Worlds Collide: Why I Sing Trent Reznor's Praises

By Michael Murphy for Orlando Sentinel on October 21, 2005

Think you have fans of Neil Diamond and Nine Inch Nails pegged? Maybe. Maybe not.

The border between the sacred and the profane rests on a razor-thin precipice.

That line, thinner than a sidewalk crack, separates the blues from gospel. It has haunted many musicians. Ray Charles was just one of legions to bid farewell to the church and belt out "I Got a Woman." Deacons and elders who refused to dance condemned Charles for exalting "a sin of the flesh." So what are the chances today of white dudes traversing that same boundary with sometimes violent and visceral industrial rock?

Long live Nine Inch Nails! Long live Trent Reznor! The sonic assault of anxiety and angst in guttural, sometimes profane lyrics is a good thing. No phonies are allowed, no matter what the genre -- but particularly when it's NIN's slashing guitar and rapid-fire drums. And especially when it's the haunting synthesizer throbbing behind the intensely sexual and prominently placed "animal" references in Reznor's "Closer."

I'm 48. My musical tastes have been charitably described as eclectic. But I'm ready to shout it from the rafters of TD Waterhouse Centre when Reznor sings, "You get me closer to God."

NIN founder and frontman Reznor is ferocious. He's clanging a high-decibel cymbal: "Help me I broke apart my insides/ Help me I've got no soul to sell/ Help me the only thing that works for me, help me get away from myself."

My sixth-grade encounter with The Catcher in the Rye is an ear-splitting millimeter away. It's the awe and fear that tingled my spine when I first savored the imposing voice of blues empress Bessie Smith from 1920s recordings or when I swayed as a toddler to my initial encounter with the sanctified preacher, the Righteous Rev. Ray Charles -- except it's another spirit, and it's just as real, just as legitimate.

Only this time, I feel the seething of Holden Caulfield and disaffected youth well up when NIN's once-unsettling "Closer" pops up in my iPod's shuffle.

OK, so when Reznor angrily spits out, "I want to [bleep] you like an animal," "Closer" isn't jubilant in the style of my favorite gospel greats, Mahalia Jackson or Dorothy Love Coates. Those two captured the hopes, fears and aspirations of the downtrodden. I'm susceptible to their classic 1950s gospel in all of my good times, even in some of the bad.

But in the midst of a stressful day at the newspaper, I'll take NIN's heavy hammer of alienation and misery, thank you very much.

Rather than sparkle with goodness and light, I'll risk emotional havoc and rock out with Reznor during evening drive time.

I'll dare to lose myself in cathartic release of the hard-edged "Closer," from the 1994 CD The Downward Spiral (which Reznor recorded in the house where Charles Manson's followers killed actress Sharon Tate in 1969), even when my personal pain is no greater than editing an op-ed columnist who routinely busts deadlines on me.

Or when I'm silently cursing the idiot drivers who frustrate me on the road each day.

Sometimes music is about feeling less alone in the world. Then again, sometimes, alienation captures the mood. Like Reznor in his tortured "Closer," I'll admit to feeling like an animal, at least occasionally.

If we're honest, don't we all?

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