A two-night stand in Philadelphia served as a soundclash of pure catharsis
Look, this is dystopia. It’s here.
The dream of safe, legal abortion is dead. Almost half the people breathing in a pandemic don’t believe it exists. Scared police wait an hour to disarm a child killer, but can barely contain themselves to execute a black civilian at a traffic stop. Corporate greed is at an all-time high as baby formula becomes scarce, charging $5 for cans of water at this very concert and $15 for a Stella.
There’s never been a more appropriate time to rage or fuck people up, which are not the same thing, and both courses of action had a dynamite soundtrack at Philly’s Met theater on Wednesday.
100 Gecs fuck people up. The best way to describe their relationship to the 2022 pop landscape is that they’re Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker or Road Runner, ain’t-I-a-stinker-ing the charts and laughing maniacally as they send one of pop’s ACME explosives back into its own face. It was not a guarantee that Trent Reznor’s faithful would embrace the duo of Laura Les and Dylan Brady mugging around in brightly colored wizard costumes over their very special new take on happy hardcore and gabber from, like, 1996, only with more Auto-Tune and memes.
They write these cheap, hyperactive delivery systems for mind-melting hooks, though. Within minutes onstage they had the crowd raving to the ska-damaged “Stupid Horse,” the mutant Devo of “Doritos and Fritos,” and the sweetly addictive “Ringtone,” which appeared to swap keys with their signature song, “Money Machine,” whose instantly iconic intro deserves to be quoted in full:
Hey, you little piss baby
You think you’re so fucking cool? Huh?
You think you’re so fucking tough?
You talk a lotta big game for someone with such a small truck
Aw, look at those arms
Your arms look so fucking cute, they look like little cigarettes
I bet I could smoke you, I could roast you
And then you’d love it and you’d text me “I love you”
And then I’d fucking ghost you
This is not doom-and-gloom apocalypse music. 100 Gecs are the trickster gods bringing your toaster oven to life and firing red-hot Pop Tarts at you after hacking into its mainframe. Live, they’re divorced from their viral origins and previewed music from their upcoming 10000 Gecs album even less computerized, with Paramore and Sting employee Josh Freese on drums making the rock-like new ones explode. This included a tune with Otis Redding/”Everybody Hurts”-style verses in waltz time sung by Brady, and a seated acoustic guitar duet that I fully believed was about to be a cover of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”
Gecs enjoy winning people over just as much as they enjoy trolling them; top-notch songwriting is the secret to their massive subcultural word-of-mouth success. They love turning expectations inside out, which is how they ended up opening for this highly alpha crowd in the first place. They’re the kind of demented Internet cartoon that makes adults feel like ancient tomb dust. They were great.
Trent Reznor is earnest. His band needs no introduction; they singlehandedly spun club hits out of BDSM and suicidal depression, not to mention Johnny Cash’s last stand. Nine Inch Nails are one of the last remaining forces of toxic masculine energy in America to not be canceled, possibly because they’ve channeled it to such brilliant ends, but also because Reznor’s done a good job of not crossing any real lines of taste since 1994. He wins Academy Awards for scoring Pixar films now in what’s become sort of a day job; it contrasted sharply with a whole theater bellowing “God is dead and no one cares / If there is a hell I’ll see you there” along with him.
For a briefer-than-you-remember time, Reznor had some interested in fucking people up, sneaking in hidden titles like “Fist Fuck” and demonstrating a human meat grinder in his videos. But such technologically virtuosic studio wizardry won out over his more adolescent impulses and even his band took on a more atmospheric, score-like approach. In recent years, his own music has stayed moody and abrasive while not really boiling down to anything resembling a hook.
Meanwhile, actual pop stars refitted some of his softer edges for the landscape: sampled in Lil Nas X’s inescapable “Old Town Road,” Halsey’s literally Reznor-produced If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. And, of course, Rick Rubin double-dog-dared Johnny Cash to take on The Downward Spiral’s denoument “Hurt.”
You’d never know any of this from the metallic onslaught of greatest hits he unloosed on his second night at the Met: “Wish,” “Sin,” “Closer,” “Sanctified,” Bowie’s total NIN assimilation “I’m Afraid of Americans,” a majestic “Head Like a Hole” and “Hurt” closing things out. Their set slammed and shimmered and battered and blooped, with seizure-threatening stage lights to match. This was rage, a relic of a time when exploding was the best way to spread emotional shrapnel around. But it was long ago earned artistically and renewed cathartically for the dystopia of now.
If only this kind of martial power could be harnessed in the service of good, an act against a plague or an elementary school shooting. But it’s also too perfect that it can’t; The Downward Spiral, Broken, et al. are tantrums against one’s own pathetic futility, for a lot of aggro white men and by them. They’re destructive fantasies, the world should not operate like them. And yet a queasy little snippet like “Big Man With a Gun” still resonates because it’s just not satire. Some people embody that nihilism.
Thank Satan that Reznor would rather hobnob with 100 gecs and the film-score industrial complex these days. Maybe he’s even brought some of his legions of fans with him. But they’ve still got plenty of valid reasons to rage.
VIDEO: Nine Inch Nails “Wish”
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