The fewer glimpses of himself that Reznor gave us — outside of his meticulously constructed five-minute video clips — the more his fans identified with him and scrawled "NIN" in permanent marker on their backpacks and on the insides of their school lockers. He became a universal symbol for pain, indignant adolescent fury and the perpetually misunderstood.
His fans waited nearly six years for the recently released With Teeth, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. But in 1999, shortly after The Fragile hit No. 1, sales dropped sharply for Nine Inch Nails. To date, that album has sold only 898,000 copies — a flop for a multi-platinum artist.
Between albums, the once-guarded artist pierced his self-imposed veil of obfuscation with a string of blog-like postings on his web site. Using a Q&A format, fans sent questions into cyberspace, and Reznor responded — if he felt the query merited his attention.
Fans weren't the only ones reading the blog. Many NIN news items from the past year — details such as the various names changes of With Teeth as well as its expected release dates — came straight from Reznor's posts, not from his label's publicity squad.
When he is not expounding with geek-like abandon on the technical superiority of digital surround or exploring the thematic thrust of Ursula K. Le Guin's latest dystopian sci-fi novel, Reznor's ramblings paint a portrait of an artist who is hyperaware of his own decline yet unsure what to make of it. The posts seem to reveal the truest version of the man behind the NIN curtain.
Reznor still has plenty of pent-up anger, which he unleashes in raw responses to his fans' queries. Below is a sampling:
¨ Response to a fan upset that there was no CD booklet in With Teeth: "[It's] a fuck you to an aging and outdated convention."
¨ On Wal-Mart and the trend of editing albums for certain stores: "Fuck edited versions, and fuck Wal-Mart. You don't see my records in there last I looked because I don't think there should be an edited version. A side note on good old Wal-Mart — ever noticed you can buy an R-rated DVD filled with profanity, nudity and violence — but across the aisle you can't buy a CD that says 'fuck' on it? If you're going to be a moral watchdog, have some fucking consistency."
¨ On working with video directors: "When it works, it's great, when it doesn't ... (see 'Deep' video)."
Reznor chases these digital tongue-lashings with doses of dry humor:
¨ Response to a fan's question, "What do you do when it feels like your (sic) being crushed from all angles?": "I write, play or listen to music. Or masturbate."
¨ On changes to an old pre-concert ritual: "I used to lubricate my voice in tequila, now I don't."
¨ Blasting former friend and collaborator Marilyn Manson for a recent, ill-advised cover song: "I was really hoping to do something unique and pertinent — like do an exact copy of 'Personal Jesus' — but it was already taken. Shit."
It's hard to say exactly what Reznor had in mind when he started this Q&A blog. After all, his artistic persona was never about connecting with his audience. In fact, in many ways, it was Reznor's aloofness that fueled NIN's allure. In establishing this line of communication, he destroys much of what NIN was about, and he leaves an oddly tangible version of himself in its wake. Some will no doubt chalk up his decision to a desperate, misguided bid for relevance.
Reznor's own words suggest a different interpretation of his metamorphosis from mysterious rock star to intimate blogger: "It would be impossible for me not to question my relevance in commercial terms in light of what is considered fashionable these days ... I have to question whether music and the public's taste are getting worse, or I'm just getting older and that's what happens. Or both."