Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #78 Pretty Hate Machine

I don't know if this accurate and, if it is, what the circumstances behind it might be, but I feel like we've been waiting on Daphne Carr's 33 1/3 volume on Pretty Hate Machine forever. It wasn't a title I was particularly excited about as I haven't listened to much NIN since I stopped being seventeen, but I was curious to see what a writer as accomplished as Carr might do with the album. Turns out, this book was well worth the wait. Instead of setting out to "read" or "explain" Reznor's seminal album, Carr's project centers on locating Pretty Hate Machine in time, space, and memory. In pursuing this project, Carr provides important bits of Reznor's (and his family's) history, brief narratives of important cities in NIN's history, namely Mercer, PA, and Youngstown and Cleveland, Ohio, fan oral histories, and explorations of the sub(and mall)cultures to which Reznor's music was instrumental. That may sound like a lot of disparate material to cover in a 150 page (plus notes) book, but Carr's overarching focus on culture and her discretion in limiting each section to essential components keeps the book moving and developing in a number of interesting ways.

In a move that seems both bold and necessarily obvious, Carr begins her volume on Pretty Hate Machine with a discussion of the trench coat mafia, the tragedy at columbine, and the resulting media frenzy surrounding NIN and like artists. Why begin there, of all places? Because it was the point at which the culture that grew out of NIN's music was in the media spotlight, the moment when all of the kids in corners were suddenly dragged into the light in a flurry of paranoia and fear. In other words, it makes perfect sense to begin a book about culture with the moment when that culture was the most seen.

But Carr's book goes so much further than simply exploring that gothic/industrial culture. In her own words, by telling the story of NIN and Pretty Hate Machine, Carr was able "to tell the story of lower-middle-class white men in the Rust Belt through a narrative beginning with Trent's birth and leading to the album's birth, as a mirror of American transition from Industrial to Information Age labor" (10). This is where Carr's take on Pretty Hate Machine excels, and what sets it apart from other books in the 33 1/3 series. The story Carr is exploring is so much bigger than just an album--she's taking on class, race, economics, urban decay, privilege, etc...So thorough is Carr's exploration of NIN's impact on culture, and culture's reliance on NIN, that the books final chapter includes a brief history of Hot Topic and its intertwining with Reznor and his music.

Of course, what stands out most about Carr's book is her willingness to let her subjects speak for themselves. In the process, they say some insightful things, some intelligent things, some horrifying things, some tragic things, and some disturbingly unintelligent things, but Carr never really judges them. She let's them tell their stories and, through the context she provides, let's her readers come to their own conclusions (with only one or two fleeting exceptions). This, more than anything, is what makes Carr's book such a compelling read--it's not just about the culture of NIN fans, it is in part by them. Any author who trusts her subjects and her audience that much deserves some serious respect. So thanks, Daphne Carr, for adding a new highlight to the 33 1/3 series. My only regret is that I didn't read this book sooner so I could assign it for the class I'm teaching this fall.

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