Nine Inch Nails’ album Year Zero was released in April 2007 to the excitement of many, myself especially. I’ve been listening to NIN for over twenty years so in normal circumstances it would’ve been welcome, but the idea of a dystopian concept album criticizing our government’s actions at the time held extra purchase. I purchased both singles (Survivalism and Capital G) on the day they were available, as well as the album. Savagely critical of George W. Bush’s administration (among others) Year Zero felt like a revelation then. And given the election of Donald fucking Trump and its upcoming ten-year anniversary I decided to jump deeper into it and see how it holds up. Concept set in 2022 the album is startlingly accurate for what looks to be our path rather than a decade aged.
Year Zero’s first track is the non-lyrical song Hyperpower. It’s a savage introduction packed tight with menace and shouting voices. It’s also eerily reminiscent of the Hate Song in Orwell’s 1984 complete with a “savage, barking rhythm…that resembled the beating of a drum. Roared out by hundreds of voices to the tramp of marching feet, it was terrifying.” Hyperpower begins, as most 1984-type marches, not with collective action but the sinister directions of a leader. The guitars cut in, then the chants. As the chants continue the tension of a counterguitar ramps up tension until a third guitar sample cuts in. The track, the march, has reached a tipping point and become an emergent phenomenon zagging across all previous narratives and signifying the terrifying loss of control. All hell breaks loose. There are screams and corrosive feedback. Then a gasp of silence.
For just a beat or two, and then The Beginning of the End cuts in with a raw, driving drumbeat. Reznor sets it up with smooth warnings. “Down on your knees you’ll be left behind/this is the beginning/Watch what you think, they can read your mind/This is the beginning.” The pace is relentless – the song starts with the fear of being isolated from society but immediately begins to show how toxic and dangerous that society’s become. Immediately we’re left feeling alienated, as the song’s subject no longer recognizes their own reflection. The idea that society’s progressed is questioned, and the dishonesty by which we survive – “We think we’ve climbed so high/Up all the backs we’ve condemned. We face no consequence/This is the beginning of the end.” There’s a clear corollary in the Bush years to our actions as a nation-state but this reads much darker in the wake of Trump’s election. The assumption of lack of consequences has become microcosmic but in an extremely distributed way, now applicable to personal actions – thus the rise of mosque and synagogue vandalism, attacks on people of color, the public adoption of and evangelism for Nazi ideology. And in each case the idiot feels entitled to act with no consequence.
From the first line the song introduces consequences, though (“you’ll be left behind”). Being left behind doesn’t seem so bad until you realize you’re forced to give up what’s left. And Reznor then addresses a predatory society in which you take what you can in a zero-sum game, depriving others haphazardly. The venture capitalism and financial engineering of the Bush II era holds no candle to what we’re seeing now as far as bold and heartless vultureism, the cynical money-grabs of mortgage and payday lenders, the lies we depend on for derivatives market securitization and the ad-revenue model of the internet. But the song ends on a note of warning – that our personal cognitive failure to see the consequences of our actions really is the beginning of the end. That seems born out by so many events.
The next track -and the most popular, Survivalism – continues the emphasis on predation and societal ego but focuses in particular on ecological issues.
“I should have listened to her
So hard to keep control
We kept on eating, but
Our bloated belly’s still not full.
She gave us all she had but
We went and took some more
Can’t seem to shut her legs
Our mother nature is a whore.”
Survivalism starts with and regularly revisits an incessant, distorted buzzing as if an angry swarm lay just beneath the surface. That threatening drone is cut off only by the chorus, which switches from “we” to “I” as the chorus addresses engagement with society at a personal level.
“I got my propaganda
I got revisionism
I got my violence
In hi-def ultra-realism
All a part of this great nation
I got my fist
I got my plan
I got survivalism”
The song begins with ecological devastation and has now moved to the I. The swarm is momentarily obfuscated as we follow Reznor’s rabbit hole from a collective, diffuse responsibility to the immediacy of a particular subject’s contributions and withdrawals from society. The first five deal with selfish and destructive comforts the subject has had to surround themself with in order to get by: propaganda, revisionism, flashy simulated or simply relayed real-world well-detailed violence, nationalism. But the song then pivots to consequences. The subject’s comforts won’t be as effective considering the trajectory of the nation. A collapse approaches. So the subject self-soothes with the idea that they’ll survive through force, wits and savagery.
After the first chorus we see society descend into chaos; sirens, rifles, marching, global fuckery. Self-deception after a loss of faith regarding their original beliefs which have been traded for this barbarist ideology.
Survivalism ends after the subject is given one last chance to move towards society and environmental health again. That chance is spurned. While Bush II EPA and climate change steps were appalling, after an attempt at remedying them we are confronted by a different monster and his minions. A monster that appoints the head of the EPA a man who has sued it over a dozen times and takes actions against national parks that tweet about climate change. His followers closely fit the pattern of the song – self-deceiving environment exploiters who cling to propaganda, revisionism, depicted violence and the fantasy that they will persist and even thrive in the case of a societal collapse.
Me, I’m Not presents an internal conversation in which the subject initiates changes internal and external, again finds themselves sort of disbelieving what they’ve become. It feels like they’re a small part of an avalanche that’s careening faster and faster down a mountain. And having considered this darkness within, they make a conscious decision not to stop.
Capital G presents a fascinating foresight to Trump voters and current circumstances. It presents as the slow, simplistic, proud confessional of someone who pretty much knows and admits that his vote enabled war crimes. It highlights the tension between rejecting any kind of responsibility for their own circumstances (financial exploitation, climate change, voting mistake) while demanding accountability of others.
“I pushed the button and elected him to office, and
He pushed the button, and he dropped the bomb
You pushed the button, and could watch it on the television
Those motherfuckers didn’t last too long
I’m sick of hearing ’bout the have and have-not’s
Have some personal accountability
The biggest problem with the way that we are doing things is
The more we let you have, the less that I’ll be keeping for me.”
The song provides more and more interesting corollaries to our present circumstances, such as trading all your previous morals and ethics in order to stand behind a powerful figure. In doing so they’ve forgotten their original fortitude and dignity, ending up on their hands and knees just to appease the boss. It’s a piece-by-piece buildup of both Trump supporters and the Republican party leaving behind any previous scruples and lowering themselves to menial, humiliating service and aggressive atavism. But there’s an explicit warning in the midst of this to the presumably horrified listener: “There’s a lot of me inside you/Maybe you’re afraid to see.”
My Violent Heart continues the idea of a movement initiated by the broken but in truth a consequence of the society at large, now reaping what they have sown. The Great Destroyer stands as a sickly sweet discussion on surveillance and the inner struggle of someone fully conscious that they’re thoroughly different than the regime and both afraid of and anticipating their own magnificent power.
The parallels continue. They’ve not only held up over time but deepened in the midst of the last three months and specter of the next four years. It’s just that Reznor’s projected date of 2022 was… optimistic.