered on an experience of hearing that becomes a long-lasting and powerful force for identity, reformation, and belonging. These fans are, like many self-aware people, slightly anxious that “the sounds they believe to be their soul’s salvation are also a mass-mediated commodity.” But that’s the point—the fragments of industrialized entertainment cynically sold to us as “revolution” or “soul-bearing art” can actually—though often unpredictably—foster revolution and soul-bearing.

Notice I said “foster.” I think what Carr’s book hammers home is that these meanings are not “in the music.” In fact, she goes so far as to instruct her readers to resist this commonplace musicological notion, encouraging instead a different approach: “If you have copy of Pretty Hate Machine, listen along to hear the book’s speakers with and against yours. The space between your hearing, their hearing, and my hearing is how we will get into a conversation (or argument) that is part of the point of this book. If the conversation makes us all cringe a bit, so much the better.” If that isn’t a good definition of fandom, I don’t know what is.

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