Through a long series of accidents that I’d prefer not to explain I recently found myself listening to Pretty Hate Machine by Nine Inch Nails. It is awful. Musically this thing somehow accomplishes being a “less sexy Depeche Mode.” In fact, if I had to boil Pretty Hate Machine down to an essence related to a bodily sensation, I’d say it’s the audio equivalent of not getting laid. Every single muted thwack of a synthetic snare drum sounds like a retrograde explosion of backlogged sperm. If that image makes you queasy, then congratulations, you might as well be listening to it too.
Please don’t think I’m ragging on Trent Reznor, here. His career has proven the niche value of such music. Listening to Nine Inch Nails in public is free advertising for how horny you are to anybody else who might be in your boat. I’m pretty sure that’s how there became such a thing as Goths. There were just a bunch of kids who were ESPECIALLY not getting laid for whatever reason, and they stumbled upon their only hope of getting laid: making their predicament into a subculture for similarly sex-deficient people. All the things Goths do also serve to hide physical unattractiveness: hang out in dark places, glop on the makeup, dress in formless all-black outfits, and emphasize “emotional depth.” Pretend those things are “cool” and you have a recipe for Instant Nerdfuck. That’s my theory anyway. As unpleasant as his music sounds to anybody who’s ever habitually been within touching distance of another human’s genitalia, Reznor deserves credit for at least consolidating the horniest weirdos into their own happy little cultural ghetto.
Nine Inch Nails didn’t start the whole idea of being a “Goth.” I’m sure there are Goth “purists” out there who wouldn’t want me to stereotype them as depressive fat S&M nerds with bad skin, and/or also mention actual good bands like Throbbing Gristle and Skinny Puppy. Sure guys. Sure thing. Actually, no thanks. I’m not here to talk about you.
What is interesting to me about Pretty Hate Machine isn’t the music itself, or the Goth scene that may or may not have sprung from it, it’s how popular it was. Plenty of dark, spooky noise bands like Throbbing Gristle and Skinny Puppy have existed before and after Nine Inch Nails, but none of them went multi-platinum. Nine Inch Nails was a HUGE act. Like, you’ve heard of Nine Inch Nails. “Fuck you like an animal.” Nine Inch Nails. A music act that sold over ten million albums.
How in the wide world of squirts did Nine Inch Nails sell TEN MILLION ALBUMS? There are only two possible explanations: 1. it’s fun, catchy pop that ten million people can easily tap their toes to, or 2. it’s the perfect soundtrack to not getting laid, and at least ten million people in the late 80’s and early 90’s had a very hard time getting laid.
You tell me which one is more likely. If it’ll help you make up your mind, watch this first. The United States Department of Health and Human Services back then was really into scaring the shit out of anybody who might want to party and/or fuck, a demographic which includes every person between the ages of 15 and 90. So to explain the worldwide popularity of Nine Inch Nails, I’m going to go with “people back then were so terrified of dying from their own completely normal urges to get fucked up and have sex, Nine Inch Nails was actually a sensible soundtrack for the collective unconscious.” And I’m going to laugh in the face of anybody who wants to tell me that “Down In It” is “actually a catchy tune” that would have had a chance in hell of being a hit in any other era. Catchy or not, “Down In It” is “Need You Tonight” for people with blue balls. That is a fact.
So yeah, AIDS had a big impact on music. Exhibit A: Nine Inch Nails.
If you go back to the dawn of time, rock music is basically just what people did to try to get laid. The sound of rock music started as “hey, let’s split a pint of whiskey and go bopping in the back of my car,” in the 50’s, morphed into “hey, let’s drop acid, take off our clothes, and fuck in the dirt” in the post birth-control 60’s, became “hey, let’s smoke some pot and talk this out like two or three reasonable, sensitive but nonetheless naked adults that are having sex with each other on some shag carpet” in the 70’s, and bottomed out as “hey, let’s do a ton of blow, wear some day-glo spandex, and roll around in big sweaty pile of jizz-covered money” in the 80’s. There are many eddies in the current and sub-movements in there, as varied as there are methods of trying to get laid, but that’s your basic through-line reproductive history of big time rock music.
And then word got out to about AIDS. I mean, word was already out, like a lot, but a lot of (stupid) people thought it was just something that happened if you were gay or, like, poor. Then Magic Johnson was HIV positive and America’s bros were like “whoa dude.” Guess what year it was when Magic Johnson had to quit playing for the Lakers because he had HIV and there were still people like Karl Malone who didn’t know if the virus was basketbally transmissible. 1991. Does that year ring a bell to anybody who likes rock music?
So if any of you kids from today are looking at/listening to things like Nine Inch Nails and this and wondering what the fuck was wrong with everybody at the time, the only explanation is people were scared they were going to die from having sex. Actually, that’s only part of the explanation. People were scared they were going to die from having sex specifically with the “kind of people” who would fuck 10 strangers in a night and not think such a thing should warrant mention.
And I’m talking about shitty giganto-rock here. The stuff that was on the radio. Like if you listened to the “radio.” This is the “music” that would be coming out of it. I’m not talking about what Guided By Voices and Jim Shepard were up to at the time. Almost nobody else was, either. Things were not like that. You had MTV and the radio and that’s IT. If you wanted to hear about Guided By Voices, you had to walk up to a weird person and ASK him. Despite what claims you might have heard to the contrary, almost nobody was doing that back then. Most people didn’t even know where to FIND a weird person.
Anyhow, thanks to Magic Johnson the heretofore incurious heterosexual dude nation shat its pants about dying from having sex. Or, more realistically, shat its pants from the pressure of trying to figure out how to still have sex in an environment where the people you wanted to have sex with were afraid your weenus would shoot cartoon skull and crossboneses instead of cum. Comedy at the time ran to “sheesh, I go on a date, and it’s like I’m filling out a MORTGAGE application” lamentations that, in the manner of most comedy, were thinly disguised begging for a pity fuck.
Among this from the glow of MTV came a band called Nirvana yelling and screaming something unintelligible that sounded insane and exciting and feedback-driven but at the time oddly less threatening than certain penisbourne death. Listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the context of whatever’s a big hit now, and it still rips apart just about everything it touches. Big hits are not supposed to sound like that. Shit like that is supposed to be secrets between smart people. Getting exposure to it in the flyover states that constitute regular mallgoing America was like watching aliens land in the TCBY parking lot.
Our attention duly grabbed by this strange distraction, in stepped good old Eddie Vedder with his puppy dog eyes and progressive stance on abortion, and taught a nation of hairy jockish apes how to project a modest amount of guitar-based masculinity while also faking enough idiotic brooding sensitivity to convince young women that certain extra special penises were safe to touch. It worked. Eddie was swimming in poon. Or, you know, as far as we could tell. He was a rock star, so probably. And all of a sudden there was a new way to act if the average American John Q. Nobody wanted any chance of copulating with a female. Grunge was off and running. It was a pretty sucky time.
This dovetails nicely with the accepted narrative of grunge, which is that Kurt Cobain came in and started yelling about his feelings and all of a sudden all those corny hair metal guys were instantly obsolete. But that’s the tail wagging the dog. Culture is a reaction to change, not the cause of it. Kurt Cobain yelling about his feelings seemed like a good idea at the time precisely because he both rocked way harder than Skid Row and also didn’t seem like the kind of dude whose semen was full of microscopic death germs. People didn’t know he was a junkie. He just seemed too moody and weird to be able to plow through a ton of chicks. Not like those guys from Warrant, who seemed like they would fuck your teenaged sister in all three holes with their little AIDS-riddled dongs if you left the room for ten minutes.
By now you might have noticed two things: 1. I’m telling you that the history of rock music is basically the history of dudes trying to have sex with women, and 2. I’m blaming AIDS for grunge. Regardless of gender politics, anybody who’s ever seen a bass player sex face pretty much has to agree that a majority of rock is dudes who want to get laid. I’m not saying this is a good thing, it’s just a thing I think is true. And sure, there are both hetero women and queers who rocked harder and better than any hetero dudes, but “rocking” has not been a primary sexual tactic for either of those demographic groups to the extent that it has been for hetero dudes. And people (presumably including hetero dudes) as proven by the pre-established popularity of Nine Inch Nails as well as all the other talking I’ve done, were HURTING to get laid back then. To a devastating-to-rock-music degree that can only be blamed on a fatal STD.
It’s airtight. AIDS caused grunge.
Of course I’m still trying to figure out how heroin fits into all of this. It could throw a real monkey wrench in there, because it’s kind of sexy and mysterious while at the same time killing boners dead, and also it was a great way for people to give each other AIDS. Maybe heroin was responsible for nu metal, which might have been kind of a “no matter what the fuck else is going wrong, at least you can be reasonably sure that we’re not on heroin!” overcorrection. I don’t know. I’ll get back to you guys on that one, okay?
What I do know is this: thanks to the internet splitting up hetero bro nation into tiny little demographic groups, combined with the fact that HIV is no longer a death sentence, there’s probably not going to be a “next Nirvana” to come springing forth out of the underground to capture America’s hearts, wieners, and vajayjays. Not unless we get some new kind of disease that kills you for acting like a douche. It’s a shame that neither one of those things is happening.
As things stand, I’m kind of rooting for Kanye West to die of complications arising from real estate investments. I can’t wait to say all of this stuff again in twenty years, except about how the only way to get laid back in the Nows was try to convince people through convoluted namedropping that you’re somehow famous just for being you. It sucks, but it doesn’t suck as much as trying to pretend that you’re “artfully damaged” so nobody will suspect you of having a murdercock. At least the music is slightly better.
Previously: I Broke Even Buying Records