His time in New Orleans was transitional for Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor. In Pretty Hate Machine, Daphne Carr examines not the early days of the band but its impact on individual lives. The book is part of Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series, and Carr uses the album as the focal point to consider the world that made Reznor – the Rust Belt when rust was setting in on its industrial economic engine – and by extension, the fans who found reassurance, community and the tools for examining their own lives through their Nine Inch Nails’ fandom.
Carr gives each chapter over to another fan and presents the results of her interviews as a series of oral histories. To her credit, she edits the stories of her subjects sympathetically. It’s easy to imagine how they could have been winceworthy in so many ways, not because of the nature of the band but because of the over-the-top nature of fandom. She situates herself in the story as an Ohian and Nine Inch Nails fan, which keeps her study from feeling detached, but her accounts never read as rigged on the side of the fans either. Most read like teenagers who deal with the shit teenagers go through in an area where the cultural and economic climate offered little hope; in that context, Reznor and the community of NIN fans spoke to them.
That focus on individuals and their largely one-sided relationship with NIN makes Carr’s last chapter, “Leader of the Black Parade,” all the more interesting. In it, she shifts her attention to the mall retailer Hot Topic and its emergence as a marketer of alternative fashion that found its commercial voice by selling NIN/Nothing Records/Interscope-related products. The juxtaposition of that chapter with those that come before it is compelling because Carr steps very lightly on her point. The chapter rightly suggests that the relationship between NIN and Hot Topic is more complicated than simple exploitation/not exploitation, but it’s hard to read without wondering how the people in the previous chapters fit into the Hot Topic story. Some likely shopped there; others probably dismissed those who shopped there as poseurs. Their angsts and anxieties are shaped by the economic forces that stressed their families and made positive futures hard to imagine, which makes the retailer’s efforts to sell to them then move on to the next cool thing seem like a double or triple capitalism whammy.
Pretty Hate Machine doesn’t feature any interviews with Reznor, nor does it tell the story of the making of the album. By focusing on its social, historical, economic and cultural surroundings, Daphne Carr tells a better story.