Influences: Nine Inch Nails (and other Industrial/Synthpop)

I have to admit that only some of my influences are book-based.  I love books, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes a song provides so much more inspiration than a block of prose, so I really can’t leave this side of things out.  And since Nine Inch Nails has just announced another album, it seems like a good time to talk about Mr. Reznor a bit.

I started listening to NIN probably around 1994, making me 13 or 14.  Can’t say I was a fangirl because I’ve never been the type of person to obsess about bands or writers or any of that; writing fanmail notwithstanding, I didn’t cover my walls or my locker with posters and I didn’t write anyone’s name along with mine inside a heart on my school notebooks.

That being said, I was a little bit in love with Trent Reznor, and he’s still one of my few media crushes.

I spent a lot of time that year on walking in circles around the dining room table, listening to Pretty Hate Machine and a couple other NIN albums (including Obscured by Fuckheads, which my parents must not have known about because hey, title) on my CD walkman which I occasionally wielded so energetically I would fling it into a wall.  I went through a couple walkmen like that.  My favorite song was Head Like A Hole, because what teenager doesn’t want to holler those lyrics now and then?  That defiant theme would stick with me though, and all the more because Reznor followed through with it.

I mean, there are a lot of artists out there who initially spurn the mainstream but then get sucked into the musical corporate structure.  And I don’t want to go off on that; it’s their careers, their lives, and if the music is still good, I’ll listen to it, whatever.  But some people get popular yet resist being folded into that corporate pocket.  Reznor has jumped labels a few times, he’s put out free internet albums, he’s rumored to have leaked his own music and videos onto the internet now and then, he continues to branch into other projects (including an Alternate Reality Game I wish I’d known about while it was running) and hasn’t gone rolling around in the fame shitstorm like some popular artists…

So I respect him.  And then there’s the music, which still speaks to my shouting-teen side but more recently to the sly-dystopian-subversive side too.

Aaaaand then there’s the man himself.

Like I said, I had a crush.  My best friend and I had a tape of NIN music videos and performances back in the day (when VHS was still a thing) and we watched it repeatedly, and my favorite part was a few of these…I don’t remember if they were music video footage or cutting-room stuff or whatever, but there was a young Trent spazzing around and flinging his microphone stand and almost tripping over cords and amps like an awkward industrial duckling–this energetic emphatic twitchy angsty angry man–and I guess my ovaries clobbered me over the head.

All this is a roundabout way of saying, remember that villain who was spawned by my experience of Dalamar the Dark in the Dragonlance Chronicles?  (Well, villain-slash-antihero-slash-cosmic-pain-in-the-ass.)  Really he’s more like if Dalamar and Trent Reznor had a baby and then left that baby to be raised by angry birds.  A little embarrassing to say, but it’s the truth.

This brings me to the concept of theme music.  I rev up to write by listening to music, usually loud and often while walking in circles in my room or pretending I remember any of my tae kwon do lessons.  And over the years, each character has developed his or her own playlist that puts me in the mind-space to write them.  Obviously, the villain I was discussing is strongly attached to NIN–and to some other bands I was listening to back at that time in my life, like TOOL–but once I got to college I discovered music that suited certain other characters much better.

Because college was filled with the school’s intraweb, back before filesharing was punishable.  Just about everyone shared their music folder onto the network, making it a cornucopia of new music to copy over and check out, and I discovered a ton of completely random stuff–mostly techno.

And then there was the goth club.

I was never a goth.  Yeah, I had black streaks in my hair at one point, and I mostly wore black, but both of those were outgrowths from being a theater techie in high school.  In college, however, I lived with my best friend who was heavily into her goth phase, and we and some other college friends would go to the club once a week when it had goth night after the standard-issue club kids skedaddled.  There, we would watch the guy who interpretive-danced to everything, avoid the ones who flailed around with spikes like it was a mosh pit, discuss people’s outfits behind our hands, and occasionally bop around on the dancefloor.  Because it wasn’t always dirges.

Sometimes it was synthpop.

You might not know what that is, and I’m not great at definitions.  It’s kind of an outgrowth of 80s electronica, a lot of it is from overseas (the UK and Germany in particular) so sometimes the accents and mangled English are ridiculous, mostly it’s all vocals and synthesizer type stuff.  But you can do a lot with those tools now, and there are many synthpop ‘bands’ that consist of one person in their basement creating beautiful music with little more than a computer.

And some of it is…  Well.  I was talking about dystopian music before when discussing NIN, and a lot of synthpop seems strung between dystopian and futuristic.  There’s actually a subset called futurepop — from which the first of my college influences hails: VNV Nation.

VNV Nation has a kind of cold, stark aesthetic, even in its more hopeful songs, but there are a lot that are full of a steely regret.  I was listening to them (and to a few bands with similar tone/themes, like Assemblage 23 and Diorama) before I created the character of Lt. Sarovy, and they helped me conceptualize a lot of the tone of him–including his voice.  A bit rigid, a bit proud, but sad…forward-directed but backward-looking, trying not to repeat the mistakes he still can’t clearly see.  A particularly Sarovy song is Joy, which is anything but joyous.  More like resolute.

Then there are bands like Seabound — slick and sly and subversive, sometimes a bit cruel, like listening to Dexter (the serial killer) with his Miami trappings swapped for something from a German club.  The character Darilan gets some mood and swagger (stalk?) from these guys, to the point that I like to refer to him as a Poisonous Friend.

Other music has inspired themes in the story and the world, or given flavor to certain places.  I intend to wrap a short story around this one song by Iris some time; I already have a rough plan sketched out, and beyond that, the overall theme of the song fits more than one character’s arc in the main story.

Plus it’s good for dancing.

Alas, if Lark listened to real-world music, it would probably be bubblegum pop and radio rock, so I won’t be mentioning any here.  Cob sings David Gray and Mumford & Sons songs to me sometimes, but again…radio play.

I suppose electronic music might seem like a strange choice to pair with a fantasy story–at least one that’s pre-modern.  Certainly classical or folk would be more suited to the assumed time-period.  I don’t know that I care much about assumed time-periods though.  It’s a question I’ve pondered when sketching out the scientific and technological progress of various areas in the world, and the fact is that some are using geothermal energy while others are burning dung and peat.  And there’s magic, dangit.  Not so much that it’s revolutionized the world–at least the parts we see in the first few installments of the series–but enough that a much greater temporal swath of influences, including music, are permissible.

Would they fly with an audience if I suddenly turned this into a movie or (my first choice) some kind of anime series?  Heck if I know.  Can people accept something more colorful and varied than hobbits trekking through scenic wilderness?  Or is anything that complex and shiny doomed to fall on its face like so many other cheesy fantasy adaptations?

Sigh.  I’ve gotten off-track.  Maybe the most important thing about my music collection isn’t how it has influenced me but how it energizes me on a daily basis.  There are days when I feel like such a useless lump that I just want to slouch in my computer chair and forget I should be writing–but when I play certain songs, I can’t stay still.  Like back when I was a teen and flinging my walkman across the room because I was so amped up, I am continually galvanized and inspired by riffs, by lyrics, by ideas and harmonies even in the harshest and most incomprehensible songs in my collection.  If I didn’t get up and dance to fast, thunderous, nasty, gorgeous music, I might as well just go back to bed.

I leave you with a villain’s lovesong, because it’s great and I can.

About H. Anthe Davis

Worldbuilder. Self-published writer.
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3 Responses to Influences: Nine Inch Nails (and other Industrial/Synthpop)

  1. Music plays a large part of my creative process too. I love listening to film/tv/videogame scores while I’m writing. I can’t really listen to bands when I write because I can’t think of my own words if I’m listening to someone else’s. I really like listening to the band God is an Astronaut when I write as well.

    It’s cool that you have such a specific inspiration.

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