As the last millennium rolled into this one, Trent Reznor—a subversive icon for '90s teens—found himself a sudden dinosaur. "Hi kids, do you like violence? Wanna see me stick Nine Inch Nails through each one of my eyelids?" quipped Eminem at the start of his first big hit. One cartoon cartooned another cartoon, and the baton of shock was firmly and finally wrested from Reznor.
But for Reznor, a long-simmering cultural comeback finally seems near-complete. Earlier this year, he brought his band out of faux-retirement to release Hesitation Marks, his best-received album in more than a decade. He launched a massive tour that brings him to Raleigh's PNC Arena next week and to headline the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit—one of the country's biggest new festivals—a few days later. He recently landed on the cover of The Fader's "icon issue," a sign of status and return to prominence among the gatekeepers.
With lavish reissues and anniversary think pieces having restored some of the band's credibility retroactively, it might be hard to believe how far perception of Nine Inch Nails had fallen by the dawn of the last decade. Take Pitchfork critic Brent DiCrescenzo's 2.0 review of 1999's The Fragile, the double record that somehow dented Reznor's rep as a blockbuster commercial artist even as it went double platinum. It's a brutal slaying of a once-sacred cow, with DiCrescenzo dismissing Reznor's oeuvre entirely by branding him "an unsubtle goth."
What's more, the site's "Top 100 Albums of the 1980s" list, published in 2002, neglected the industrial alt-pop of Pretty Hate Machine. Subsequently, its "Top 100 Albums of the 1990s" snubbed NIN's hugely successful and influential follow-up, The Downward Spiral. These writers seemed to be sprinting from the music as though its self-conscious angst had become an embarrassing totem of youth.
But Reznor was the guy who made synth-pop macho and industrial music sexy. He taunted the vanquished hippies by radiating mud-caked bad vibes all over a Woodstock anniversary show. He was the biggest post-punk hero of a hip-hop era. Why had he become such a punch line—or, worse still, ignored?
With The Fragile, Reznor chased a career-defining concept album with an even longer, ever-more-personal despair, a move that scans as swiped from a dusty classic rock playbook. Who had 104 minutes to spend on Reznor's complaints when suddenly every song in existence was seemingly available to download on Napster?
Yes, The Fragile is now mentioned by fans and critics as some of Nine Inch Nails' most affecting, immaculate work, but the music was only part of the point: Reznor had become boring because he got away with everything. His biggest radio hit had "fuck" in its hook; he was never made to sing "I wanna forget you like an animal." He had so much label money to throw at his own iconography (more than any punk ever, really) that he used it to make material that seemed more dangerous than it was because it couldn't be broadcast on cable TV without major edits. He shrewdly exploited the last gasp of the same cultural gatekeepers who were soon pushed into irrelevance.
As the Internet and its webs of access took hold, Reznor's place as a cultural boogeyman toward the end of the Clinton era lost currency. Alongside changing listening habits, the impact of shocking material was radically redefined. The visceral reality of war, terrorism and school shootings (sometimes blamed directly on Reznor and lunkheaded protege Marilyn Manson by truly clueless pundits) made his violence seem phony. Like glossy-grime auteur David Fincher, his own Hollywood version of depravity became too slick to truly unsettle. Pantomiming S&M deviancy won't fly in a world where the real deal is just an icky Google search away, let alone where every other beach bag would soon carry a copy of 50 Shades of Grey. It was a conundrum that vexed Reznor for a good long time, one that found him retreating into the harbors of retirement talk, film scores and a band started with his wife.
But there was still the sound of Nine Inch Nails to consider, right? Indeed, before Hesitation Marks was released, thoughts of NIN swirled anew not because the debut LP from Reznor's other act, How to Destroy Angels, arrived but because of Kanye West's Yeezus. The unruly grime of West's record was stark and minimal, a less dense version of synth-punk than Reznor's current one.
With that sound as his dark chariot, West had moved into the sort of uncomfortable, button-pushing position Trent used to own. While Reznor's once-taboo mentions of sex, violence and religious heresy may have lost their edge, the modern identity issues woven inside Yeezus' bleak sounds—race, class, celebrity—remain live wires. Reznor's no longer chided for failure to shock so much as celebrated for his sound's ability to move in the near-absence of light.
With the cozy publicity push for Hesitation Marks, Reznor might've taken a final step back from his agitator persona, becoming instead a distinguished elder statesman. The story of his comeback is a familiar one, centered around stability, sobriety and longevity as much as creative renewal. He won an Oscar and Golden Globe for his score for The Social Network, a Grammy for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He made peace with the major-label machinery that he adamantly vilified as a star on the wane in the mid-'00s. He's corporate again, but this time as a comfy legacy artist rather than a young, incensed rebel needing someone to print his money. (And he doesn't want to compete with Death Grips for major-label hijinx, anyway.)
That he's still here is now the overt point. "I survived everything!" he exclaims on the hook of "Everything," maybe his happiest song ever on the sometimes-gleeful Hesitation Marks.
At his biggest, Reznor was a genius manipulator of his own image. More than his songwriting, it was that aspect that failed him the most in his decade spent out in the cold. But showing up in a tux to collect an Oscar is just as important for this phase in his career as showing up caked in mud might've once been. Less dangerous but once again respected, Trent Reznor seems to have finally regained his touch, even if it's softer now.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Gent Reznor."