Why I Wish NIN’s ‘Strobe Light’ Was Real

Produced by Timbaland!

Produced by Timbaland!

The April Fool’s joke that got the biggest laugh out of me today was this gag from Trent Reznor, promoting the release of Nine Inch Nails’ newest album, ‘Strobe Light’, produced by R&B/Hip-Hop/Pop producer Timbaland. If that’s not enough to get a laugh, there’s the beautiful tracklisting that spoofs alt.goth culture while coming up with totally off-the-wall ideas for potential collaborators for such an album…

  1. intro skit
  2. everybody’s doing it (featuring chris martin, jay-z AND bono)
  3. black t-shirt
  4. pussygrinder (featuring sheryl crow)
  5. coffin on the dancefloor
  6. this rhythm is infected
  7. slide to the dark side
  8. even closer (featuring justin timberlake and maynard james keenan)
  9. on the list (she’s not)
  10. clap trap crack slap
  11. laid, paid and played (featuring fergie of the black eyed peas and al jourgensen)
  12. feel like being dead again
  13. still hurts (featuring alicia keys)
  14. outro skit

As the day wore on, I started thinking about just why this particular joke appealed to me so much, and why — as horrid as this may seem to some people — yes, I wish this one wasn’t a hoax. If this were a real album, I’d gladly pay good money to pick it up.

Sometime back in 1990 or 1991, I found ‘Pretty Hate Machine‘. I don’t even remember quite how I found it, though I think it was a cassette being passed, copied, and dubbed around the Anchorage alternoscene at the time, spreading the word the way good music does — via word of mouth. You know, exactly the way the music industry does everything in its power to prevent. Anyway.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I got really into NIN…perhaps even minorly obsessed. As the years went by, I grabbed every bit of music I could find that escaped from Trent’s clutches. All of NIN’s albums and singles, bootleg CDs of live albums, side projects, other bands that he did remix or production work for…anything I could find, I snagged. This archived page from my first website (circa 1996) catalogs everything I’d managed to track down at the time (including the Butch Vig remix of ‘Last’ which, when I found it, I’d had to download in five or six chunks and then piece together into a single 2MB .mp3 file in order to listen to it…and since the track is four and a half minutes long, you can guess that it was highly compressed and not very good quality).

Anyway, the point is I was huge into NIN and, more broadly, anything that Trent worked on. As far as I was concerned, he could do no wrong. A big part of why I was such a fan was the breadth of style that Trent’s work encompassed. While yes, all of Trent’s work fits solidly in the ‘industrial’ ├╝ber-genre, there was a definite sense of progression and evolution to his work between 1988 and 1994. Songwriting, production, the sounds and techniques, all of it grew from album to album.

After ‘The Downward Spiral‘ and its associated remix albums were released, Trent took a bit of a break. During that time, the occasional article would come out detailing Trent’s personal struggles, and occasionally there’d be a interview or two, usually something along the theme of, “what will NIN do next?”

In one of these interviews — and sorry, but I haven’t got a clue when, in what magazine, or in what context this appeared in — Trent was talking about how he’d been listening to a lot of hip-hop, and getting to know and working with a lot of pop and hip-hop artists. He talked about how they’d been influencing his music, and said something about how his next release would probably piss off a lot of his early fans, because of his new inspirations and the new directions he was going to take. About the same time, he did a remix of Puffy Daddy and the Family’s ‘Victory’ that absolutely floored me. I don’t like ‘gangsta’ rap, I’m by no means a fan of P-Diddy, but Trent’s work on that song took the inner-city extroverted rage of the ‘gangsta’ and wrapped it in the distortion-ridden black-clad self-destructive introverted rage of the industrial genre and made it work. Okay, so that description doesn’t exactly make it sound appealing, but hey, that’s what it sounds like to me.

This really exited me. I’ve never been much into rap (and especially hardcore ‘gangsta’ rap), but I’ve often found that that’s less to do with the rapping — I’ve heard some incredible rapping over the years — and more to do with the boring, unimaginative beats and the violent, misogynistic lyrics. Rappers who could do something interesting were fine, and when I’ve found them, I’ve been more than happy to toss money their way (I’ve got a pretty good collection of both The Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, among others [yes, I know...could I be any more of a middle-class white boy?]). Most of it just didn’t catch my interest.

But if Trent could combine his songwriting and production skills with the catchy pop hooks and lyrical skills of some of the best of the hip-hop world? I was really looking forward to seeing what would come out. After his years of coming up with music that I loved, I trusted Trent to find good artists to work with, and even if I didn’t end up liking everything that came out of this “new direction,” I felt sure that there would probably be more than a few gems that would make it worthwhile.

So I waited. Sometimes more patiently than others, but I waited. And eventually, word came out that there was finally going to be a new Nine Inch Nails album. Finally! The day of release, I went to the store and got my copy of ‘The Fragile‘, took it home, put it in my CD player…

…and that was one of only a few times that I’ve bothered to actually listen to that album straight through. For the first time since I’d discovered him, Trent had created a Nine Inch Nails album that, to my ears, was simply “more of the same old thing.” Only it was a little more disappointing than that, it actually felt like it was less of the same old thing. It felt to me like he’d just taken all of the moody, introspective, instrumental or near-instrumental noise collages from ‘The Downward Spiral’ and its two remix albums and stretched them out into two discs worth of droning, with a few tracks that he’d thrown a drum kit at for a little variety.

Obviously, I was let down.

I still have a lot of respect for Trent’s abilities, and I’ve kept an eye on his work since then, but ‘The Fragile’ was the last full album of NIN’s that I’ve bought. I gave the five-dollar version of Ghosts I-IV (which only has Ghosts I, or tracks 1-9 of the full album) a shot, and have been grabbing whatever he releases for free as they’ve been announced (The Slip and the NIN|JA 2009 tour sampler), but still, none of it grabs me. It all feels like as much as Trent has been doing a bang-up job creating (from what I’ve heard and read) incredible live shows, online ‘Alternate Reality Games’ for his albums, and telling the music industry to take a flying leap, his music just doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere since the mid-1990’s.

Or, perhaps, I’m just a stodgy old Elder Goth wannabe, pining for the good old angst-filled days of his black-clad youth. It’s a possibility.

So, when I see the hoax promo page for ‘Strobe Light’, I laugh at the silliness of it all…but I also wish, just a little bit, that it wasn’t a hoax. That Trent had actually followed through with his threats of oh-so-long-ago, gathered together with pop and hip-hop artists, blended and mangled their talents with his, and produced something truly interesting, bridging the brainless shiny of the pop world, the brainless bling of the hip-hop world, and the hopeless angst of the goth/industrial world into one bizarre, but brilliant, whole.