The Downward Spiral is commonly acknowledged as a challenging, bleak, and sometimes depressing album. Its lyrics speak of pain and misery while its music is angry and defiant; with the album’s narrator often switching sides in this disorientating push and pull of emotions.
It is hard to say why the alternative and metal fans identified so deeply with the record, providing a form of therapy and representing a new openness in discussions about mental health as an issue that affects everyone. The lingering question here is the extent to which understanding The Downward Spiral reveals it to be symptomatic of the Generation X-era, and whether it also offers its own cathartic and expressive solution.
[This article is an extract from Adam Steiner’s book, Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral]
In his history of industrial music, Assimilate!, S. Alexander Reed noticed how a wealth of bands from the early 1990s, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains et al, presented themselves as these same “damaged hollow men”. This harsh introspection sometimes tipped over into self-loathing and addiction issues; where the initial empathy of up and coming musicians became reserved for their rock star lifestyles, failing to highlight and attack wider social concerns as the root cause of their own unhappiness. But perhaps it is no accident that many of their fans felt the same way.
TRENT REZNOR AND MENTAL HEALTH
On Pretty Hate Machine, Reznor’s observations on masculine success as identity are grounded in inferiority complex, tied to romantic failure. By the time of The Downward Spiral Reznor presents many of his ‘masculine’ traits as flaws, feeling himself wounded and inherently damaged. The 90s would continue to develop into an era in which mental health awareness and treatment in the US walked a knife-edge between positive intervention, although with increasing reliance upon medication, and music that openly asserted the right of a generation to express negative feelings, taking pride in their right to be openly fucked-up.
There is comfort and security in having your sadness reflected back to you, confirming that it is ok, normal even, which encourages others to talk more openly. But this can also spill over into narcissistic wallowing, to be in love with your own sadness as a failure to outgrow or to transcend some of the more teenage expressions of these feelings is one of the common criticisms of the album, it allows for too much self-pity and negativity as to become a dirge.
However, The Downward Spiral story reflected genuine experiences of depression, self-loathing and mental pain of many, Reznor’s story was one among thousands experiencing a withdrawal with life and expressions of inner hurt expressed as external rage.
Many fans have commented on how the music of NIN, The Downward Spiral in particular, made them feel less alone with their mental health challenges. Reznor perhaps voiced this best when looking back on his own teenage years and how music gave him its own form of optimism through belonging, telling Live Wire in 1995: “When I was feeling depressed, certain records made me feel better, stuff like Pink Floyd and old Cure. It was good knowing that someone else was feeling the same way I did.” Reznor would carry this nostalgic appreciation for difficult and challenging music for difficult and challenging times into The Downward Spiral, he told Hot Metal in 1994: “The idea was to try and make something that was a bleak chunk of work that, for the right mood, might be the perfect thing.”
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL – DEPRESSION, ADDICTION, SUICIDE
Reznor presented the therapeutic aspect of his music as a form of rough dredging towards a confrontation with the self, music that both listens and reflects, forcing up repressed emotional difficulties. While this process can be disturbing and destructive it also offers perspective, Reznor said: “I think the very act of wanting to discover and uncover unpleasant things is itself positive. The act of trying to rid yourself of these demons, to prepare yourself for the worst, is a positive thing.”
Reznor referred to “nakedness of emotion” as an important arbiter of honesty in his work. Fans responded to the power of expression and Reznor’s lyrics confessional edge. NIN along with groups such as Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Korn openly expressed dissent at being sidelined out of mainstream American life and its uniform system of values. Cobain sang from the perspective of his emotionally and financially deprived background; Billy Corgan and Jonathan Davies sang about childhood abuse and bullying, all producing directly ‘issue’-driven songs that were transgressive in bringing harsh realities to light.
But The Downward Spiral went much further into the abyss than many of NIN’s contemporaries who used anger solely as an undercurrent of energy, whereas Spiral exposes and expresses the experience and repercussions of emotional pain and negativity, through its fundamental concern of remaining human in an often cruel and chaotic world, and the consequences of losing this empathy for others.
Reznor said to Details magazine in 1995: “Every day I’m saying the most personal thing I could ever say. And I don’t know if I want people in my head that much, but I’ve chosen to give that out because I realized that’s what made the strongest statement, that was the most honest art I could make.”
The challenge with The Downward Spiral was the risk of Reznor giving too much of himself away and being exposed through his lyrics. Reznor has acknowledged knowing his music makes a difference in people’s lives, to feeling disappointed but also angered when he is considered to have failed to meet their expectations, and knows that he will only ever disappoint them, this sentiment is present across Spiral, the break-up pain of Piggy and Hurt’s extended apology.
THROWING IT ALL AWAY
Trent Reznor has spoken of how there was a degree of irresponsibility, or danger even, in the extreme material of The Downward Spiral, what might now be called a trigger warning, especially with its indirect mentions suggestive of suicide. This comes with the album’s dizzying perspective of spiralling nihilism that is irreconcilable to life. As with the bleak lyrics of the Manics’ Richey Edwards, the album offers a metaphor for powerful realism that questions everything to the point that it collapses under permanent doubt, cynicism and despair. In his essay Nihil Rebound, about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, Mark Fisher noted the continued death drive that can arise from intellectualism and mental health difficulties to the point of becoming co-dependent aspects of a personality; as in the case of Richey Edwards reading a book a day, manifesting as a will to suicide.
The harshness of this thinking can spark a downward spiral line of thought, as Gina Gionfriddo notes: “The mind powerful enough to save itself is also powerful enough to destroy itself.” Fisher suggests that powerful and challenging ideas in art and education can be dangerous when they are taken too literally, absorbed at the expense of the positive aspects of life, by vulnerable young people to justify negative thinking – as if knowing too much, or seeing the world too clearly, can kill you. In a 1995 interview with Live Wire, Reznor himself compared the wilful suicide of Kurt Cobain to Ian Curtis, two artists who had highly influential and artistically rich musical careers, and yet took their own life, perhaps because of the weight and pressure this success brought them. Greil Marcus highlighted the dangers of spiral-form thinking in his book Lipstick Traces : “Nihilism is the belief in nothing and the wish to become nothing. […] Nihilism can find a voice in art but never satisfaction […] It means to close the world around its own self-consuming impulse […] When the nihilist pulls the trigger, turns on the gas, sets the fire, hits the vein, the world ends.”
Certainly, for someone experiencing extremely negative thoughts, the album might seem to confirm depressive ideas or re-enforce the will to act upon them, but it also expresses the damaging impact and irrevocable consequences they can have. The album’s spirit is not just one of resignation and self-defeat; it shows how actively combating negative voices or feelings using anger as resistance, can stall the spiral and re-empower the individual to halt what might seem in certain dark moments to be ‘inevitable’, but is often a question of managing perspective and affirming life though decisive action and challenging negativity.
UNDER THE SKIN
Beneath the surface, we can all appreciate and identify with some of the emotional hurt and pain the narrator comes to represent. In her Village Voice essay on Nasty Art, Anne Powers argues that transgressive music can allow us to vent negative feelings through the exercising of our emotions, but not to the point of completely exorcising this negativity. This is a constructive experience, even though it won’t necessarily make the listener feel immediately ‘better’ of ‘happy’. Referring to ugly images and feedback drenched guitars of NIN, Powers wrote: “All these devices work as a mind-clearer, fighting against what art critic Robert Hughes has called the ‘culture of therapeutics.’ This notion that even transgressive art must enrich and heal dominates the American aesthetic.” Perhaps this is where The Downward Spiral succeeds best, as a vicious and bilious purging of pain that we can experience along with the narrator, and then switch off, having brought to the surface some of our own negative thoughts and feelings. Art does not have to be pretty, but it can at least resemble catharsis as a kind of emotional freedom.
On the track, I Do Not Want This, Reznor’s narrator refines this bleak sense of purpose, offering direct communication with listener, speaking about his fear of being alone with his dark thoughts and recognising the need to offer a hand to others who might feel the same way. This connection, based upon emotional knowledge and experience, bridges the distance between art, artist, and the listener, making the metaphorical real, where Spiral offers something that most music cannot. Reznor explained the autobiographical streak of the album to Plazm mag in 1994: “I’m trying to deal with my own thoughts and recycle them into something that if I feel better about myself by expressing. And then, if someone says, ‘I know what you’re talking about, I feel the same way .’ That’s the best – you can’t get a better compliment than that.”
“I have lived so many lives all in my head”-I Do Not Want This, The Downward Spiral
The common expression of teen angst is further marred by the privilege of its pains: the unbearable whiteness of goth offers an easy identity to Western youth raised free from violence, poverty, racism and sexual-abuse, who can afford to be anti-everything and consistently angry with their parents; whereas others born into more deprived and marginalised circumstances are born of an anger from having no choice but to rebel and to fight for every positive step change in their life. However, the mentally turbulent period of adolescence should not be underestimated, as this can easily mask the deeper depression appearing as the common signs of teenage angst. Daphne Carr’s book is dedicated to the rust belt of Trent’s childhood and shows how the NIN fans who experienced deprived and traumatic upbringings in the forgotten towns of the Midwest found solace in NIN’s music, on an emotional level as reflecting some of their own experiences. Some of the more teenage challenges of transition and inchoate mental states would resonate with adults generally, facing similarly extreme emotional situations and points of crisis in their lives, such as depression, loss and disappointment.
Drawing upon Yale research, Sue Klebold, the mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold, noted a correlation between being bullied and externalising this pain through violence against others, self-harm, depression, and increased risk of depression or suicidal ideation, as well as being a bully, sometimes masking deeper personal issues. A line from a W. H. Auden poem marks an ominous precedent: “School boys do what is done to them” This can be taken very literally, and as a sign of the adults that children will become. When the victims of bullying or isolated people attempt to ‘take back’ control and become empowered. As with Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies, being abused or perceived as weak or unintelligent can drive the need for corruptive power; the victim can become the bully or the aggressor, and completes their revenge fantasy on their former tormentors.
Reznor has described his own school experience variously, but he once referred to himself as being someone who “fell through the cracks” neither remarkable or unremarkable, and because of this, it suggests he was largely unnoticed by many of his peers as someone who did not seem to matter. But there are darker aspects to this reflected NIN’s music, for example some of the hectoring and bitter abuse in Piggy, and the need to prove one’s self from a position of anonymity.
A SAVAGE INDUSTRY
Mental health among musicians, and their fans, is not something to ignore, romanticise or to be taken lightly, the two aspects of the relationship walk hand-in-hand. It is only in recent years that we have begun to move-on from the cliche model of the ‘mad’ genius, using the term with little regard or attention to the fact that performative behaviours can mask underlying mental health issues. The Downward Spiral is perhaps both representative and demonstrative of this.
In several interviews about The Downward Spiral album, Reznor spoke enthusiastically about his achievements, acknowledging the privileged position he had worked so hard for, to be able to make and perform his music for a living, but often with a sense of defeatism, suggesting that he remained unhappy or somehow unfulfilled by the ‘rock star’ life, as deeper problems perhaps went unacknowledged, telling USA Today in 1994: “I’m not proud to say I hate myself and I don’t like what I am.” Reznor constantly referred to the idea of having a normal life. His overriding sense of disappointment and nagging unease, in spite of his success, could be part of a confrontation between innate perfectionism meeting with ongoing dissatisfaction. Artistically, the slightly addictive sense of wanting more, and to want things better; while personally yearning for some domestic stability; wanting to put down roots, to escape his pesona and the demands and sacrifices his own work ethic placed upon him, but without having a definite idea of what that ‘better’ life might look like.
Reznor himself would later follow the now standardised narrative arc of a ‘fall from grace’, to become a recovered rock star beginning a clean, new life; sometimes performed as becoming a ‘better’ version of themselves, or as a return to a more real, original self, with this ‘return’ concept informing ‘comeback’ albums that almost inevitably disappoint unrealistic expectations of being ‘like the early stuff’. But more recently, death by drugs and alcohol has given way to rock stars succumbing to deeper mental health issues in their later life having already achieved a long and difficult road to recovery. Chris Cornell of Soundgraden and Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, musicians who had achieved success, struggled with addiction and mental health issues, only to come out the other side and die by suicide. The reality of their situation is obfuscated to everyone outside of their headspace at that dark and difficult time; on the surface of American aspiration both artists had much to live for: family, wealth and success, but chose suicide regardless.
LISTEN to Adam Steiner [author] interview with Heavy Metal Therapy
Speaking to the Guardian newspaper in June, 2018, Reznor looked back upon his entrance to the Le Pig studio and his absorption into the process of The Downward Spiral: “The self-destruct button was pushed when I first started writing. There was a sense that I couldn’t fit in anywhere, I couldn’t relate to people; I felt alone, I felt angry about it. I felt like I was heading down into something that wasn’t going to have a good ending. That ended up being addiction: its claws were in me but it hadn’t fully revealed itself.”
UNDERSTANDING THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
Across The Downward Spiral album Reznor expresses how the “great silencing machine”, perhaps depression, doubles-down on all of his troubles, forcing him into escapism and isolation, addiction and sex are shown to be hollow and flawed, only making things worse. Chris Vrenna provided insight into Reznor’s very private lyric writing and recording process, telling Dark Angel zine in 1995: “When it came to the lyrics, he would literally lock himself up in the house by himself, often for days at a time, and just write. It was only when he felt comfortable with the lyrics that he‘d come out and let me or Flood or whoever was there have a read. I think that’s his way of venting all those negative sides that everyone has a little bit of inside them.” What still resonates from The Downward Spiral with many people of various backgrounds, ages and life experiences, fans and casual listeners alike, is the direct and confrontational address of Reznor’s music to look into the abyss of an impossible situation; and to know that they are not alone in their pain, and for each individual to be encouraged by the album to keep fighting to and find a way out of their own personal spiral.