Playing for the Machines
In Walter Benjamin’s essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he is engrossed by a central tension between placing art into the arms of the masses and leaving art with those who will treat it as an entity to be contemplated and revered. While he debates the subject at length, he never actually resolves the issue. Along with the “commodification”, the loss of tradition, and the lessening of authenticity that he feels are intrinsic to the mechanical reproduction of art, Benjamin is also disturbed by fact that, especially with film and recorded music, the artists play for machines. “What matters is that the part is acted not for an audience but for a mechanical contrivance...” (Benjamin 229) (In this and all following quotes or paraphrasing one can easily liken a musician to the actor Benjamin refers to.) There are two consequences Benjamin sees as a result of playing to the machines: the first being that a music studio allows the artist to complete a song in multiple takes while also using mechanical enhancements and the second consequence being the lack of audience feedback for the performer.
According to Benjamin the first consequence of playing to a machine is that “the actor’s performance is presented by means of a camera... The camera that presents the performance of the film actor to the public need not respect the performance as an integral whole.” (Benjamin 228) To extrapolate on Benjamin’s position, the same could be said about the recording of music. Recorded music is normally the result of many takes and is frequently modified by a variety of studio techniques. The machines in the studio allow the artists to dub in sounds or samples, splice together music from random sessions, or lay down instruments one at a time for a layered effect. In essence, these machines provide the artists with the ability to work until they believe they have a perfect product. Technology and its machines allow a song to be dissected, augmented, and then pieced back together for the desired effect, so in a sense the end result is presented by the machine as Benjamin has alluded to, however this may not be as detrimental to “the art” as he surmises.
Closer by Nine Inch Nails off of The Downward Spiral, 1994, provides an excellent example of what can happen when an artist embraces the act of playing to the machines. Nine Inch Nails basically consists of Trent Reznor and his studio equipment. However, this one-man band is capable of producing some of the loudest, intelligently pointed yet abrasive music of today. Nine Inch Nails can be seen as a continuation of the “industrial music” concept that started in the late 1960s and early 1970s with groups like Can, Kraftwerk, and Throbbing Gristle. These bands found their inspiration in the styles of individuals like John Cage, William Burroughs, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
All of whom rethought the concept of ‘music’ by incorporating into their compositions the industrial noises of cars, airplanes, and other machines; the multi-tracking (cut and paste) effects which recording technology makes possible; and the eerie sounds of early synthesizers. (Heumann 2, part 1)
Contemporary “industrial music” has evolved and changed since the 1960’s but the dark underlying motives of assaulting the traditional musical conventions with layers of shocking and dehumanizing electronic cacophony still remain. However what sets Nine Inch Nails apart from other modern “industrial” artists and is perhaps the most important accomplishment of NIN is Trent Reznor “writing and industrial song with the word I in it.” (Weisbard 1)
Trent Reznor constantly places himself as the first person narrator is his music adding an obvious human agent to a genre of music usually characterized by “anonymous sounds of engines, drums beats, and voice boxes” as seen with artists like Kraftwerk and Can. (Heumann 2, part 1) The addition of the individual to the traditionally anonymous and uniform genre is where Nine Inch Nails begins to use the very machines to which they are playing to create their hallmark sounds of dehumanization and the gruesome.
In Closer, Trent Reznor narrates the song and is trying terribly to assert some form of control over the “You” presented in the lyrics. While Trent Reznor does violate, desecrate, and penetrate “You” all these actions are made possible by “You” who allows them to take place. During the chorus “I” (Trent Reznor) struggles to place “You” in a place of minimal control as to reclaim the lost power of “I”. Trent Reznor’s place in his relationship with “You” dynamically changes within the song from passive to aggressive to passive again as he attempts to claim his individuality and authority while possessing the “overwhelming fear that ‘I’ is losing its ‘self’ and merging with everything else.” (Heumann 2, part 2)
The conflicts between “You” and “I” and control and subjectivity are played out in the music of Closer. Trent Reznor places “his own body (figured musically as the voice) in opposition to the synthesized and digitized music that frames it. (Heumann 2, part 2) Trent Reznor struggles to maintain the independence of his voice and to stop the technological mechanization (which is the musical manifestation of “You”) from taking it over.
The narrator weaves his own personal search for redemption across denunciations of god, religion, politics, phallic power, sexuality, and violence, all which seem coupled with an insistent desire to break beyond the boundaries which restrict bodies, ideologies, and subjectivities. These themes, while evoked lyrically, are mirrored musically in the continual blurring of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ sounds which surround him. (Heumann 2, part 2)
Nine Inch Nails uses the technology of the recording studio to symbolize “You” and “Your” control over Trent Reznor. The struggles and darkness of Closer are emoted through the utilization of machines and with out them the battle between “You” and “I” manifested as the conflict between “natural” and “synthesized” would not be observed. “The theme of pain is connected with the equally enigmatic interplay between human sensations and technologically-produced sounds.” (Heumann 1, part 2) While this example of playing to the machines only proves Benjamin’s point that the recording studio does not “respect the performance as an integral whole,” Closer demonstrates that the technological element of the music can be introduced as an agent in its own right, an improbable task without the recording studio.
Besides becoming a personification device the recording studio allows for one person to be the mastermind behind the music created. In his studio, Trent Reznor combines synthesized melodies and tape-looped drums he himself produces with samples of screeches and moans to complete his effect. These electronic tracks he creates are the results of his passions and emotions alone, therefore when one listens to a Nine Inch Nails album the sounds heard are played exactly where and how Trent intended them to be.
When Nine Inch Nails gives a concert however, this is not always the case. Obviously Trent Reznor cannot, at the same time live on stage, make all the sounds heard on any given song while not only singing lead but back-up vocals as well. For this reason Nine Inch Nails concerts often have musicians backing Trent. While the musicians and other various supporters can be told how to play, they will not have the same fervor and emotions Trent had while composing the songs. These live versions will also have the perceptions and intuitions of the musicians coming into play and therefore they will always be a bit different from the final version of the song on an album. It could then be argued that the authentic version of the song would be the version on the album composed solely by Trent Reznor and colored by only his emotions and not the live version in which the band reconfigures the tune. While the recording studio does give an artist the ability to have multiple takes and splice wherever he sees fit, perhaps instead of criticizing the studio for it’s lack of respect for “the performances as an integral whole” (Benjamin 228) the recording studio should be praised for birthing a new form of machine-mediated authenticity.
For Benjamin the second consequence of playing to a machine is the lack of audience-artist interaction as compared to that which occurs during a live performance. “[T]he film actor lacks the opportunity of the stage actor to adjust to the audience during his performance, since he does not present his performance to the audience in person.” (Benjamin 228) While this is true, the lack of audience reaction is not necessarily something that should be viewed as negative.
By playing to a recording device Trent Reznor was able to completely express his anger, frustration, and desire that are the fabric of the dark motifs in Closer without concerning himself with an immediate audience backlash. Perhaps, more of his passion and emotion were expressed because he was not telling his tale to a human, someone who could judge him, but to an undiscriminating machine. Recording studios allow for the unleashing of unbridled feelings of lust, ecstasy, and hate without having to conform to an audience’s preference. The only people that hear the music while it is being constructed, besides Trent Reznor, are the people in the studio such as engineers and technicians. One would assume that these people are hired because of their expertise but also for their appreciation for the type of music Nine Inch Nails produces. The engineers and technicians are probably the individuals who admire the talent of Trent Reznor and understand the themes that run through the music the most.
Trent Reznor does not make albums to appeal to the masses, the song Closer, like many of his other songs, has to be reconfigured and censored to become palatable for mass consumption. Amazingly, however, Trent Reznor finds ways to make the radio edit version perhaps more offensive than the original by using technology. Closer is an extremely dense song full of electronic noises and screaming synthesizers, so when Reznor states “I wanna fuck you like an animal”, while perfectly audible, this violent and angst riddled claim does not so much shock the listener as it mimics the dark frenzy of the music. The radio edit version is an entirely different story:
When the song is played on the radio, the word “fuck” is replaced by a momentary silence in the music. This produces an uncanny reaction on the part of the listener, who (one would assume) knows what the censored word is, yet is prevented from hearing it because of moral or religious restrictions on particular language in the mass media. Rather than silencing the word “fuck,” however, the silencing of the narrative at this point winds up drawing one’s attention to this unspoken word, giving it more resonance than it would have if they had simply left the song alone. (Heumann 2, notes) Through using technology Nine Inch Nails manages to conform to the censorship legislation while still maintaing their edge and affirming that Trent Reznor does not make albums for the “top forty” listener. The recording studio allows Nine Inch Nails to freely express themselves, find their niche, and avoid conforming to the preference of the masses. This would not be possible if Nine Inch Nails only played in the live arena.
When the song is played on the radio, the word “fuck” is replaced by a momentary silence in the music. This produces an uncanny reaction on the part of the listener, who (one would assume) knows what the censored word is, yet is prevented from hearing it because of moral or religious restrictions on particular language in the mass media. Rather than silencing the word “fuck,” however, the silencing of the narrative at this point winds up drawing one’s attention to this unspoken word, giving it more resonance than it would have if they had simply left the song alone. (Heumann 2, notes)
Through using technology Nine Inch Nails manages to conform to the censorship legislation while still maintaing their edge and affirming that Trent Reznor does not make albums for the “top forty” listener. The recording studio allows Nine Inch Nails to freely express themselves, find their niche, and avoid conforming to the preference of the masses. This would not be possible if Nine Inch Nails only played in the live arena.
Walter Benjamin wrote The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in 1936, so in his defense he obviously could not have envisioned what recorded music would have manifested into. However, if his disdain for film is likened to recorded music it can be assumed he would not have approved. His concerns with the lack of audience-artist interaction and the altering of a “whole” performance by splicing, layering, or dubbing would perhaps be alleviated if he knew that through playing to a machine artists have the unrestricted ability to release their passions and consciousness while also constructing music that completely embodies their essence and is only moderately reproducible live. By playing to the machine a new form of machine mediated authenticity was born.
-Nicolette Valdez, 2002
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 217-242.
Heumann, Michael. “Entertainment Through Pain: Sexual Chaos and Industrial Terror in the Music of Trent Reznor.” Part 1. http://www.hauntedink.com/nin/nin.html. Accessed March 9, 2002 at 1:30pm.
Heumann, Michael. “Entertainment Through Pain: Sexual Chaos and Industrial Terror in the Music of Trent Reznor.” Part 2. http://www.hauntedink.com/nin/nin1.html. Accessed March 9, 2002 at 1:32pm.
Heumann, Michael. “Entertainment Through Pain: Sexual Chaos and Industrial Terror in the Music of Trent Reznor.” Notes. http://www.hauntedink.com/nin/ninnotes.html. Accessed March 9, 2002 at 1:31pm.
Weisbard, Eric. “Piggy Fucker.” The Village Voice. April 5, 1994