year zero

Year Zero

Nine Inch Nails (aka Trent Reznor) have released their latest album: Year Zero.

the nutshell review? there isn’t one. it’s a distressing, thought-inspiring, sprawling, frustrating, visionary effort put forth by one of the great innovators in electronic music. it’s an attempt to merge art and political statement using digital tools and trickery. it’s an alternate reality game. it’s a brilliant "concept album," but it’s not an album in the LP-sense of the word – it’s an aggregate of ideas and media and information whose combination reveals an unsettling and dystopian vision for modern society, all wrapped in an aurally compelling package.

i’ve been a die-hard NIN fan ever since the release or Pretty Hate Machine. my life was consumed in fiery confusion at the time of its release, and it became a place for me to retreat during my struggles to make the transition from child to adult, to navigate my self-indulgent passage through loneliness and anger. it was a great listen, one that helped defined the entire industrial electronica genre of which i was a great fan. he followed with the brilliant Broken, the inspired and seminal Downward Spiral, the bloated and somewhat self-indulgent Fragile, and the half-listenable-but-safe With Teeth, which followed a loooong six-year hiatus containing scattered singles and tour materials.

after Downward Spiral, he sort of lost his way…who knows why? stardom, undiscerning idolatry, drug addiction and self-abuse…the usual litany of pop stardom woes followed by subsequent decay into mediocrity (at least in the minds of some). thankfully, reznor pulled out of his own downward spiral and produced something to rival or surpass the album of the same name. the new album looks out more than in, taking on multiple perspectives and voices, while still holding onto many of the core themes that have woven themselves through all of his work (god, religion, oppression, power, control).

the music

the album has been reviewed in a number of places. the year zero wikipedia entry has a list of fifteen or so critical reviews. as with most of NIN’s later efforts, this one evokes a mixed reaction, ranging from brilliant to [shrug] to bollocks. this is to be expected, and despite the fact that i love it and can’t stop listening to it, your mileage may vary significantly.

reznor recorded the bulk of the album himself while on tour. he plays almost all instruments, wrote every song. musically, this album pulls from the usual bag of NIN tricks, and to good effect. it’s sonically varied as it progresses from beginning to end, wandering from kinetic industrial guitars to pulsing, danceable beats to quiet, earnest melodies and messages buried in whispers and static. standout tracks for me include: Capital G, God Given, Meet Your Master, Another Version of the Truth, In This Twilight, and Zero Sum. the album passes through an arc, one that starts with The Beginning of the End and ends with the affecting and thoughtful Zero Sum. songs represent the perspectives of some of the different personas and organizations in this dystopian vision of society.

zero sum is particularly moving. it’s a look back at the (future) wasteland that we’ve created through our shortsightedness, our selfishness, and we’re living in a twilight, one where the coming night may or may not end. a sample:


they’re starting to open up the sky
they’re starting to reach down through
and it feels like we’re living in that split-second
of a car crash
and time is slowing down
and if we only had a little more time
and this time is all there is
do you remember the time we
and all the times we
and should have
and were going to
i know
and i know you remember
how we could justify it all
and we knew better
in our hearts we knew better
and we told ourselves it didn’t matter
and we chose to continue
and none of that matters anymore
in the hour of our twilight
and soon it will all be said and done
and we will all be back together as one
if we will continue at all

at the end of it all, reznor doesn’t seem to take hope in much, or if he does, he doesn’t vocalize it. the future could be very grim indeed if his vision came to pass…but that’s probably the point: shake our collective shoulders hard enough so that we invidually do what we can to foment positive political, social and environmental change.

politics and Year Zero

Year Zero was a political concept before it was the title of a NIN album. from the Wikipedia entry above:

The idea behind Year Zero is that all culture and traditions within a society must be completely destroyed or discarded and a new revolutionary culture must replace it, starting from scratch. All history of a nation or people before Year Zero is largely irrelevant, as it will (as an ideal) be purged and replaced from the ground up.

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge originated this term, and followed it with well-documented atrocities and suppression of civil liberties for the good of the state. Year Zero (as appropriated by NIN) imagines a time 15 years in the future where the international calendar has been reset by the US and a Coalition for Peace, where Church and State have merged to fight the onslaught of global terrorism, where drugs are used to control the population, where freedom is a privilege, not a right.

Year Zero – alternate reality game

the music album Year Zero is only one small piece of a much larger puzzle. Reznor and his compatriots have constructed a large-scale alternate reality game (ARG) that houses the story behind Year Zero (YZ). the game has been unfolding through an elaborate series of hints and clues scattered across both the real world and the internet (USB flash drives left at concerts, MP3 files with hidden clues (see below), web sites, hidden urls, unlinked images on the web, album artwork, and telephone recordings). it started with bold letters on a concert t-shirt, which when strung together, led people to the web site iamtryingtobelieve.com. this hinted at the upcoming album, led to more web sites in the fictional universe being created, and started the game.

as an example of the kind of hints that have been scattered around the world and Net, the first album track was "leaked" on a USB flash drive left at a concert. it contained a high-quality version of My Violent Heart. it also contained 8 or 9 seconds of static at the end of the song, which when run through a spectrographic analysis, reveals an unsettling image of a godhead that’s a central component of the game: The Presence (compare the image below to the album cover above). A number of other spectral analyses of MP3s have revealed additional clues, some in morse code, some in images as references to the online NIN community, some as phone numbers. (Note that NIN are by no means the first to embed images inside songs. another notable example is Aphex Twin.)

Year Zero - Presence spectrogram

an example of one of the web sites used in the game is anotherversionofthetruth.com. at first glance, the site is a patriotic reflection of NIN’s fictional Bureau of Morality, but drag your mouse across the site and it reveals a subversive message and links to an imagined future discussion forum in the game universe, which in turn reveals additional clues.

Year Zero - Another Version of the Truth

all told, at present, there are 30 separate web sites that have been linked to the YZ ARG. the storyline is fleshing itself out, complete with characters and a timeline, and it is pushing the buttons of a lot of OCD NIN fans who obsessively write about it and analyze every element of the universe. the best source for all of this information is the unofficial NIN Wiki, which at this point seems to be mostly focused on the YZ ARG. as a side note, several sites exist to help unravel the puzzles within ARGs (see unfiction and lonelygirl15)

open-sourcing art, resistance and music

an organization called Open Source Resistance (OSR) and its sister Art is Resistance (AIR) feature prominently in the YZ ARG, partially because they exist in the present day. by subscribing to the OSR mailing list, people were encouraged to come for a meeting in LA on Melrose place. they were met by people toting OSR rebellion kits, complete with stencils and other paraphernalia, all brandished with the OSR logo:

Year Zero - Open Source Resistance

From the Wikipedia entry on the groups:

Although the group is technically in-game and fictitious, by allowing participants within the game to contribute via their art, "secret meetings," and similarly underground (though staged) activities, AIR could also be considered a real group, comprised of participants of the game and as a manifestation of the political awareness that the Year Zero game promotes.

this is, of course, reminiscent of past viral marketing campaigns. the one it conjures in my mind is Shepard Fairey’s Obey Giant campaign, which eventually spread worldwide. no doubt, NIN would love to have their OSR stickers all over the world. free marketing for them, whereas for Fairey it was a social experiment.

but i digress.

the Open Source movement has been thriving for the past decade, with the rise of Linux, PHP, Mozilla, and other technologies based on freely contributing communities and networks, all striving towards a greater good without explicit rewards. reznor clearly believes in these ideas as they apply to intellectual property and digital rights management (DRM) of media. he clearly dislikes record labels and their approach to music sales as well. with the release of Year Zero, he has embraced these principles more firmly than ever. the entire album can be streamed from the NIN MySpace page, and all tracks will eventually be released in GarageBand/logic format for people to remix the songs themselves.

how all of this applies to the notion of rebellion and resistance is a little unclear to me. by its very nature, rebellion and resistance require networks of people, communities of the like-minded, in order to be successful. whether or not they are open or secret depends on the context in which they live. today, with our relatively free society, resistance can be more vocal and visible, provided it lives within the confines of the law. under the rule of a Pol Pot, resistance would have to be secret, since it would be punishable (usually by death). so, a secret resistance network seems a bit antithetical to the true ideals of open source (where everything is open and visible), although that’s probably too literal an intepretation of the OSR term in the YZ context. the power of open source comes through the scale of networks it enables, and rebellion can only be successful if enough people join to fight, so maybe this is what NIN is getting at.

marketing, political statement and art

so what’s the point of all of this? is it just a new NIN album with Marketing 2.0, or is there something deeper?

a cynic could argue (and many have), that the entire YZ ARG and concept are merely part of a brilliant viral marketing campaign, constructed to tap into NIN’s core demographic (if there even is one). based on what i’ve read online, there wasn’t much of a traditional marketing campaign for the album, so the viral marketing argument makes a lot of sense. however, many seem to stop there, as if that suffices to explain the entire effort. an implicit argument here is that the YZ ARG and everything around it has no meaning or value beyond the strict means to an end: sell more albums. i think there’s more to it.

Year Zero is a fragmented, non-linear story about a possible future. it contains many voices and ideas that can’t easily be contained in the confines of a 16-song album. by creating content outside the context of the album, these voices and ideas can be fleshed out more fully. additionally, they give more power to the narrative, partially because elements of the story don’t seem dissimilar from current events. it’s not that hard to extrapolate to the grim future Reznor imagines (although i think it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances to get there). YZ has created an unsetling simulacrum; with at least two of the YZ web sites (Free Rebel Art and Open Source Resistance), the line between fiction and reality was blurred pretty heavily, to the point that i wasn’t quite sure whether it was a real or fictional call to action. all of this allows reznor (and whoever else is involved) to express a broader set of ideas (while simultaneously creating viral interest).

as a game, it’s interesting to see the dynamics of groups coming together to solve the in-game puzzles, to discuss the music, to create an ephemeral network. the game’s content is entirely political, so a natural outgrowth is heightened political awareness on the part of some participants, discussing it in the context of the game or otherwise. by writing this blog, i participate in that process, maybe inciting a reader to think differently, act differently (either positively or negatively).

finally, at a higher level, if you buy the argument (mine and trent reznor’s as well) that everything surrounding and including the album is part of a coherent whole, then what is that whole? do we have the words to describe it? MetaArt? AggArt? InformationArt? InfoPorn? what do you call something that combines:

  • 16 songs, neatly packaged
  • 30 web sites with related audio and video content
  • telephone recordings (and callbacks)
  • the story told by all of the above
  • an emergent social network of gamers, fans, and OCD ARG freaks
  • the heightened political awareness generated by this collective phenomenon

i don’t know what to call it, but i think it’s a fascinating reflection of the times in which we live, even if it’s all "just marketing."

final thoughts

the digital world that supplants our day-to-day existence is weaving itself into the tapestry of our lives; among other things, we’ve created freely available tools to support widespread information sharing, political action and resistance where necessary. conversely, governments and others may use these tools for the purposes of surveillance, monitoring and occasionally repression, all with the stated goal of maintaining our safety and security. control of this precious digital resource (in the sense of maintaining neutrality, transparency, standards, and openness) is critical for human rights and a free society, and for maintaining the balance between the right to share information and the ability to monitor it. the internet is not a toy any more; the information flowing through its veins is part of the lifeblood of our society, and it will only grow in importance. there will come a day when many literally cannot live without it; we should be thoughtful as we prepare for that day. Year Zero is only one possible outcome.

YZ taken as a whole is disturbing and scary for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its shadow similarity to our world. with a few negative twists and a well-placed dirty bomb or two, our world could be transformed by fear. the tragic events of 9/11 have shown how fear-mongering can be used as a tool for political ends; it’s not hard to imagine more events like this leading us to a place where we give up more and more control to governments, religions, and corporate entities that supposedly represent our best interests. in many cases they do, but we should always remember that these organizations are run by human beings, inherently flawed, hungry for power and control over others, and endlessly thirsty for things that satisfy our far-flung prurient interests.

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