Looking back on the harshest music to ever win a Grammy
“This isn’t meant to last / This is for right now,” chants Trent Reznor on one of Broken’s many mantras, and it’s hard to blame him for the self-imposed expiration date.
Who would’ve thought the four screaming tantrums, two itchy instrumentals and two hidden covers on his second major release would rise way above their stopgap station and garner him not one but two Grammys (probably for the harshest music that had even been nominated up to that point), for almost a third of the thing? Not to mention the wildly influential and Simpsons-minted Lollapalooza tour it was capping off, just two years away from making him (still the only industrial artist to become) a household name. He’s also arguably the only industrial artist to have “lasted” from a genre for which he was always too genius.
Nevermind happened the year before, so violent whiplash from unsettled quiet to abrasive loud was an established crowd-pleasing convention of the new rock industry, but still fresh, and not yet taken to such studio-calculated extremes. And 1989’s classic debut Pretty Hate Machine minted Nine Inch Nails as a big deal, though in retrospect it’s remarkable how much of it made an illusion of loud rock’n’roll when it was largely atmospheric synthpop with some key big guitar numbers. Beyond the titanic choruses of “Terrible Lie” and the word-of-mouth hit “Head Like a Hole,” Reznor’s anguished rage delivered an intensity that the accelerating pulses of “Sin” and “Ringfinger” merely suggested.
Most of the release of this tension resulted in moments like the sputtering simulation of malfunctioning game consoles on the hook of “Kinda I Want To” or the odd file-cabinet slamming noises that functioned as off-kilter percussion on “Sanctified.” It was an undeniably heavy record, but not so literal; “Something I Can Never Have” is a quietly boiling piano dirge that sounds like it’s being uttered from solitary confinement. Waiting for Reznor to snap completely on it is like awaiting more lashes from your dominatrix.
Broken on the other hand, saw the writing on the wall, and delivered the pain and fury its audience was craving. This was inspired, partly by Trent’s disgust with TVT Records as he recorded in secret and jumped ship to the fledging Interscope, which would become a major player in 1990s blockbusters. He didn’t have to reach far to drive his sound into the red, he’d already drawn the (chalk) outline and merely had to fill it in with gasoline. The funkiest and most Pretty Hate Machine-like number, the finale “Suck,” begins “There is no god in the sky” and eventually cascades from Violator-style blips and sarcastic slap bass into another inferno of guitar like everything that comes before.
As for the rest, well, the digitally distorted nightmare “Happiness in Slavery” comes with a video that’s still hard to watch today, with self-torture artist Bill Flanagan strapping himself into a meat-grinder-like AI that jerks him off and gores him before your eyes before it’s Reznor’s turn. That’s one of the Grammy winners, though it helps that the verses careening into the abyss fly headfirst into a mutant-computer chorus that actually functions as some kind of ear candy. “Wish,” the other Grammy-recognized single is a study in the range of dynamic compression, alternating between wind-tunnel negative space and riffs crashing into brick walls before each chorus manages to explode at even higher decibels. “Happiness in Slavery” is set up by two crawling minutes of “Help Me I Am in Hell,” one of two interstitials designed purely to make the loud songs louder.
VIDEO: Nine Inch Nails “Wish”
And then there’s “Gave Up,” which is almost punk with its double-time build and NOFX or Minor Threat-style power chords on the exultant chorus, which feels somewhat like the constant torment of the Reznor persona reaches some kind of eureka moment. “Gonna smash myself to pieces / I don’t know what else to do,” he admits, mirroring a generation of disaffected men who long to capitalize on their alienated rage and suddenly have a working model. The post-apocalyptic glam of Adam Ant’s “(Physical (You’re So)” gives this material a sense of history, but Broken was inventing one of the most volatile aspects of the ‘90s in real time, glamorizing hate and revenge and shock value without the empathy of Kurt Cobain but full of feeling.
Implicitly, we knew Reznor wasn’t the nothing he claimed, because his vision is so self-made and vivid, rendered in this panoply of bright computerized colors and danceable scrambled noises inspired by his beloved Prince and Public Enemy. Reznor brought those unnatural rhythms, trick silences, and state-of-the-art studio-as-instrument invention to rock and metal.
And he threw himself into this torture device, casting himself as the star, howling from inside the machine. He was perfect for the role. And then he fucked us like an animal.
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