I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household, homeschooled under a religious curriculum and surrounded by oppressive homophobia and paranoia about the world. But the notion that something was wrong with me never felt comfortable. While I initially made some mild effort at "fixing" myself, I pretty quickly became convinced that I was being lied to. Nothing was wrong with me, and this realization only made me angrier.
Our cable-free household, which didn't even have dial-up Internet until my late adolescence, served to hide much of the world. But in my early teen years, I began to become aware of it. That's when I discovered Nine Inch Nails.
I don't remember where I first heard the pulsing rock of "The Hand That Feeds," but it immediately struck a chord. As an increasing defector from Christianity, I was struggling to find my voice outside the system. I quite literally didn't possess the language needed to free myself and question religious authority. One could question the interpretation of the Bible, but challenging its authority outright was totally off-limits.
"What if this whole crusade's a charade, and behind it all is a price to be paid for the blood on which we dine, justified in the name of the holy and the divine?" growled Reznor. He wasn't politely challenging a system: He was angrily railing against it. And I wanted to be brave enough to do the same.
I recall the first time I heard "Heresy," a maniacal assault on the senses with the repeated refrain "God is dead! And no one cares! If there is a hell, I'll see you there!" I wasn't brave enough to utter the words at first, but the song fell into heavy rotation on my car playlist. The car was my most complete escape, a place for me to listen to whatever I wanted without fear of parental interception.
Year Zero came out on April 14, 2007, when I was 17 years old. Upon turning 18 I left Germanna Community College, where I'd enrolled at 15, for a major institution, and I headed straight to buy the dystopian new album. I opened the packaging to discover two images: a hand holding a machine gun on one side, and a hand holding a Bible on the other.
The album relentlessly skewered the religious system I had internally rejected but, thanks to my then-devout parents, couldn't physically escape. The song I latched onto was "God Given," a layered, sinister look at religious authority's intersection with civic life, written in the voice of a religious political leader engaging the rhetoric used by popular evangelicals to disparage nonbelievers. In a sea of conservative Christians under pastoral control, this piece of chaotic art validated what I witnessed daily: a suppression of dissent that no one else would acknowledge. Reznor laid bare the notions intimated directly from the pulpit: "I would never tell you anything that wasn't absolutely true, that hadn't come right from his mouth. And he wants me to tell you."
My voice emerged through the ability to utter these heretical song lyrics. "His perfect kingdom of killing, suffering and pain demands devotion, atrocities done in his name!" I'd sing passionately. Eventually I grew into the strength required to claim my own antitheism and secular altruism.
While other kids unable to conform were using drugs, harming themselves, or committing suicide, I was able to process my seething hatred through music that helped me understand the source of my anger. It was a catharsis that led to processing and release. For what amounted to free therapy, Nine Inch Nails holds a special place of gratitude in my heart.
Now that I'm an adult far removed from the trappings of the evangelical church, the anger that characterized my childhood seems a distant memory in many ways. And aside from some minor releases, Nine Inch Nails has been largely off the radar as Trent Reznor has been busy starting a family and trying his hand at film scoring, winning an Oscar for his work on The Social Network in the process.
With youthful excitement, I found out a few months ago that Nine Inch Nails was coming back. But much as I've outgrown the anger that characterized my past self, Reznor has outgrown the volatility that marked his earlier work. Hesitation Marks represents a more confident look at the world, with less screaming and more introspection.
Like I loved Nine Inch Nails as an angry kid, I can now love them as a thoughtful young adult. When I affix my earbuds and listen to Hesitation Marks, I'm reminded that the world is oftentimes an ugly, confusing place, and one that I no longer fear. Granted, Nine Inch Nails will never be a happy band. The funky "All Time Low" looks back at addiction, while a disquieting, danceable "Satellite" highlights the current surveillance culture. But "Came Back Haunted" acknowledges the lasting effects of past trauma with the notion that one can in fact survive.
That's what Nine Inch Nails represents to my grown self: the ability to push through struggle into a semblance of self-actualization outside the forces that seek to oppress. To quote "Everything," it's a place where one can defiantly and truthfully say, "I am whole. I am free."
Image by Sergey Tretyak, used with permission.