When I consider what Nine Inch Nails' Broken means to me, I think, as I normally do, about attitude, and about feel, and about overall meaning and inspiration. What place it has or had in my life, in my trajectory or growth, if there's meaning there at all, and then why. I don't think about songs. Very rarely do I care too much about an album simply because of the songs, at least not in the "oh, this is a favorite song of mine," or an "oh, this is pleasant to listen to" type of way. When works of any kind of genre or medium really resonate with me, it's because they embody a feeling that I also relate to, because there's a memory there, something attached to them, that I can't forget. A time. A place. An event. Some sort of imprint or impression that never came off, something that still lives inside somewhere, either snapshotted and preserved, or having grown into something else. They reflect some sentiment within me back at me in a way that strengthens and empowers that sentiment. In the case of Broken, those reflected feelings are immediately obvious to me: defiance, resolve and a refusal to go against my own wishes for the sake of someone else's expectations, in particular when it comes to my own artistic path or output. Don't tell me what to do. Don't act like you get it when you don't. Don't blow smoke up my ass now and then later try to cash-cow me against my long-term best interests. In essence, Broken is a resounding "fuck you." Actually, make that a capitalized "FUCK YOU."
Really, I never stopped to think about this until now, but speaking of moments that I never forgot about … there is a very distinct memory …
Late fall. 1992. Eighth grade. I was at a school friend of mine's mom's place, and I was all about grunge and alternative, I was all about thrash, I was just getting into Death (the band, not the genre), I was more than all about weird shit like Primus and Faith No More and Bad Brains. I, however, had zero knowledge of industrial music. All I knew was that this guy Trent Reznor wore fishnets on his arms, and that there was a lot of leather, and chains, and eyeliner, and black clothing, and chicks that looked like they could beat my ass in an alley and look hot doing it before going home and conducting rituals. All of those are incredible things in hindsight. However, at the time, Pretty Hate Machine, and the band, and the cyberpunk meets S&M aesthetic that was un-relatable to a prepubescent 12-year-old dirtball from inner-city Baltimore, had kinda blown right past me. This soon changed.
I was going on about something — Primus and Super Nintendo, I'm sure — and my friend pulled out an orange digipak that from a distance looked to me like a picture of SpaghettiOs. Come to think of it, this was probably the first digipak I'd ever seen. Anyhow, he put it in, turned the stereo up as loud as it could go since his mom wasn't home, and hit play. Midway through the second track, a track that I now know as "Wish," I thought that maybe his speakers were blown. We sat in silence staring at the stereo until the EP was over. I can't lie and say that that day I went home and became some super Nine Inch Nails fan. I didn't. It wasn't until much later that I started to appreciate the entirety of it more, and from a more up-close and personal perspective, but none of that is relevant to this. What did happen is, I went home and couldn't stop thinking about how jarring that listening experience had been. How unique it was compared to anything else that I could musically reference. How focused and isolated and honed to a point it was as a vibe. How it just … sounded … like "FUCK YOU." The way the guitars and drums and vocals all sounded like a skinned knee. The sounds I heard, and the way it made me feel to hear them … I went home that day with some very important musical seeds planted, and if I really think about it, my love of noise, electronic, industrial, experimental and ambient music … of unorthodox production techniques … all of those loves that continue to blossom and develop for me now … there's at least a root for each of those things in the seeds that were planted during that listening experience. That evening and that listening experience is a very vivid random memory that I've never forgotten, and I guess now looking back, the reason for that stain becomes clear. Really, I'd be hard pressed to remember many other specific memories from that fall at all. Even today, I don't think about that EP based on what it actually sounds like now, but rather the impression that it gave me then. The feeling is preserved.
It's not just the songs, although the songs alone would be more than enough of a "FUCK YOU." It's not just the production, although that combined with the songs would be a Jordan/Pippen combo worthy of winning the "FUCK YOU" finals six times over. Don't get me wrong, though — I love those things. Those "more than enough" things … they're great … but they aren't what really makes the release resonate with me. Now … today … it's the context that those things existed in that really takes them to another level.
When I learned the backstory, about how the CEO of TVT refused to release a new NIN album unless it was along the lines of Pretty Hate Machine, and Trent, instead of complying, recorded in secrecy under various pseudonyms before eventually figuring out a way to get out the release that he wanted, under the Nothing Records imprint label … that refusal … that fight … the way that the songs and the production contribute to that overall attitude … that's what activates me. That's what makes me take a deep breath while nodding my head and digging my nails into my palms, and makes me say "YESSSSS" even as I write this. The music videos that were all banned … from a same-named "snuff film" that was rumored … and passed around … but never aired or distributed commercially at the time, in lieu of standard "promotionally viable" videos. The little Easter egg digs at TVT's CEO. Even just the idea in general of making a much more abrasive, harder-to-digest album, after having mainstream success. That refusal and resistance to being stylistically caged, even if by yourself. The obvious enjoyment that was taken in digging (black boot) heels in and flipping a massive middle finger, both outward and inward, while grabbing firmly onto the reigns of his future. To the record company, to commercial expectations, to your own recent work. All of that. Nothing resonated with and inspired me more as a kid, and as a young(er) adult, than an act of defiance, self-belief, surprise and aggression, wrapped up in one cast-iron-balled move. It's the giant "FUCK YOU."
That context, that's the thing that wakes me up and inspires me now … that makes me grit my teeth and feel like fangs are beginning to grow like a fucking werewolf … that makes my eyes wanna turn yellow like the end of the "Thriller" video … the thing that really makes me want to throw my head back and howl through the air … is the circumstance under which the album was made. That turns the album from a collection of songs into a symbol, into a pointed message, into a singular exclamation.
Not being someone's bitch when it comes to your art. Fighting viciously to protect your vision and to keep the walls from closing in on you. Putting your ass on the line, betting on yourself with no safety net because you know what you're doing and where you're going. Not some old asshole in a suit. Not a bunch of industry pay-checkers ready to high-five and shake hands and fluff you with bullshit after keeping you in your machine-cog role, making money off your past work or the expectations that you continue that past work. Not your own fans who may not follow or enjoy what you're about to do. Not even the you of yesterday. Putting your head down and doing whatever it takes to get the thing that you believe in over the finish line and out into the world. The laser-pointed hatred towards every uncreative leech who would try to convince you of doing anything but that. That's the thing that this represents to me now. Don't tell me what to do like you know better than me what's best for me, try to fucking sell me on some shit that I know is wrong for me, to make YOU a buck. To make things easier for YOU. To keep your ears appeased. To keep your "short term" pleasant at my long-term expense. Trying to sweet-talk me into completely trading in my vision for your commercial and financial aspirations. Attempting to strong-arm me when that sweet-talking doesn't work. Stick what this EP represents up your ass sideways, over and over again, until you prolapse. That is Nine Inch Nails' Broken to me. Twenty-five years later, that sentiment and attitude, that resolve, that line drawn hard in the sand, that willingness to risk possibly losing everything tangible in order to keep your own self respect … that character is needed from artists now more than ever. That's what keeps this EP alive and resonating with me now, and that elevates a short blast of abrasive and nihilistic songs into an enduring and inspirational artistic symbol.
Oh, and the term "fist fuck" was a bit of an eye-opener, as well.