With The Social Network Soundtrack Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross broke free of the growing pains of Nine Inch Nails stigma – revealing an award-winning artistic duo capable of dramatic nuance, emotional depth and sonic power.
Remember the longest walk home on what felt like the worst night of your life. I think back to the closing days of Autumn, shortly before the first snow. The streets already sunk deep in winter-cold and looming darkness, with clouds of breath giving smoke signals of life. Stop. Focus. A momentary lapse of reason; a bust-up in a crowded bar, just a few beers down, but hurting all the more for it, you arrived together, but leave on your own. Things were said that you can’t take back, now they run on a loop in your head, haunted by our mistakes. Under every stray light the shadows are cast long trailing your past behind you, we are future ghosts flattened into silhouettes; when we pass, each person only meets the other’s solitude. Cutting through the alleyways, hurrying down narrow stairwells, you even cross the streets without looking; thinking of an escape, hatching a plan like a map in your head to make the pain go away. The night swollen to a haze of bastard amber that threatens to swallow you whole. You hurry home, like every human animal driven by instinct to find a warm place in which to lick your wounds, to be private and alone. You wake up your sleeping screen, it’s always on; the effervescent blue greets you like an icy fire, a face familiar as an old friend.
A hesitant piano figure steps softly alongside the hurried march of a synth, the track “Hand Covers Bruise” jumps from the echo of loneliness to begin the slowing and blurring of time that marks the The Social Network soundtrack’s frenetic shifts of pace. The film’s protagonist, Mark Zuckerberg, is hurt and in retreat, trying to escape from the pain of a broken relationship. A bass synth swells, its heaving sighs leave sickening lurch in the stomach, he is still in escape mode but in his mind still walking circles returning to the same mistakes made just moments ago, things were said that cannot be taken back, already a stone thrown into memory. A roughly scraped cello moves like a saw through a trapped limb heaping tension upon dislocation, we watch a man haunted by a creeping sense of unease, a rising fear that slowly becomes our own.
This blog post is extracted from my book
Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral
A QUICKENING [DEATH OF THE FUTURE]
With The Social Network soundtrack Trent Reznor and his longtime collaborator, Atticus Ross, broke free of the populist perception that Nine Inch Nails had only one mode: loud, angry, angst, noise – volume for its own sake. Already bridging alien territory that merges synth pop, goth, and industrial music it was perhaps easy to write-off Nine Inch Nails as one of a swathe of loud and angry rock bands that rode the dying wave of post-grunge fallout where Nirvana’s implosion with Kurt Cobain’s suicide created a vacuum to be filled by new alt-rock music. But in reality Reznor carved a unique sonic niche within the growing uniformity expected of the alternative nation, and demands of its market’s inherent; combining the ambient, esoteric, and the extreme.
Trent Reznor’s rise to fame have been well-documented like Mark Zuckerberg, the protagonist of The Social Network movie, his was a fight to bring his ideas to the world, beginning at the margins of the alternative scene before taking transgressive art into the new post-grunge mainstream selling millions of albums, touring the world and more recently creating (multi) award winning soundtracks alongside Atticus Ross.
Reznor’s real challenge became the battle to remain true to himself, and his artistic vision, trying to stay in control as his dizzying ascent exceeded all expectations, from one of the major alternative acts of the 20th century to a household name with 1994’s breakthrough album The Downward Spiral and a standout headline set at the Woodstock anniversary festival of that year. This challenging and disturbing record took Reznor into more dangerous personal territory, sacrificing something of himself and getting increasingly lost along the way. While his fight began with the world, it end with spiralling addiction, exhaustion and Reznor being forced to confront himself and his demons.
Within the twisted and broken heart of The Social Network movie we find a story that is really about the the growing pains of those who achieve greatness; behind every brilliant idea there lies the bodies and shattered dreams of peers and former collaborators, once friends, now sworn enemies; the many people who get used, beaten or simply left behind as fame and success, and often a toxic blend of ego and paranoia, take over. Throughout The Social Network soundtrack we see and hear Mark Zuckerberg burning people on the way up as he makes his ascent to greater wealth and ultimately control over his Facebook empire, while we await the inevitable decline of the narrative arc when we expect him to lose everything and meet those same people on the way back down. But it never comes. We already know the end to this story. Insulated by wealth and the power structures of the social media monster he helped to create, we merely see the neat conclusion of some fairly confrontational lawsuits, at the business level Zuckerberg is barely rattled and his position in the world remains secure and unassailable, but at the human level we see the true cost of his rise laid bare.
It is perhaps in Reznor’s sountracking work that his native musical ability is heard best. His skills as an arranger, producer, and multi-instrumentalist with childhood classical piano training, are given full-flight on The Social Network soundtrack marking him out as a long underestimated musician. Since the early 1990s Reznor contributed music to original soundtracks for several major films (Seven, Lost Highway, The Crow), often as an extension of NIN, but it is only since deftness for sonic nuance came to prominence in working with David Fincher. Speaking to Billboard Reznor described his role alongside Ross “to help decode the director’s vision.” Next to Fincher they stand as mutual auteurs; their work rooted in exposing the darker edges of human emotion and behaviours when placed in extreme situations – the essence of drama. Reznor’s need for creative independence and control remained at the front of his mind; but he was happy to relinquish his grip where he had the mutual trust and faith of his collaborators: “The whole process was fun for me because I liked answering to someone I respect and not having to make all the decisions for a change.”
FROM EXCESS TO SUCCESS
Fincher’s faith in the duo was confirmed when The Social Network soundtrack won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best OST and the film grossed $224 million from a $40 million budget – along with major critical consensus of the movie’s performances, script, cinematography, and Fincher’s direction. This success has seen Reznor and Ross go on to create a diverse range of soundtracks including Ken Burns’ Vietnam, HBO’s Watchmen series, and most recently Fincher’s Mank, with more awards following from Disney Pixar’s latest film, Soul, working to evoke an enrich the spirit and mood of each film, as they would reach for a defining imaginative atmosphere on each Nine Inch Nails album. Since then Reznor and Ross’s work on Disseny Pixar’s Soul (alongside John Batiste) and Fincher’s Mank double-nominated for multiple new awards, with Soul already winning a Golden Globe and a BAFTA and a favourite to win the 2021 Oscar for best score [FORTHCOMING APRIL 26].
Even within Nine Inch Nails Reznor and Ross blurred the lines between creative sonic disciplines of music, sound design, and foley art. Reznor has always expanded his approach to sound to meta levels, working with textures of atmosphere as much as instrumental noise. Learning from hip-hop and his industrial peers Reznor was inspired by the emergent possibilities of sampling and looping, recording individual instruments, altering them digitally; cutting, stretching and bending sound over time.
On The Social Network soundtrack singular moments of music are looped into self-sampling, their atmosphere becomes the backing track. On “Hand Covers Bruise”, Reznor’s cello bowing was slowed down to an eerie crawl so that the pitch also dropped creating a looming drone of growing unease. The second song of the soundtrack, ‘In Motion’ offers profound contrast. It kicks-in with panning synth and an urgent pulsing rhythm, propelling the listener with the heartbeat’s “go, go, go”, the perennial throb pushing urgency onto existence. ‘In Motion’ speaks of the inner competition of the long-distance runner, or the obsessive programmer, wrapped-up in tunnel vision of a race without end.
In this music of tension and dread the mood sometimes spills over into elation, we live with the film’s characters through these car-crash escapades, it becomes the music of the hyperreal now, looking far ahead without seeing what is coming up right in front of us, meanwhile captive to the search for instant gratification of the present tense.
THE SECOND (POST-)INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
“Musically, who better to talk about innovation and technology and communication and connectivity than Trent?”David Fincher, Pitchfork (2010)
Reznor’s interest in the cutting-edge of music-making and recording is present throughout his work as both theme and creative practice; how technology has become the driving force in our daily lives, an irony that feeds back into the soundtrack. On the track ‘Intriguing Possibilities’ a mandolin plays alongside an electronic keyboard, the acoustic organic set against the synthesized digital. The internal tension in Reznor’s music reflects a wider ideological conflict within industrial music, landing somewhere between the prophetic power of cyberpunk literature and the goth-meets-Victoriana mash-up of steampunk, its deeper fear is of technology as a threat to our sense of humanity, where cold rationality corrodes rather than augments the better aspect of art and diminishes our sense of empathy as social creatures.
WATCH – Adam Curtis – All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace
NIN’s music and The Social Network soundtrack reflect upon where technology goes wrong; exploring the man-machine complex of where both incident and design can yield strange situations and creative choices. But they also interrogate how technology provides us with unique opportunities to exploit others, how its misuse and abuse can yield revealing flaws in our own design, where social media is designed to bring us together, it can just as easily push us further apart. Music’s ongoing battle with technology is fought between the real and authentic and blurred by the adapted, altered, and manipulated, marking the difference between creative artifice and outright deceit.
Zuckerberg was right – Facebook changed the ways in which we socialise and form relationships. His digitisation of human connection, has shifted the communication of our feelings into a blunted ‘yes/no’ ‘like/dislike’ ‘high/low’ ‘1/0’ dynamic, establishing a blurring between imagination, the false (the lie), and our organic reality. The question of making machine like processes out of our often irrational, but human, natures is an ongoing tension in the film, it becomes unclear whether Facebook is servicing us, or we are Matrix-like, the energised force which it relies upon for its existence. This tension is also expressed in Reznor’s approach to The Social Network soundtrack, where songs are constructed and programmed as much as they are performed, blurring the divide.
FIRST THOUGHT BEST THOUGHT [REDUX]
The film’s first track, Hand Covers Bruise, is later reprised; a hallmark of Reznor’s intuitive approach to making connections between songs through thematic and sonic signatures, but also revisiting them and finding a new way through the music. On the 2012 soundtrack to Fincher’s Gone Girl, you can hear the same melody behind “A Warm Place”, itself a redux of Bowie’s “Crystal Japan” instrumental. Reznor has also released a remix album for every Nine Inch Nails album giving each work a second creative life: so 1992’s Broken becomes Fixed, 1994’s The Downward Spiral goes Further Down The Spiral, and so on.
Across The Downward Spiral Reznor repeats a singular motif, a short plaintive series of notes that appears as the piano coda to Closer, the acoustic guitar riff of the title track, like the key tracks in his soundtrack work, what sounds deceptively simple lingers in the back of the mind, an itching tone that keeps humming away like a light left on in a distant room that continues to demand our attention long after it is extinguished).
The early NIN instrumental, Pinion, has a grinding, revving guitar sound that echoes the mechanical operation of broken cog, this abrasive, real ‘found’ sound of industrial process becoming incidental music. Reznor echoes technical ‘found’ sounds throughout The Social Network soundtrack, the dial-up modem noise of the early internet (look it up), along with other squeaks and squeals of ghost signals that represent the slip of information through the wire, accumulation and loss, where a data dump stands in for the dopamine crash.
In musical terms the production software of ProTools, instrument emulators, and the vocal autotuner have become signature sounds that iron-out or simply ‘correct’ the rough edges of human error; the inflection of hesitancy and force in a musician’s playing or singing in time with others. As Reznor has noted, this pursuit of perfection sometimes clashes with the contrary need to make things sound shitty; where at its root, distortion of voices or guitars to the point at which their signal, the exact communication of words or notes becomes nullified and a different kind of emotional resonance is achieved. These layers of musical nuance deepen the emotional intensity of the film’s most pivotal scenes, where so often Zuckerberg proves himself to be the asshole that others imagine him to be amid a flare-up of white hot noise.
ALL SURFACE [NO FEELING?]
The glitchy interference of the image, of reality, is the evolution of the mechanical decline aesthetic; where before the post-industrial look showed wounds of rust, now we see pixelation and the bit-rot of data, everything fades. This aesthetic idea is also presented in the promotional artwork of the film and the soundtrack album, both artworks show Eissenberg as Zuckerberg, his eyes obscured by the title, the redaction of identity as loss of humanity, along with the corruption of glitchy decay, this look has its source in espionage censorship and is borrowed in more recent film posters, such as Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Longtime NIN collaborator, Rob Sheridan, created much of the promotional images for the soundtrack’s gatefold vinyl said: “For the TSN soundtrack art my goal was to walk the line between representing the film and creating something that stood as a piece of art on its own.” Sheridan explained his methodology to GameRant, working from image editing to create new glitches, he also experimented with file formats. His preferred method of glitching any given image was to open it in a simple text editor (such as Notepad) and randomly mess around with the text data. Using trial by error, he would keep trying until he created something he liked. This disruptive process also suited the film’s themes of clean technique, coding process and corruption. With the soundtrack’s re-release Sheridan was able to create something closer to his original vision of damaged and flawed imagery, using scenes from the film itself.
Shortly before the film’s release, the poster’s tagline was amended from ‘300 million friends’ to ‘500 million’ in anticipation of Facebook soon reaching this user target around the time of the film’s release. A precursor to this was played out in the scene at which Zuckerberg has a party celebrating Facebook hitting a new target of membership, while shortly before Savarin is told about the mass devaluation of his shares. This was representative of Facebook’s wider success, to date it has 2.7 billion users, with Zuckerberg worth over $100bn of the company’s overall value of $720 billion. A bubble that if it doesn’t burst entirely will no doubt deflate in the future as younger generations switch to other platforms such as Tik Tok and Instagram, and older generations of Facebook’s original users log-off into the great ether in the sky.
FREAKS LIKE US
We grow alongside the artists we love, as their work evolves our appreciation of their music can deepen or shift as our perspective on life changes. So much of our musical taste is forged in our teenage years, so our favourite listening experiences stem from the time in which we are at our most chaotic and complex stage emotional development, as we age end up caught between maturity, nostalgia and the future, looking back in the mirror of hindsight.
Reznor would later outgrow the solipsism of his early music, nestled in a point of self-loathing rage and emotional catharsis – a pin-up for the disaffected. His lyrics pushed at the limits of control, over bodies and minds, expressed in the transgressive frission of submission and domination, crossing over between sex and violence (to become the twin horrors at the heart of much social media). We are trapped inside Reznor’s head with him, until his words emerge in the mind of the listener echoing our buried hurts and struggles so acutely it’s as if his words have become ours. The fanbase of NIN was firmly in sync, exploring their own flaws and inner deviance away from cultural norms, in Reznor’s gaze they too saw themselves as broken machines.
Millions of NIN listeners found connection through this wider sense of otherness; nowhere is a freak more beloved than among their peers, this is the kinship and unity of a fanbase. New generations would hear their own perennial struggles of youth confronted and challenged, making the music seem mature and timeless but also grounded in the teenage. Such growing pains are symptomatic of the struggle for change, our personal evolution; how we select and shed identities, fashions, attitudes, and even friends, as we become different people, realising the conflicts and contradictions of adult life – this is, in part, the story of The Social Network.
“He makes you better.-Fincher on Reznor
He makes you say what you mean.
He makes you ask questions.”
Fincher was first attracted to the aesthetic of Reznor’s early-NIN persona using a version of “Closer” in the introduction sequence to his movie Se7en, feeling that the music’s attitude aligned with his own approach to subvert artistic cultural norms. Fincher’s ‘head in the box’ ending to Se7en became his own “back the fuck off” (“fuck you like an animal”) statement against the audience’s need for another clean and happy ending: “Your early work is oftentimes a reaction against something.” Speaking to Fader, he noted a shared sense of conviction in creative choices between himself and Reznor: “Any person making decisions about the final experience has to be able to imagine what that’s going to be. You have to be able to define what your project is not going to be and try to avoid all the pitfalls of it becoming like everything else.”
In the later music of NIN the author Daphne Carr noted that Reznor moved from the constraining singular pronoun of ‘I’ to include the commonality of ‘You’ and ‘We’. From 2007’s Year Zero, a protest concept album about cultural censorship, a dictatorial presidency and extreme moral supremacism (sound familiar?) Reznor considered wider subject matter that related to the needs of the (other) other, the citizen on the street, not necessarily the die-hard NIN fan. Turning his gaze outward to break down the fourth wall that separated the self-contained artist from the rest of humanity Reznor was able to further embrace his dynamic musical abilities, learning to whisper, more loudly, as much as he once only shouted and screamed.
But for every ranting anthem against political oppression and slow-dance towards the apocalypse Reznor was increasingly working on more instrumental music. These pieces would be collected as the Ghosts I-IV album; less of a band project it featured two hours of Reznor-Ross music that contained rocking stomps, edgy electronics and dulcet piano tones. In Ghosts clash of excess and minimalism the true DNA of NIN’s music is exposed, David Fincher heard something in the raw tracks that already sounded like the soundtrack to an imagined film. Laying some of its tracks over his rough cut of the movie he invited Reznor and Ross to collaborate. The Social Network soundtrack would even feature two slightly reworked tracks from Ghosts; the track “Magnetic” (reworked from “14 Ghosts II”) and “A Familiar Taste” (a remixed version of “35 Ghosts IV”).
Initially Reznor and Ross worked exclusively from Fincher’s concept, responding to the film’s emotional structure of friendship, betrayal, and isolation; orbiting about the breakdown of trust and connection which soon spirals into exploitation and abuse, a cruel inversion of the Facebook dream. In 2010 Reznor would tell Pitchfork: “I think the whole aspect of social networking is vulgar and repulsive in a lot of ways. But I also see why it’s appealing– I’ve had that little high you get from posting stuff online. But then you think, “Did I need to say that?” The results of Zuckerberg’s great experiment were already there to see in the total war forums, posts, and comment walls across the internet. After his now legendary “suck my whole dick” response became a meme Reznor himself would fall victim to viral exposure. There was no need for Trent to see the whole film or read the script to appreciate the atmosphere of The Social Network, he already knew the story, we were all living its fiction.
Reznor dropped out of his Computer Science degree at Algeheny College (meadville, PA) after one year. But he did not leave empty handed. Sitting-in on a module of music theory Reznor tried to coast through the course but soon realised he would be forced to apply himself with intense concentration to even stay in the class, he says he experienced this same fish-out-of-water feeling in his first experience of major soundtracking work, being completely new to the day-to-day process of making movies. But he and Ross rose to the challenge, with Fincher noting the difficulty of adding sonic impact to the bare bones of an idea without visual prompts: “There’s any number of people that can write a good lick and produce something that’s instantly hummable but it’s when somebody drops something into your lap that has to be dealt with, that’s the difference.”
Reznor and Ross were puzzled at the task of placing music within a film driven by dialogue, fearing there was no room for music, like a neo-noir gone bad. Reznor pushed for brevity in the editing process: “‘OK, how do we get through this long and wordy scene that needs to be there without making it feel like paint drying?’ I just watched the finished film last week and thought it flew by.”
Although the film was driven by the exchanges between characters, Reznor found the core tension of the movie in the psychology of Zuckerberg. Like a broken road map the pulse of the film was driven by a network of crumbling relationships while he pursued his dream to sell the world mass connectivity – the dark side of ambition combined with the runaway powers of the internet constantly evolving into new and unimaginable possibilities.
Reznor explained to Pitchfork how their work would neatly align with Fincher’s: “Atticus [Ross] and myself spent a few weeks generating what I thought would just be sketches for the score. I figured we would end up going back and revising them probably 10 times. But I delivered them to David and I didn’t hear anything. He finally got back to me and said, “I don’t have anything bad to say– that’s never happened before.”” The Social Network soundtrack feeds on Fincher’s vision of a double-edged success story; melding the pessimism of money and self-interest with the optimism and excitement of the start-up era. Reznor and Ross’s compositions enrich these peaks and troughs of tension and excitement, placed along a narrative timeline the fragments heard on ‘Ghosts I-IV’ form into some kind of whole.
The film itself has the tone of parable; Zuckerberg’s hubris reveals that it was never the social media system of Facebook itself that is responsible for the many ills of the internet, but us, the end user and our all-too-human role in using machines to express our own corruption. Like Mark we sit behind our keyboards all attention held, as in prayer, we preach false revelation frmo darting eyes bleached blind by the blue-screen’s draining afterglow. Scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin saw many of these big themes at work in the story: “What attracted me to [the film project] had nothing to do with Facebook. The invention itself is as modern as it gets, but the story is as old as storytelling; the themes of friendship, loyalty, jealousy, class and power.”
By all rights a film based around a tech start-up should be boring, Zuckerberg himself would claim that the real Facebook creation story revolves around people drinking beer, eating pizza, and programming for hours on end, but the soundtrack propels us through this process as everything accelerates with the movie, adding momentum to what in real life was more of a process. Reznor’s playful use of retro 1980’s keyboard sounds also give plenty of nods to the upbeat aspects of the story, landing somewhere between contemporary sci-fi and the emotional 1980s frat-pack romp (a la John Hughes) that influenced Fincher, taking the rhythmic pulsing of sequencers and synthesizers and blending them with early 2000s start-up electronica and the more contemporary sound of manipulated guitars and processed beats. The beeps and blips of sequencers remind me of early Nintendo games, where each power-up or rush of points gave a reward-based rush of sound drives the player on towards the end of each level. The first run of music for the soundtrack was in Reznor’s words to the LA Times: “a bit more 8-bit chip-tune-sounding…The only thing left of that is on the track ‘In Motion.’ It just started to feel like a gimmick.” Jake Cole wrote in Hyperallergic that the music Reznor and Ross created might as well be the same music that the “wired-in” programmers are listening to as they build the digital infrastructure behind Zuckerberg’s empire, but the duo pushed deeper to achieve more emotional resonance and experimental sounds, rather than taking the easier and more obvious route.
Thrown up against the sunny preemptive-nostalgia scenes of sunny California and the snow-drifted, claustrophobic nocturne of the Harvard cloisters, the more abrasive textures of the soundtrack peel back successive layers to reveal a pervasive sense of dread within the film’s twisted artichoke heart, exposing the hollowed-out dream of the blood-money side of business that Zuckerberg’s purposefully naive account tries to soften and whitewash, plagued by his own shallow recollections of innocence and naivete.
ECHOES IN THE STILL
Talking about their soundtrack to Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) with Fader magazine, Reznor points to Fincher’s direction to subvert the worst of background music you would hear in a spa, massage parlour, or even elevator muzak, and its base instinct to comfort and soothe, as if to conceal a sense of doubt, even when things feel very wrong: “The way it artificially tries to make you feel like everything’s OK, then imagine that sound starting to curdle and unravel.” As with Brian Eno’s most subtle ambient recordings such as Discrete Music and Music for Airports recordings meant to be unobtrusive they could just as easily produce the opposite effect – pushing the listener into a zone of acute discomfort, as they strain to hear to hear the disappearing sounds would provoke only question, concern and ultimately fear.
The Downward Spiral album marked out Reznor’s sensitivity to the nuance of sonic atmosphere: “subconscious feelings is very much what the record is about”. Watching David Lynch’s Earserhead Reznor observed that in spaces of quiet we notice sounds normally submerged within the everyday more keenly; a knife through the dark, like a hissing radiator that suddenly becomes loud enough to stop you sleeping at night.
On “3:14 Every Night” you can hear the avant-garde screech and squeal of Coil, a major influence and eventual collaborators with NIN, their Ape Of Naples album veering between seduction and abrasion, like the way a horror movie lures the listener into submission and surprise before shocking you out of yourself like a hammer blow to the back of the head.
Writing for Stereogum James Rettig noted that a constant sense of tension nestled beneath the moody surface of The Social Network soundtrack, becoming the movie’s signature emotional tone: “The Gentle Hum Of Anxiety,” one of the soundtrack’s more impressive standalone compositions, is an appropriate name for their score as a whole.” Again, in Ghosts I-IV Reznor expressed emptiness and presence through natural ambience; moments of restraint or hesitation in-between the notes, abstractions of rage, anxiety and desertion.
Reznor told the LA Times he was trying to forge a sound “as something that’s pulled out of the ether,” never entirely here or there but caught in flux, to keep pace with the film. Whereas a reviewer for In The Spool labelled the whole of The Social Network soundtrack “a slow-motion panic attack”. ‘Hand Covers Bruise’ uses this drastic dynamic of restrained poise collapsing into dread suggesting an elegy to inner pain; concealed and closely guarded, afraid to be exposed. Reznor and Ross achieved this sinking feeling by placing mics very close to the piano, each time they returned to the song’s main motif they moved the mics further away, this sonic adjustment works as both practical sound design and deeper metaphor, creating physical and emotional distance.
The track’s expression of inner torment becoming manifest in other negative behaviours of sabotage, addiction and malice echoing Reznor’s earlier lament to suppressed pain in Nine Inch Nails “Hurt”. Instead of being the standard piano ballad, “Hurt” gives a definite nod to Lynch’s surreal ordinary. Reznor explained his need to enrich the song on the Netflix Song Exploder documentary [READ MORE] using the powerful fuzz and scratch of a frequency testing machine (used for studio tuning) to generate ambient background noise, adding a haunted texture of brokenness to the track. This shifting sea of static is its own quiet chaos, along with Reznor’s barely-there whispered vocal, the song’s needling tones unsettle but make a searcher of the listener; drawing them closer and encouraging them to lean-in, start listening so a deeper connection might be realised.
Working in the pre-ASMR era, Reznor had already achieved a kind of meta-music, between the incidental purity of overheard ‘found’ sound that seems incidental and the technical proficiency of the educated musician and studio producer to create both physical and emotional responses, flipping the machine on its head. These kinds of sounds are buried throughout the mix for The Social Network soundtrack and have become part of our wider aural culture, where we search and scan on YouTube or Spotify playlists, to yield specific physiological reactions to create constructive mental environments for relaxation, study or meditation.
A visual example of this is present in the video for “Hurt”, including footage of the electrically charged hair-raising on skin, symptomatic of the goosebumps sensation. After the song’s long, slow seduction Reznor closes the song with a huge blast of distorted guitar that jumps up in volume, shocking us from the illusion of safety. This loud/quiet dynamic is played out more subtly across the tracks of The Social Network soundtrack but their impact and sense of affect is the same.
Reznor hoped that in the sonic density and dynamism of albums such as The Downward Spiral people would appreciate further meaning with repeated listens. This aspiration has continued throughout his soundtrack work, the physical layering of sound would stand in for the density and complexity of lyrical emotion, securing a bodily and mental reflex to his music, even when isolated from the visuals which they draw upon. Speaking about their soundtrack to Netflix’s horror drama, Bird Box, Reznor referred to himself and Ross as a single unit: “We aim for these [soundtracks] to play like albums that take you on a journey and can exist as companion pieces to the films and as their own separate works.” Elsewhere Atticus Ross cited the influence of the score to Taxi Driver, explaining that he could not hear the music without seeing the movie in his head, the sonic and visual aspects of the movie were nonetheless joined as two side of the same coin.
WHO AM YOU/I ARE WE
With The Social Network Fincher, Reznor, and Ross establish the beating heart of the movie through the psychopathology of Mark Zuckerberg; how his obsessions with social acceptance and a better life are smothered by his desire for success itself. He is driven by the desire to be recognised as a genius, and is less involved in what he creates, the “cool” factor of (The) Facebook becomes a much discussed and soon demoted concern. It is Zuckerberg’s ego, not the fictionalised break-up with a girl, that leads him further along his dark path. On 1994’s The Downward Spiral, arguably Reznor’s most personal and introspective album, he would off-load many of his own neuroses, self-loathing and destructive philosophical questioning onto the amanuensis of an unnamed persona character who narrates his own demise; establishing a broken individual who finds his existence irreconcilable to life stuck in his own transgressive nightmare.
However the two figures of Reznor and Zuckerberg would share certain characteristics of genius and megalomaniacal auteurism, in their own way each would experience a dramatic fall changing the future trajectory of their lives. Reznor would be overcome by his NIN persona and enter into his own spiral of addiction and worsening mental health, eventually leading to an overdose and rehab. He later commented that at the time he was unable to step outside of himself to witness or understand this sense of decline, let alone to stop it happening. So it is with Zuckerberg, his ambition creates its own momentum, the soundtrack is the smoke and flames that follows after the crash.
“I could relate to the character on the page of Mark Zuckerberg,” Reznor said in a 2018 interview. “To the feeling of somebody that believed in something so much and maybe went to any length to get it to work and then realized, well, maybe I fucked some people over in the process, and that weird sense of unfulfillment or melancholy.”
Reznor reflected on the Zuckerberg character alongside his own struggles in the world of music, telling the LA Times: “I’ve been that guy in my own mind with the pursuit of my own career in Nine Inch Nails. I know that feeling of having a good idea that’s more important than anything, and more important than any relationship I had at the time. It cost me friendships. I look back and say, ‘Wow, what a [jerk] I was at this period of my life.’ I can see that now, but at the time I was on a quest that was more important. That was the well I dug into.” Fincher offers this as commentary on Zuckerberg’s metamorphosis across the film’s redaction of events, as Mark turns into someone different to himself: “like a memory of who he was at the beginning. Like a memory of childhood,”
Recording The Social Network soundtrack in 2010, Reznor could look back on these former emotional struggles with years of insight and experience. His former self, marshalled by obsessive attention to detail and a need for control as ownership, similar traits we see in the character of Zuckerberg who pours himself into Facebook, the needy compulsion of social media echoes his own need for acceptance; to be recognised as the genius he feels himself to be.
Reznor founded NIN more as an ongoing creative project he happened to work within, a band of one. Throughout his career he fought to maintain the sole rights to his work, later self-distributing his music and releasing the 2008 album The Slip for free download and basic tracks for fans to make their own remixes, making him a pioneer in digital creative rights. Reznor pursued a unique creative vision for immersive musical experiences of atmosphere and emotional landscape, further realised in the band’s overarching design aesthetic of post-industrial decline and organic decay which fed into their iconic logo, album covers, and music videos; a dedicated mindset perfectly suited to mixed media world-building of film production, which along with his personal experiences made Reznor the perfect collaborator for Fincher to help tell the Facebook story as it gravitated around Zuckerberg.
With the multi-million selling The Downward Spiral album released in 1994 Reznor would find himself caught-up in the sudden acceleration of fame that suddenly made him a public figure. As with David Bowie before him, whose heightened profile of the Ziggy Stardust character threatened to overtake the real David Jones, fame brought the hyper-awareness of not only being seen, but watched and judged by the general spectator. In 1999 Reznor would be targeted as a scapegoat, alongside Marilyn Manson, for the Columbine school shooting after it was revealed that the shooters were NIN fans. From the beginning of creating Facemash Zuckerberg becomes a toxic figure of hate, then with Facebook, a hero of the digital revolution It is only much later he is made a wider societal pariah of the human right to privacy, data exploitation and political manipulation while his own crash of emotional fallout in The Social Network ends in more personal enmity and isolation.
The irony of Reznor’s lament is the more he expressed his sense of alienation and self-loathing, the more he was embraced by others, who imagined from his songs that he felt just as they did. But across the soundtrack the claustrophobic sense of being seen, observed, scrutinised and attacked is palpable, becoming an object onto which others can project their perception of you, the sense of being watched intensifies as the film unfolds. Zuckerberg’s paranoia and neurosis are fed by grappling to maintain a public reputation for Facebook, first with Savarin’s ‘chicken’ incident, and later Sean Parker’s drug abuse, it is his personal image which he cannot maintain or keep clean, Facebook becomes the teflon shield, the mask of corporate-positive whitewashing hiding behind making the world a more connected (and united?!) place.
The key characters of The Social Network cannot escape their flaws as that which also makes them great, “good at chess, bad at life”, imperfect machines with rare abilities born to singular purposes, is also what makes them socially transgressive and harder for them to fit-in. Deeply engaged in his own passive-aggressive tug-of-war Zuckerberg races from one relationship to another, seeking new contact, new connections, and a sense of belonging towards the “better life”. In The Social Network movie this yearning is made physical in the allure of the exclusive membership clubs of Harvard; populated by people who already have the wealthy background and social standing to back it up and enter through an already open door. In reality Zuckerberg only succeeds offends, exploits, burns, and ultimately alienates almost everyone he comes into contact with. Fuelled by envy and jealousy his constant put-downs on his (former) best (only) friend Eduardo Savarin, keep twisting the knife as he continually chips away at his peer’s invitation for membership into the elite Harvard Finals club, The Phoenix, a realm that Mark was not invited to join, and soon comes to realise in spite of all his success, he will never belong to.
His challenge becomes the number of people he must be willing to burn, the technical necessity of calculated risk (i.e. sacrifice), in order to become the person he imagines himself to be. Zuckerberg’s lack of empathy is contrasted with Savarrin’s humility (seen as a weakness); he also brings painfully acute insight to the flaws of others, while struggling to recognise his own. In his eyes he is preemptively rejected which suits his particular worldview, as in the bar scene at the film’s beginning, it is not for his misunderstood greatness or his qualities as a ‘nerd’, but for the damaging qualities of his personality.
As the narrative moves back and forth between the history of actual events and the present-day settlement testimonials we witness the post-mortem of broken relationships laid bare as Zuckerberg is confronted with the consequences of his actions. Through the cut and thrust dialogue of Aaron Sorkin’s script we witness Zuckerberg’s capacity for casual cruelty. Amongst the lyrical jousting the music pushes the scenes towards ever darker territory, so the sound becomes increasingly abrasive and claustrophobic jerking wildly from abstract remove to concrete intensity as Zuckerberg’s statements explode in self-absorbed vitriol that leaving everyone else in the the room silent and still.
Sorkin himself played quite fast and loose with the actual events, drawing the basic facts for the social network Ben Mezrich’s 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires. The film is very much a creative reimagining – prompting Zuckerberg to dispute the way he was portrayed – although Edurado Savarin was a consultant for the book – suggesting some contentious raw material but also a potential hatchet job – post-lawsuit. Of the story Sorkin said he had written around 80% of the script already by the time the he saw the book, suggesting the book enabled Sorkin to confirm the narrative arch of his story and supported the thrust of his structure; jumping back and forth between the two separate lawsuits and the making-of Facebook, effectively offering three versions of the same story. Sorkin told New York Magazine: “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?”
On the Soundtrack podcast with Edith Bowman Reznor explained his identification with Sorkin’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg: “I can relate to him; someone who thought it was worth trading everything fro something that would prove themselves – I know that feeling.” Zuckerberg is the flawed genius and also the villain of the piece, his negative qualities are perhaps also what makes him great, but like Ozymanidas, his power only serves to undermine him as a person. By contrast Savarin comes across as the stylish, more personable (normal) and human of the duo, as with the character split of Fincher’s Fight Club, he is (almost) everything that Zuckerberg is not. By the end of the film his personal image remains shattered, it can only be protected behind settlement pay-outs and non-disclosure agreements.
The Social Network film is also connected to some key songs outside of the Ross-Reznor collaboration. The trailer uses a cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ sung by the choir group Scala & Kolacny Brothers. In this context the lyrics’ dream the desire of perfect body and soul reflecting the film’s coruscating insight into the culture war of contemporary social interactions. Lone, often lonely, individuals desperate to be noticed, to be heard, caught between hatred and desire in a progressive liberatarian nightmare of continuous improvement, like a chat room turned eugenics lab, we hear Zuckerberg’s own all too hollow inadequacies ricochet around the echo chamber of the network he made as an altar (or tombstone) to his own genius.
“Creep” is a sonic touchstone in the film’s relationship to male toxicity. The (apparently fictionalised) break-up scene is acted with brilliant, blinkered self-absorption by Jesse Eisenberg, he only half-hears his partner until she asks him which is the easiest Harvard finals club to enter, which he takes this as a personal attack, and when she finally breaks up with him, after which he is finally silenced. The one-way nature of the relationship is revealed with Zuckerberg’s girlfriend cast as a mere listening post, held forever at a quiet distance, rather than as an equal where relationships require us to be open to one another, bring down the defences that keep us separate, as we would with no-one else. This exposes Zuckerberg’s later ability to use and exploit people so long as they remain useful, after which they are discarded, before they can leave him.
Instead of acceptance or emotional growth we see Zuckerberg’s dark turn towards passive-aggressive revenge, hiding in his dorm room Zuckerberg reacts to being dumped by attacking, not only his former partner, but all women across the university campus on his blog. Hacking the Harvard intranet he creates Facemash a system for comparing two girls’s headshots and selecting which is the more attractive (while rejecting the other) making them easy targets for objectification, moving beyond Harvard’s major currency of wealth, privilege and academic achievement they are rated for their appearance only, fulfilling a chauvinistic pursuit of sexual desire for its own sake. So Zuckerberg becomes the creep figure of the trailer’s song.
On her ‘Public Intellectual’ podcast Jessa Crispin noted how the early Facemash programming scene is cut against the “fuck bus” scenes of the Harvard club party; where a group of girls are literally delivered to a party and expected to get wasted, allowing themselves to pressured into performative sexual acts. The two trajectories inevitably collide; meeting at a nexus of chauvinism and misogyny, within the interlacing of these scenes we see women exploited for the enjoyment of their male cohorts, like cattle slaughtered to become meat, they are praised for the singular quality of flesh and nothing more.
Later in The Social Network soundtrack a cover song marks the key turning point of the film, after which the shoe, as Sean Parker’s character might say, is truly on the other leg of the [flipped] table. We are introduced to Reznor and Ross’s rendition of the classical piece “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, an incidental piece of music from Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. In the UK the song’s headlong helter skelter rush provides the theme music for Alton Towers, the most popular theme park in the country, having the most death-defying and gravity-inverting (best) rides. The most notorious of these being Nemesis; in our playground imaginations a rollercoaster that included every spin, twist and shock imaginable, where you were not so much propelled or dropped as thrown. The ride was terrifying, but worth it, after numerous incidents of whiplash, heart attacks, and fractured limbs it became notorious, but worth the risk. Once the tabloid press picked it up there were rumours of broken necks and paralysis, the fear factor of the ride became a genuine horrorshow. Proof was required that you had been on the ride, the last-minute photo before the big drop, we imagined that the other passengers pictured in the shot might now be crippled or maimed, headless horsemen forever strapped into seats, their ghosts limbs still aching, every harness wreathed in the presence of an invisible touch.
The spiralling repetition of the song’s theme repeats, the tune snapping at its own heels, accelerating towards terminal velocity of the crash, but never reaching it. In Reznor and Ross’s version the track glitches out into static. This rhythmic madness is an echo of The Downward Spiral album, like “A Warm Place” ramped-up into hyperspeed or the stabbing pianos of “The Becoming” breaking down into self parody, a vertiginous descent towards self-destruction, life without blinders and the brakes off, blinded by the freedom of the unrestrained ego.
This song inflicts a plot twist where the Winkelvoss twins, raised within the rich elite for which Harvard was created to protect and its culture to engender, are shocked to suddenly find themselves the loser(s) in the annual (US) Harvard-Cambridge (UK) rowing race, a race they were sure to win, standing as a metaphor they are outsmarted by Zuckerberg, someone who they looked down upon as their natural inferior. Reznor was inspired by the Edwardian Garden party theme of the Henley Royal Regatta – with the heights of anticipation built into the track – dragging the older music into an electronic setting represented the wider clash of worlds, with its spiralling suggesting an Alice In Wonderland vibe as Zuckerberg’s ownrise to power seems to run away with itself into strange new territories.
Where the Winkelvoss twins had attempted to use Zuckerberg as the hired programming geek they themselves are exploited for their initial concept to become fish out of water the class divide that held the two parties apart is overturned by native ability and ruthless business acumen before the personal ’honour’ system that Harvard rests its reputation upon. With the bait of possibly being accepted into the brothers’ Harvard fraternity dangled before him, the chance to become something, someone, ‘better’, Zuckerberg at first, desperately, fawningly tries to seize this opportunity, but with immediate duplicity soon turns it to his advantage. Overall the race is shown to both fair and unfair. Instead of allowing himself to be used Zuckerberg grasps at the opportunity presented to him, initially to connect the most powerful and richest students in the world’s top universities (“we don’t know what it is yet”) and so capsizes the illusion of safety that privilege and entitlement seemed to endow to the Winkelvei; no matter that he is technically the ideal person to realise the full potential of a worldwide social network, in the film Zuckerberg is forced to admit that he (allegedly) stole their idea.
The 1984 movie Revenge Of The Nerds might stand as the parallel parable to this scenario; but in reality it is the ultimate revenge fantasy of transformation from the victim into the abuser, not heroic justice, but the corrupting influence of power itself. As with W. H. Auden’s schoolboys – doing what was done to them – think Lord of The Flies with laptops and Piggy (the geek because he has glasses) as the final victor. As we see later in the film, perhaps the real lesson of the song’s infinite rise is high as you might climb in life, there will always be that same way to fall, and the people you passed by, you will meet again on the way down.
RACE TO THE END / SPIRALLING OUT…
In many ways The Social Network is really a heist film where we witness Zuckerberg’s increasing need for control and domination as a kind of space-race narrative turned inward. The initial idealism of the great coding project soon fades, and is replaced by arguments over investors and advertising, the project further corrupted by the Rasputin-like, Sean Parker, creator of Napster, who lives for immature teenage rebellion and self-promotion masquerading as innovation, over a single dinner of endless talk Justin Timberlake gives a spellbinding performance spinning Parker’s Robin Hood myth of himself as the liberator of music, while the track “Magnetic” spins away with his extended riffs into the realm of self-fulfilling mythology.
The escape velocity of this (now) singular momentum is played out in the soundtrack as a series of chase sequences blurred into wild montage: furious typing, chasing finance meetings, handshakes and slammed doors, Sean Parker stalking Zuckerberg thinking he himself is being followed, more typing, Mark pursuing bigger and brighter success, more members becoming more dollars equalling more investment, still more members, and brave new territories, arriving at the accumulation of power, influence and ego. As Parker promises, the initial talk of investment money will eventually turn into the millionaire’s dream of a billion dollars. But in reality, we are simply watching Zuckerberg’s optimistic vision thwarted by his own success. “Complications With Optimistic Outcome”, sounds almost uplifting while its shoegaze guitar screes back and forth, raging in stasis, its restless undertones show blood in the ointment, the trauma of a wound that refuses to heal, Fight Club’s angry and misguided fist punching itself in the face (forever).
It is interesting to hear two more non-original soundtrack songs, the The White Stripes’ bluesy wail of “Ball and Biscuit” open the film and The Beatles’ song “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” close it with more than a wink of sarcastic venom – both songs mark a complete stylistic break from the work of Reznor and Ross, raw rock guitar freak-out and rolling blues piano riffs, helping to place the film in the contemporary tradition of white rock, reflecting the musical era in which the film is set (The Strokes being the music of the first Facebook generation), while drawing upon some of the 2000’s retro rock movements.
It is important to note that the artistic power of the film has become intertwined with the music and its visuals. The creative sync of the Reznor and Ross’s appreciation of sound design bleeding into Fincher’s glowering aesthetic common to many of his films, deepening its impact. The movie jumps between extreme palettes of jaundiced and jaded sepia to the anaemic washed-out bleach in the haloed buzz of fluorescent lighting, long lingering glow of the blue screens – see the contrast between Fight Club and Gone Girl. The two sides of gloomy indifference are punctuated by verbal and emotional sparks that Reznor and Ross summon-up in glittering shards of wild noise and restless introspection. The gloaming of Fincher’s cinematography deepens the shadows and darkens facial expressions making every character harder to read, again merging into shadow, slipping away from a sense of familiar trust. As the film’s chase closes-in a mood of paranoia deepens towards its conclusion: a dark hallway blooming like an iris, a backroom of hackers competing over shots shadowed by Zuckerberg, the blackout in the belly of the club, lit by ghostly blips and pixels of neon, ending with harshly lit meeting rooms in absent-faced tower blocks, with the lights turned on the corporate world is everything dull, sad, and difficult.
The visual language of the film is also conveyed in the jargonistic titles that make-up soundtrac can seem abstract and technical, obtuse to the point of keeping the listener out, actually offers a series of keywords, passwords into the pathology of the movie: “motion/catches/way/march/home/possibilities” that suggest the simultaneous need for pursuit and escape, from mad dash to pause for reflection, once again, we are encouraged to hear the spaces in between the action, everything is in flux and changeable, nothing is certain, the world slips from beneath our feet. The pressure cooker of the episodic music builds as the Facebook company later balloons and mutates into something far beyond Eduardo Savarin’s control, and as Zuckerberg once warned, he is literally left behind, ripped-off and shut-out in the cold.
The Social Network movie ends almost as it began, a lilting piano, a glacial synth wind blows between the notes, “Soft Trees Break The Fall” is playing, Mark Zuckerberg sits many floors up inside another blank-faced shiny glass tower, shut-in, and ensconced against the cold. He looks out and sees the blur of city lights, a mere echo of the haze he wandered through on that first night, post-breakup, before Facemash, and before Facebook. Now he sits far above it, the actual events have become a timeline collapsed into a few paper files about to be restored to dust-ridden history, in a room suddenly emptied he is finally alone with himself, indifferent to the cost of the financial settlement and the necessary gagging orders bought with non-disclosure agreements, distribution of shares, the vacant zeroes of each settlement racked-up in lines upon lines like the blurry figures of massed code, these are all minor hits, a series of minor wounds he will never really feel.
Mark logs-on to Facebook, after a brief pause clicks “Add friend” on his ex-girlfriend’s profile; the girl he slandered and humiliated. Refreshing a page of the website he created, every few seconds checking and re-checking their relationship status and waiting to see if a bridge he burned just a few years ago has since been rebuilt. He clicks “refresh” he is now a rat in a wheel spinning away within the golden cage of his own design, trying to outrun himself. Now, as then, the snow has yet to fall and settle over everything with its blanket of forgetting, but the cold has crept in, one raw memory that remains raw; he refreshes again- for him every branch on the way down will always bend or break -refresh- there is nothing else in his way, and no-one to catch him – he is falling still.
[This blog post is extracted from my book – Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral]
One thought on “STOP SHOUTING, START LISTENING: Trent Reznor and the genesis of The Social Network soundtrack”
I just wanted to stop in and tell you that this is written really well.