Though all of NIN kind of exists on a different level from other pop music, one could make a life’s work of studying The Downward Spiral and never come to a point where it feels like one has run dry of revelations.
To my concern, I often comment on the distinct transiness of Reznor’s music. There are really obvious moments like “The Becoming,” but there’s just this tone and perspective to so much of the emotional journey. This is extremely 2019 for Azure, for instance:
I guess there’s a certain universality in the infamous vagueness of his lyrics. You can project anything into Trent’s little trauma boxes. But through all his work there’s this regular sense of transition, of fear of one’s identity, of numbness and desperation, of one’s false persona eating one alive.
“Help me understand myself,” his music pleads. “Nothing that anyone has told me seems to fit, or make sense to me. I don’t have the tools. But—don’t look too closely, because whatever’s in there, I just know it’s horrible, it’s irredeemable. It scares me. And if you see it, then I’ll have nothing. I’ll be helpless again, and then even hope will be tarnished.”
All that’s interspersed with these moments of just, fuck it: I have nothing left to lose. I’m going to go down this rabbit hole, guide or no guide. Lifeline or not. I don’t care anymore. God help me. Whatever I truly am, I might as well find it and face up to it, even if it kills me.
There’s just this constant sense of grief and loss and despair, and disgust and horror with one’s self—of searching for any kind of a frame that makes the pieces add up in a positive way, and finding nothing but pain in the models pushed onto you by every controlling force in your life.
Again it’s all so vague, which is why he’s a successful artist. All this sounds a heck of a lot like adolescence. You get this with a general sort of heartbreak. With disability or neurodivergence-related traumas. With any sort of existential anxiety that we all experience at one time or another; any time when our ideas of ourselves don’t match up with the story that we’re fed by the world that we live in.
But like. In practice and in totality, this is such a deep, distilled, rich kind of a trauma that Reznor depicts. And it’s so thoroughly infused with these questions of identity—of reaching the end of the usefulness of the self you were handed, and of embracing the part of you that has caused you too much distress to acknowledge. It’s all about metamorphosis, of casting off the last vestiges of a humanity that does not fit and just going with whatever horrors you’ve failed to keep inside all this time. Time after time he hammers on this inability to keep masking any longer, and the death of one’s connection to an abusive world.
Nothing can stop me now
I don’t care anymore
There’s a fatalist spin here, and there’s a determined one. It’s kind of the same agency you get with body modification; that in a less healthy outlet may lead to, say, cutting behaviors (and, well, potential hesitation marks).
The Alice Glass song “Mine” angles at a similar kind of space:
Here I go again, it’s all I can do
So tonight I’ll take my own body
I’ll take my own, take my own mind
Abuse myself till I’m finally mine again
Finally mine again
I will go and use a ninety nine cent
Razor drawn, razor drawn line
Leave a trace till I’m finally mine again
Finally mine again
It’s not a healthy trauma response, but it’s just—claiming some kind of autonomy. Over one’s body, one’s emotions, over one’s sense of self. Even if it’s a destructive one. If you’re going to survive after everything, you need to be your own person, set your own terms.
Azure ain’t the same person who looked after her body those forty-some years before she woke up. A lot of things happened last August, all at once—but the breasts are not an insignificant one. They quickly became an anchor for my identity: this permanent, physical, obvious affirmation of who and what I am, that no one can ever take away. They became this cornerstone of body autonomy, of this general sense of self-possession that I’ve never enjoyed before.
To that end, I’m going to get my ears pierced. Sooner than later. This summer, probably. I never understood the appeal before my tits came in. Tattoos, piercings, any kind of body modification, it just—my head, it was locked in this deferential mode. “My body doesn’t belong to me,” I felt. “I don’t belong to myself. I’m not a real person.” Like, it wasn’t my right to do anything with the body, the name, the identity, the character sheet I was given. I would get in trouble. I would ruin this thing that I was handed responsibility to maintain, for someone else’s benefit. For me to tamper with it would be this inexcusable critical failure.
But it turns out that I am a real person, with all the same rights, worthy of exactly the same consideration, as anyone else. No one gets to control my body but me, and I get to make choices on what to do with it. I get to assert that control as I see fit—including decoration. Including things that serve no function beyond making me feel good. Which is an important end on its own, as it turns out.
I’m fortunate to have (rather late in life) found the tools to understand myself and to work out what I need in a reasonably healthy way. I’ve still got all this business to do, to strip out all the wrong wires and set myself right. But I’m on the path now. I think I’m going to be okay. But to have this support, to be able to interpret what’s going on inside me independent of the judgment and expectation of the world that I’m living in—that’s not a given. And it took me four decades. And not everyone has the fortune to stumble on those resources.
Heck, that neglect is mostly by design. We’re not meant to find the tools that will help us, because then we’ll no longer be prey to the system that feeds off of us and depends on our unquestioning obedience to generate all of the wealth that we’ll never ourselves see in our lifetimes. We’re not meant to have that agency, none of us—which again speaks to the universality of the sentiment in Reznor’s music. But there are degrees and nuances, right? There are colors and shades. And existential horror is one of the biggest drivers here.
Nine Inch Nails is substantially about horror, specifically through the lens of what we are presented as pure and correct and acceptable, and that is impossible to ever actually live up to. Combine that with all the sexuality and the imagery around changing bodies, and, well. It’s fucking queer, right. It’s unavoidable. Not exclusively, and I expect not deliberately, but distinctly and clearly. The queer-coding is just about blinding, and once you’re in a place to notice, you’ll never ever unsee it. You’ll only ever find further confirmation.
And among all its other strengths, The Downward Spiral is such a centerpiece for this energy. It’s all throughout Reznor’s work. From track one there’s this association between the perceived wrongness of self with monstrosity, with evil, with internalized fear on the basis of what one is told. It’s like, my very essence is an offense to all that is pure. I am an abomination by virtue of these facts of me that I have no control over but I am assured are objectively, unavoidably dangerous. This is the kind of logic that fuels anti-trans bills, that fuels hate crimes and lets them off with “gay panic” or “trans panic” defenses. It’s all about fear and hatred and disgust for the intrinsic evil that lurks inside.
Then underlying that notion of casting off ties to other people’s notions of humanity and embracing the horrors within one’s self, after the catharsis there’s this constant theme of being ruined. It’s angled against a vague religious context, but more broadly against “reality”—like, the surface of the social framework one is handed. It’s this all-or-nothing thinking where taking one step away from some hypothetical light will tarnish a person forever on some fundamental level, and there is no getting that purity back. From that moment, one will never not be tainted.
That’s a damaging sort of narrative to buy into, in regard to anything. It informs stuff like the AA model to addiction therapy, to our criminal justice system, to sex, to any kind of exposure to “dangerous” ideas. It’s a social control device, that serves to tell people they are essentially bad and owe their lives to the system. It serves to demonize and scapegoat the vulnerable as symbols to other members of society rather to than actively provide the support they need to live healthy lives. And it’s what we do all the time, to basically everyone who steps over an ever-shifting imaginary line.
Again though for all its ubiquity, when you combine this dynamic with all the body horror and identity and sexual stuff, well—the overall impression is profoundly relatable to someone whose body and identity and ideas about sex are considered essentially “other,” and threatening and diseased, and horrifying and wrong.
I was never not afraid of public toilets—they’re gross and psychologically strange, and leave one feeling vulnerable in all these different ways at once—but as a transfeminine person, I’m sure as hell going to avoid them forever, to the extent I am able. I will plan around them.
Because of unavoidable elements of who and what I am, to some people I will never not be considered an existential threat. And they will use that as an excuse to hurt me, to take out all of their other unresolved traumas and resentments on a person whom they can tell themselves deserves it.
I’ve gone through most of my life knowing I was broken and disgusting and wrong, and I’m used to having that affirmed by anyone who has gotten close enough to see beyond the flimsy mask I had propped up to keep me safe from those who would call out a mob if they recognized me. I know now that this garbage doesn’t apply to me, and I know it’s all somebody else’s problem, but it still leaves me vulnerable in a lot of situations. The street harassment is bad enough, but what if I don’t brush them off before they clock that I’m transgender?
There is something about queerness that presents as a fundamental threat. Fundamentally devious. Conniving, perverse, manipulative. Decayed, revolting, evil. This narrative is so central to our experience, in relation to the world and the stories we’re told about ourselves. So for Reznor’s music explore this precise conflict, much to most of the time, it’s—it just really feels familiar, you know? Hauntingly so. This trauma isn’t a passing thing for me, just as it’s no incidental topic for Reznor. It’s not a bad year, or a bad event, or a stray misunderstanding. This is life. This is what it means to exist in the world I was handed.
I am so fortunate to now be in a place where I can love myself the way that I do. This is so miraculous to feel, and I appreciate it every single day. It was so hard to find my way here, and I’m never going to let go again. And that catharsis from Reznor’s music, over so many years, is part of how I made it here alive. Intentionally or (more likely) not, that deep and overwhelming queer coding, it helped to underline that this struggle could be in some way articulated. That it wasn’t just me who felt this way, even if I didn’t know where it was coming from. It helped to validate the pain I felt, even without any answers.
I really owe this music a lot for keeping me going, keeping me on some level sane enough, until I could find the resources I needed. And even as I heal and build a healthy relationship with and toward myself, I can’t imagine a time when the sentiments here will fail to be relevant to the basic conflicts of this identity, in this world that blames us for its own sin.