Nine Inch Nails has never exactly been "pop" - it beats you over the head with its vicious sound and then plays around in your gore with a demon-smile. One could be forgiven for seeing it as counterproductive until you understand what it's really saying. Of course, I've never had that problem - I've enjoyed it since my youth, first as a teenager because of its violence, and then later because of the indictment of violence inherent in its music. It is not educational so much as punitive: Reznor creates sonic landscapes of horror and then buries your face in them as an enraged warning straight from the depths of Hell. The message is gut-wrenching but you can't look away: If you can see this sign, you are too close to the Abyss.
Actually, Nine Inch Nails - the project around which Trent Reznor cloaks his individual genius - has been putting out brilliantly satirical, disturbing content for nearly a generation. I'm not really sure when to say they "began" being relevant, but the first song that made it clear this was a musical force to be reckoned with was 1989's Head Like A Hole:
For a time, however, NIN's message was distracted by the irrelevant teen angst that drove much of its fanbase and marketing in the early '90s. Songs like those contributed to the 1994 movie Natural Born Killers were thought of as angry, but not especially meaningful despite the satirical aspects of the film:
But as things changed and they were no longer saddled with the demands of a particular "market," Reznor's insightful rage became increasingly focused and artistically potent - though audiences have become anesthetized and sought out only music that numbs them rather than forces realization upon them. It's one of those ironies, that a song's meaning and appreciation only unfold over time.
NIN's music was especially potent at the height of the Bush regime and its propaganda machine, when it seemed inevitable that global freedom and democracy were going to imminently dissolve into some postmodern Orwellian / Fascist nightmare. And while the reality has shown that fears can be just as impractical and exaggerated as hopes, they remain highly relevant:
NIN's starkness has also led to ironic uses, such as its defining presence in the soundtrack of the Nazi porno movie "300" - a movie that portrayed the most psychotic, cruel, monstrous people in the pre-Roman ancient world as heroes. This was perhaps a questionable choice, but in line with the kind of rubbing-your-face-in-it attitude NIN tends to symbolize. It's as if Reznor is saying "Do you not notice that this is complete bullshit, and we're glorifying pure evil? Well then, revel in what you've bought." The Spartans were the worst human beings in the world until the Nazis over two and a half thousand years later, but if Frank Miller was to be believed, they were George Washington in togas. The most implacable enemies of freedom in all of Greek history, turned into its heroes by the magic of a comic book adaptation 25 centuries later. Reznor succeeded in translating such madness into sonic terms, although the public largely failed to interpret them:
NIN has also been a quieter voice of more troubling insights into the problem, although it has never had - or will ever have - the exposure of the pablum people feed themselves to hide from reality. More recently, Reznor won an Oscar for making the soundtrack to "The Social Network" - a movie about the foundation of Facebook, which is possibly the most monstrous counterfeit of human connection ever invented, and a profoundly appropriate subject for the Nine Inch Nails treatment. But the silent horror in it was already captured in far better terms earlier:
On the other hand, it is a one-sided revelation, and no one can ever dispute that. NIN reveals darkness, nothing else. And yet light exists. But that's another subject.