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Al Qaeda Finds Its Rock Star

Performing wrapped up in wires or covered with mud, orgasmically moaning about throwing himself away, Trent Reznor has long bestowed market appeal on all things transgressive. He added FM rock flair to the experimental electronics of Cabaret Voltaire and Skinny … Read More

By / May 3, 2007
Performing wrapped up in wires or covered with mud, orgasmically moaning about throwing himself away, Trent Reznor has long bestowed market appeal on all things transgressive. He added FM rock flair to the experimental electronics of Cabaret Voltaire and Skinny Puppy, and made sadomasochism mainstream.

Now, after having spent the majority of his career in existential self-contemplation (or flagellation, as it were), Reznor seems to have found his political voice on the new concept album, Year Zero. The album revels in apocalyptic imagery – the blood of the guilty, the blood of the pure – and features a homegrown video chronicling the last days of a righteous resistance. Al Qaeda has finally found its rock star.

For most, this kind of tortured posturing is a phase that passes as one gains a bit of perspective on the universe. Usually it fades the instant you get a nice girlfriend. For Reznor, the pose is a paycheck, which was fine ten years ago when New Orleans was associated with Anne Rice novels, and a gaunt, absinthe-swilling vampire could ride that phantasmagoric death cab into the Billboard Top Twenty. But in the age of sacred terror, when the macabre needs no special effects department, do we really need a goth showman filtering his lethal Romanticism through the sieve of jihad?

Year Zero is, to be fair, a fictional tale. Set 15 years in the future, it portrays a world where, according to Reznor, “greed and power have run their course [sic].” In this fairly humdrum dystopia the American government has used the terrorist threat to create a theocratic Big Brother State. Police murder club-goers and Muslims, the population is drugged into complacency, and all the while folks are having visions that the oppressive hand of God is reaching down from the heavens to rub their noses in the dirt. It's the end of the world as we know it, but Trent feels fine because there’s hope in a courageous “resistance” comprised of the wretched of the earth. The rebels are fed up with the world around them and they’re exploding in fits of violence that appear more therapeutic than strategic. In other words, it's a half-baked hodgepodge of V for Vendetta, Frantz Fanon, and the Book of Revelation.

The lyrics are mostly recycled from old NIN records, with familiar lines about whoring, drugs and nothingness. But a few telling new chords are struck that make it clear Trent has swapped his narcissism for a different ism altogether. Consider My Violent Heart.” Ostensibly an anthem for those in the world of Year Zero who have taken to militant struggle against the Administration, it actually sounds like an anthem for suicide bombers: “Into the fire you can send us / From the fire we return / You can label us a consequence of how much you have to learn.” Echoing the manifestos of the Muslim Brotherhood, it announces the triumph of the righteous over the enemy: “Time will feed on your weaknesses / And soon you'll lose the will to care / When you return to the place you call home we will be there.”

In a song entitled “The Warning,” Reznor graduates to a category other than that of misguided rebel when he sings: “We've come to intervene / You can change your ways / And we will wipe this place clean.” The inclination toward revolt is one thing, but the drive toward purification has been at the heart of genocidal thinking from National Socialism to Stalinism to Islamism. Add to that the sinister allusion to 9/11 as a rallying cry for the wretched of the earth in this song’s opening stave: “Some say it was a warning / Some say it was a sign / I was standing right there / When it came down from the sky / The way it spoke to us / We felt it from inside / Said it was up to us / Up to us to decide.” Too soon, or long overdue for the gaunt maestro of nihilism?

Wars over religion (not to mention ideologies of more recent vintage) have always centered on the idea that the impurity of the infidel or thought-deviant must be eradicated by any means necessary. Marketplace bombers in Baghdad are agents of God-ordained purity. Misguided Western radicals, however, turn on their own societies, which they see as greater dangers to the erosion of individual freedoms and civil liberties. Reznor has written their magnum opus: “We think we've climbed so high / Up all the backs we've condemned / We'll face the consequence / This is the beginning of the end." So now the pious, homicidal few are the purifiers. We are a “virus,” and this record charts one possible self-created apocalypse.

In a video interview for Best Buy (presumably Wal-Mart will be engulfed by the cleansing fire of Islamist revolution), Reznor claims that this new project is the outcome of his fear of where America is headed—with “how we treat the rest of the world and how we treat our own citizens.” He’s tried to get inside the heads of several people who live in this dark future, and the songs on Year Zero are like vignettes portraying the experience of morally conflicted soldiers, by-standers, lovers, and the so-called resistance.

Make no mistake, though: this isn't an exercise in pure fiction. Reznor states plainly that he wants to “comment on” the state of the world. It’s not a stretch to imagine that he hopes the record will function the way the philosopher Slavoj Žižek explained the film that Year Zero most resembles, Children of Men; to make our reality “more what it already is.”

Reznor dons a keffiyeh for the album’s videos and photo shoots. Of course, the traditional Arab garment has no essential connotation of Islamism or terrorism. But given Trent’s myopic focus on the state of America and what she’s got coming, it’s quite hard to believe that he means to make some T.E. Lawrence-like gesture of solidarity with stateless Palestinians or embattled Muslim reformists, who are themselves the targets of jihadist depredations. He’s far too interested in roosting chickens: as “My Violent Heart” puts it, we’re “about to reap what [we] have sown.” So it makes more sense to think of Reznor’s new fashion accessory as an update of the PVC and fishnet days. The keffiyeh is his 21st century bondage gear.

The romance with blood, extremity and Orientalist eschatology calls to mind the poet Stephen Spender's observations about a group of British spies who had worked for the Soviets during the Cold War. Spender said their “faith in a creed whose mixture of sanctity, bloodiness, and snobbery gave them a sense of great personal superiority.” Of course, “sanctity, bloodiness and snobbery” sounds like the name of an outtake from Pretty Hate Machine. If those in the “Not In My Name” Left, those who see self-immolating mass murderers as anti-imperialist activists, were ever going to find their John Lennon, what better candidate than a male dominatrix thrashing about the stage as if in search of a safety word?

In order to lend more credence to his prophecy of doom, Reznor reverts to Blair Witch verité in a massive viral advertising campaign to generate hype for the record. At Another Version of the Truth, distorted, seemingly abandoned web pages, mp3 recordings, and viral videos comprise a sort of digital history museum full of mysterious clues as to how Western Civilization declined and fell. Still, Reznor claims this fabricated backstory is not marketing—it is the “experience of Year Zero.” The Marketing Campaign Did Not Take Place, declares Reznor, mixing Baudrillard’s pomo sophistry with a Jedi Master's sleight of hand. “These aren't the ads you're looking for.”

A few years ago, Reznor exchanged his heroin habit for books by Noam Chomsky (the great sage even enjoyed a link on the official Nine Inch Nails website). He's no longer just a brooder—he's now a brooding do-gooder. It would be unfair to deny Reznor credit for attempting to infuse his work with themes that reflect his desire to make some sort of civic contribution through art. But it appears as if, in a haze of artistic passion, he’s ended up a sounding board for the worst neo-fascist ideology. I wouldn’t bet that Trent’s bookshelves are overrun with the screeds of Wahhabism, but his visions and fantasies sync seamlessly with those of Bin Laden.

Reviewers have already lamely invoked 1984 as a conceptual forebear of Year Zero. But where Orwell's novel was freighted with fears over the very legitimate horror of Stalinism and its supremacy over liberal democracy, Reznor’s album prefers to traffic in cartoonish paranoia about where liberal democracy itself is headed. (If we were well on our way to the kind of totalitarian nightmare he predicts, would Year Zero even be saleable?) The result is a studio-mixed political treatise that contributes to the shrinking vocabulary of the far left, which now views Islamist martyrdom as sexy and revolutionary.

Like so many of his cultural contemporaries, Reznor's bleak vision is paralyzed when it comes to envisioning anything palatable or sane about the future. Instead, he does what he's always done best—makes a masturbatory spectacle out of violent self-destruction.

Read more about Josh Strawn and his band Blacklist:

A Blacklist The Left Could Use Meet the Christopher Hitchens of postpunk
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