It may be impossible and foolhardy to empirically assign a particular sound or style to represent an entire decade, but you could do a lot worse than pinpointing the pulsating thrust of Trent Reznor’s output in the 2010s as the defining reverberations of the last ten years.
While Nine Inch Nails commercially peaked in the 90s with now-classic albums like Pretty Hate Machine, The Downward Spiral, and The Fragile, Reznor’s music has continued to permeate pop culture in ways that are rare for any artist, from Lil Nas X sampling a track from Ghosts I-IV for “Old Town Road” to Miley Cyrus’ rewritten version of “Head Like a Hole” in an episode of Black Mirror. As Nine Inch Nails, Reznor put out two albums this decade ( Hesitation Marks in 2013 and Bad Witch in 2018) and two EPs ( Not the Actual Events in 2016 and Add Violence in 2017), but he was even more prolific as a composer for film and television with his collaborator Atticus Ross. The duo began with what could be their most lasting effort with the score for David Fincher’s The Social Network, a brooding and propulsive atmosphere for cold walks through the Harvard campus and long nights of coding, which won them an Oscar. Ten years later, they are scoring Watchmen on HBO, bringing an exciting urgency to the show’s action. These two projects, and everything in between, reveal how Reznor & Ross have adeptly defined the cinematic sound of the 2010s, embodying the paranoia, confusion, fear, and melancholy of the era.
We all feel it. The dissociation and alienation imbued by social media. The increased polarization in our politics, the brazen openness of neo-Nazis, unprecedented income inequality, the easy spread of conspiracy theories, the creeping threat of climate change (they also contributed music to Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change documentary Before the Flood). Millennials have been called the burnout generation, coming of age in an era of uncertainty and instability, every moment of it mediated by technology and capitalism. It’s exhausting, as it becomes impossible to keep up with everything and more difficult to make ends meet. If it doesn’t matter what’s true and real, how can we trust anything, or anyone?
With the benefit of hindsight, Reznor was the perfect artist to soundtrack the 2010s. From the myriad conflicting affects that punctuate life on social media ( The Social Network) to the horrors of terrorism ( Patriots Day) to games of gender dynamics ( Gone Girl), modern anxieties are properly and expertly accentuated by Reznor’s agitated approach. He has always been a cinematic songwriter, trafficking in intense emotions from the beginning on Pretty Hate Machine and populating every album with instrumental showstoppers (“Just Like You Imagined,” “A Warm Place,” Ghosts I-IV). He has a way of translating visceral feelings into deeply impactful atmospheres of sound, a sophisticated maximalism that can effectively harness both outsized horror and ambient sorrow.
Another example of Reznor's and Ross’ ability to leverage gloom and doom is their scoring of Ken Burns' and Lynn Novick’s 17-hour docuseries The Vietnam War, offering a clue into how the pair have developed a signature sound that strikes a nerve. Mixed in among original music and period-era songs are older NIN tracks as well as songs from The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which suggests a clear authorial pattern of reuse; adding aural texture to one of the most horrific and disorienting periods in American history is easy when you’ve got this particular catalogue of work behind you to draw from.
More recently, Reznor and Ross have ventured into unexpected territory. For Mid90s, his directorial debut about a young skateboarder coming of age, Jonah Hill wanted them to capture the “sound of the elation and the confusion and the pain of childhood,” as he told Howard Stern, while also seeking a warmth in contrast with what he called the coldness of their previous soundtracks. These feelings of confusion and pain with the occasional elated catharsis are their bread and butter, and are carryovers between projects, the throughline of their work regardless of the story being told.
They also scored Waves, the new film by Trey Edward Shults, who asked them to give him “the most terrifying and scary shit you’ve done, and the most beautiful shit you’ve done.” Filmmakers have learned that Reznor and Ross have strengths they can play to, but they always seem to bring something unexpected, a flash of subtle and aching emotion drowning in an ocean of ambient dread and unsettling synths.
Their work on Watchmen is their best since they started the decade with The Social Network. Tapping into the ennui and anger of the original graphic novel but grafted onto more current concerns, the show and their score are a reflection of this uneasiness, finding acute paranoia, glimpses of beauty, and an unquestionable cool (see: “NUN WITH A MOTHERF*&*ING GUN”) from moment to moment. It’s eminently listenable, eerie and fun, with rollicking bass lines and fuzzed-out screeches, the kind of thing that refuses to fade into the background like many scores do. It’s a clear example of how Reznor and Ross work as storytellers, honing in on the context of the project itself but pulling from the instability of modern life to make the intent clear: These are broken people trying to exist in an impossible world. And you feel it.
It's their collaborations with Fincher, though, that turned them into go-to composers in Hollywood (to the point that they’re now doing a Pixar film). The Social Network, Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl are each distinctive scores, but they all emphasize the neuroses embodied by the characters within the films. They would not succeed so consistently without the ability to be in conversation with the narratives being told, and they have an uncanny skill for exhibiting or manifesting the frenzied, compulsive, and afflicted psyches of Lisbeth Salander, Mark Zuckerberg, or Nick and Amy Dunne. Fincher’s tenderly austere sensibilities are an ideal match for Reznor, kindred spirits invested in telling fully realized audiovisual stories about the absurd anxieties of our age.
Emotional intensity and tightly controlled craft combine to form something that resonates with severity, a relatable but threatening space of sensation intended to make you bristle, melt, and lean in closer to the screen. In a decade of distraction, angst, and demoralization, there’s been no one better suited to document our collective breakdown.