My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I was a bookseller at Borders, I had a customer who was looking for Nine Inch Nails-related books as a birthday gift for a friend who loved the band. Unfortunately, all I could recommend to her was Martin Huxley’s Nine Inch Nails. Which wasn’t in stock at the time because I had just bought it for myself.
I mention this because if you are a Nine Inch Nails fan, you are going to have to look hard to earn any insight or info into the life, attitudes, or inspirations of its lead singer Trent Reznor. While he doesn’t actively shun the spotlight, he also doesn’t seek it. Listen to his Fresh Air interview. Read the latest reddit AMA for How To Destroy Angels. Reznor is an elusive subject. So there should be little surprise that there are few books about NIN. Those that exist, like Huxley’s and now Daphne Carr’s Pretty Hate Machine, are constructed from previous interviews with other music writers and pop culture criticism.
Because of these very difficulties, I enjoy what Daphne Carr has attempted, and in some ways succeeded, with her entry in the 33 1/3 series. She has chosen to place the album Pretty Hate Machine in the context of the NIN discography, in the tradition of industrial music, in the socioeconomic changes of contemporary America and in the mainstreaming of “deviant” or provocative alternative pop culture. All of these are ambitious approaches and Carr brings up many topics I hope to pursue and research on my own. Her writing is never technical; she writes critically with ease and skill.
Many readers may be disappointed with the ethnographic part of Carr’s book. Using personal fan stories makes sense to explore the impact of PHM as well as illustrate how a commercial product like music can evoke deeply personal connections. But the way the stories are assigned to the tracks doesn’t seem to connect well. Also, these are testimonies of average, everyday guys whose spontaneous thoughts don’t translate well onto the page.
I gave this book 5 stars because I was inspired and moved to see an author write something of substance about pop culture and to do it well. Carr’s work on PHM is not a typical biography or a making-of about this specific album. The book is a product of 4 years of research into how music can be born of, influence, and connect disparate layers of culture. Carr has added to the discussion about NIN and, like her, I look forward to what other music writers have to say about Reznor and his music’s influence.