Perspectives: Why We Should Aspire to Trent Reznor’s Style of Evolution

Reznor’s career is the output of a continuously expanding range of skills and interests.

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It occurred to me this week that Pittsburgh has not fully embraced Trent Reznor.

The enduring musician and composer, whose early notoriety with idiosyncratic alternative-rock act Nine Inch Nails led to a dazzling second act in compositions for film and television, isn’t a Pittsburgher in the strictest sense; he was born in New Castle and raised mostly in Mercer. But as a scion of western Pennsylvania more generally, there are few more worthy of our civic pride.

I don’t just mean this as a matter of success — I mean it as a matter of evolution. Reznor’s career, I think, is the sort of stuff toward which we should all aspire.

Growing up in the ’90s, Nine Inch Nails — the band has had many temporary members, but is fundamentally just Reznor — felt dangerous. I remember a years-long ban on MTV in my house, partially inspired by the infamous video for “Closer,” a hypnotically disturbing creation that received contemporary accusations of trafficking in Satanic imagery. I clearly recall my mother’s shock at the video — its array of unsettling glares and macabre characters, its shots of a wriggling, writhing insect, its bondage-inspired outfits and contorted figures.

That, by the way, was the censored version of the video.

For 1994 — a year when three spots on the year-end Billboard chart were occupied by squeaky-clean Swedish pop stars Ace of Base — it was certainly incendiary content, even after heavy redactions (replaced by a “Scene Missing” title card) made it acceptable for airings on MTV.

Nine years later, VH1 Classic — the older-skewing sister station of an already older-skewing network — called “Closer” the best music video ever made.

I don’t mean to sensationalize the reaction to Nine Inch Nails; while the act was suitably scary for suburban parents, the band was well-regarded critically and widely popular. Nine Inch Nails spent much of 2005 opening for David Bowie. Reznor didn’t earn the breathless media ire and religious outrage his contemporary Marilyn Manson would bring to a boil, nor would he receive the unfair castigation mainstream culture levied toward hip-hop in that era.

Yet to look at the “Closer” video — or its ever-so-slightly-better and equally creepy follow-up, “The Perfect Drug” — you would not suspect that this guy would end up scoring a Disney movie a quarter-century later.

Offstage, Reznor did at the time have his demons; he struggled with depression, alcoholism and drug abuse throughout the 1990s. For better or worse, these battles are somewhat evident in his musical output at the time — and, unlike other acts of the era that would be labeled “shock rock,” the exploration of those battles in Reznor’s music feels genuine.

While it’s easy to draw a straight line between a more healthy lifestyle — Reznor completed rehab in 2001 — and safer creative endeavors, I think that’s reductive. Certainly, Nine Inch Nails’ output in the 2000s and 2010s is much different from albums such as “The Downward Spiral.” But listening to the band’s newer releases alongside Reznor’s scores for movies including “The Social Network” and “Bird Box” still shows variety and experimentation.

In other words, Reznor’s career is the output of a continuously expanding range of skills and interests. This is not the story of a guy who did “Closer,” then evolved on a straight line until he was doing the score for “Mank.” It’s the career of an artist who started in one place and broadened his interests and abilities until he could do any number of things.

Later this week, the Golden Globes will announce this year’s winner for Best Original Score — a category where Reznor, alongside his frequent collaborator Atticus Ross, is nominated twice. The pair received nods for the “Mank” score, a further departure inspired by golden-age Hollywood soundscapes, and the inventive music from the metaphysical Pixar film “Soul.” Reznor may well pick up another Globe (he’s already won once, for “Social Network”) and place that statue on a shelf already heavy with Emmys, Grammys, an Oscar and whatever big plaque they give you for making it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This, again, is the guy whose creepy music video made my Mom turn off MTV for a few years.

It’s a career path to aspire to.

And we should probably get a Trent Reznor statue 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 “frightening and beautiful.”

Categories: Collier’s Weekly