What is the world that Nine Inch Nails made, and what was the world that made Nine Inch Nails? These are the questions at the heart of this study of the band’s 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine. The album began as after-hours demos by mercenary new wave keyboardist Trent Reznor, and was disciplined into sparse industrial dance by a handful of the UK’s best industrial producers. Carr traces how the album became beloved in the underground, found its mass at Lollapalooza, and its market at the newly opened mall store Hot Topic. For fans, Nine Inch Nails was a vehicle for questioning God, society, the family, sex, and the body. In ten raw, heartbreaking oral histories woven through the book, fans living in the post-industrial Midwest discuss the successes and failures of the American dream as they are articulated in Nine Inch Nails’ music. Daphne Carr illuminates Pretty Hate Machine as at once singular and as representative of how popular music can impact history and change lives.
I thoroughly enjoy every 33 ⅓ book I have read, and how they don’t have a consistent angle. There are some that talk about the recording of the album, some are about the history that influenced the album, and some are about the impact and importance of the album. The entry of Pretty Hate Machine written by Daphne Carr leans heavily on the last of these formulas, spending most of her time talking about Pretty Hate Machine and Nine Inch Nails through interviews with the fans, and the histories of the towns that influenced Trent Reznor and his upbringing.
I like all of it because Carr is using Pretty Hate Machine as more of a metaphor than a solid thing. She writes that the pretty hate machine is not an album but a physical place, a time, and a mindset. The towns surrounding Reznor’s childhood, (Mercer, Pennsylvania, Youngstown, Ohio, and Cleveland, Ohio) are the places that are where the industrial machines are the influence of the economy (through steel mills and factories), and that if you are not a factory worker, there is not a place for you. Add this to the 80s, while Reznor was a teenager, when the towns were starting to fall apart, the factories were shutting down, and poverty and drug use were rising, you have a landscape for the soundscape.
This is mixed with Carr interviewing Nine Inch Nails fans about their attachment to the band and the songs. An interesting part of this is how many of them did not site Pretty Hate Machine as their favorite, but the songs are important to them and got them through some tough times, whether a terrible childhood, an addiction, or a sense of desperation in their lives. I liked these stories, even though they do not always have much to do with the actual album. It is almost like Carr is showing that this album is one that people use to hold onto when they need something to hold onto and the motion of the machine helps them get through.
My history with Pretty Hate Machine is extensive. I have been listening to Nine Inch Nails since early high school. My friend had a cassette tape of Pretty Hate Machine and the Broken e.p. I talked him into letting me borrow them while I went on a family trip, ten hours in the car through the mountains listening to Nine Inch Nails. I listened to Broken a few times, but it was inconvenient, because the cassette tape was all on one side, with “Physical (You’re So)” on side B, smack in the middle of the side so it was difficult to cue up properly. I listened to Pretty Hate Machine more for convenience. It was the perfect soundtrack, a mixture of irritation, frustration, but also hope and longing for a world that was bigger than the one that I knew.
Of course I loved all of it. I listened to it over and over for hours, and I loved that I caught the little bits, like the Jane’s Addiction sample in “Ringfinger”, but I really loved the emotion of “Something I Can Never Have.” This is a song that I really don’t listen to anymore, even when it’s on, but I used to get my feelings wrapped up in the lyrics and think about the girls I had crushes on, knowing that they were not even looking at me.
I bought The Downward Spiral the day that it came out, and I do have a stronger connection to it, but I was driving through the mountains this summer, going the same route I went when I was a teenager in the backseat of the family car, and I still have those feelings from when I was a teenager, that the world is bigger than I ever imagined, and I will do better things in my life. The irritation, frustration, hope, and longing are still there, and will always be there.