The 2000s were an awful time to be alive. Sure, things started out so promising, but a funny thing happened on the way to the millennium - America was attacked and we were sucked into a maelstrom of paranoia, repression, and warfare that has yet to abate thirteen years on, and which only exacerbated already negative economic trends that eventually blossomed into the ongoing rolling economic crises experienced across the globe since 2008.
As someone who experienced all this bullshit firsthand, I can attest to the fact that the decade's musicians did a surpassingly piss-poor job of responding to said bullshit. Protest music has always had an iffy reputation. Looking back at the great era of sixties protest songs, how many of them hold up as anything other than didactic bromides designed to advertise the ethical superiority of the singer? With the best of intentions musicians who try to make some kind of political "statement" often find themselves sinking into a deep quicksand of self-righteous, condescending superiority, or worse, simply replacing vague platitudes for meaningful engagement. (See: Exhibit One.) The best political music is usually angry, less focused on establishing the artist's perspicacity than in communicating the strident urgency of the moment - think punk in the late 1970s, hip-hop in the late 1980s, or, hell, even Rage Against the Machine on occasion in the 1990s. I'm sure anyone reading this can remember any number of political songs from the last decade, but how many of them were actually any good? Think hard before you answer.
No one expected that the decade's best protest anthem would come from Trent Reznor. I say "best" with no fear of contradiction, not simply because the competition is so piss-poor, but because it's a damn fine song. And what's more, after 1999's The Fragile it would have been impossible to predict that Reznor could have come back as strong and as assured as he did in 2005. To be more precise: it would not have surprised most people at all if Reznor had died in the aftermath of The Fragile, and the odds of his rebounding from that album and tour not simply alive, but healthy, fit, and focused were downright troubling.
Don't misunderstand me: The Fragile is still my favorite Nine Inch Nails album, hands down. The Downward Spiral has never been my favorite, and while Pretty Hate Machine is preternaturally strong, I was late to the party and my memories of that album are mostly second-hand. But The Fragile - I bought that album the day it was released and listened to the whole thing - both discs - probably a dozen times the first week I had it. I even remember making a special detour on a road trip just to buy the advance single for "The Day The World Went Away" the day of its release - only to be, er, a bit confused. (The song was a terrible first single, it didn't make a lick of sense until the album dropped, and the B-side "Starfuckers, Inc." is one of the most embarassing songs in the Nine Inch Nails catalog - and this from the guy who once wrote, "The devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car.") But as much as I still love The Fragile, I also recognize that its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: it is one of the most solipsistic, ego-driven, navel-gazing documents ever recorded. It makes The Wall look like the Polyphonic Spree. If you can't buy into the fact . . . enjoy the fact that the record is a supreme monument to destructive self-absorption, you're going to find it insufferable. But if you can dig it, it's in a class by itself in terms of its full-throated commitment to the sensations of (arrested) adolescent egotism and self-loathing - and deep down isn't that what rock is all about, really?
It's easier to imagine Reznor being found dead in a hotel with six different kinds of narcotics in his system sometime around 2002 than it is to envision what actually happened, which is that he had a really rough patch after The Fragile but cleaned up, became a gym rat, got some serious focus and decided to go on a prolific streak that culminated in his winning a fucking Academy Award and marrying (!!!) his girlfriend and starting a new band with her. He has two children. What the fuck.
So it's not just that Reznor's mid-decade comeback was improbable - the success of "The Hand That Feeds" flew in the face of a much of the band's history. It's not as if Reznor had never been political before. I've always thought "Head Like A Hole" made a nice bookend with "The Hand That Feeds," and the surface similarities between the two tracks certainly create a nice symmetry underscoring the idea that With Teeth represented a rebirth for Reznor in many respects. But previous to this track his politics had been largely inchoate, vaguely defined, unfocused. There are political allusions in "Marsh of the Pigs" and a few other tracks, but Reznor as a political being was mostly a force of pure id, lashing out at faceless figures whose only purpose appears to be that of limiting the expression of free will - that is, a teenager lashing out against the omnipotent authority of "The Man." The interesting thing about "The Hand That Feeds," at least for me, is the way it immediately alerts the listener to the fact that Reznor is no longer interested in just talking about himself ad nauseam, but is genuinely trying to engage with a larger world outside the confines of his own head.
This is quite a clever track. Whereas many Bush-era political songs focused on either the man himself or vague homilies about the wages of war, Reznor did something a lot more difficult: he addressed not simply the politicians who lied their way into office and into two wars, but the political system that put them there and kept them there without levying any consequences for their malevolence. The lyrics in the first verse could be addressing Bush himself, or they could just as easily be aimed at the rank & file Republican voters who (sort of) swept him into office twice, or it could even be aimed more broadly at the larger plurality of Americans of any party who were fooled into following lockstep behind the military-patriotic-national-security complex that enacted a silent coup in the months following September 11th:
You're keeping in stepJust who is Reznor talking two? He's not laying the blame at the feet of any one actor, any single person or group who deserves the credit for the debacle of the Bush years. In the chorus, he asks the listener,
In the line.
Got your chin held high and you feel just fine
Cause you do
What you're told
But inside your heart it is black and it's hollow and it's cold.
Just how deep do you believe?He's talking here about the ways in which faith can be used as a tool by unscrupulous operators to manipulate the masses (an easy enough theme of the period), but also the ways in which faith becomes a most convenient pretext for self-delusion. It's common knowledge that Bush's most fervent base was the evangelical right, a highly motivated interest group who the Bush team was happy to placate with nine years' worth of subtle and not-so-subtle dog whistles in the direction of exceedingly conservative social policy. But it's also true that any examination of the record will show that for all the bluster of the right during the Bush years, Bush himself really was not the fire-breathing culture-warrior his most rabid followers believed him to be. Sure, he surrounded himself with people who could talk the talk, but when push came to shove Bush himself really was hesitant put his weight behind intervening in too many divisive social policy issues. (Do you remember his comical Solomonian pre-9/11 compromise on stem cell research regulations?) Sure, he put two conservative (although not as conservative as he probably believed at the time) judges on the Supreme Court and stacked the federal bench, but even there it's easy to overestimate the effect of his appointments in the context of a historical moment that was on the verge of a hard leftward shift, at least in terms of social (if sadly not foreign, economic, or military) policy.
Will you bite the hand that feeds?
Will you chew until it bleeds?
Can you get up off your knees?
Are you brave enough to see?
Do you want to change it?
This is very similar, incidentally, to the ways in which Obama's most fervent supporters believe, deeply and truly, that he is a fire-breathing crusader for social justice, just beneath the milquetoast trappings of a compromise-hungry adherent to Clinton's disastrous "Third Way" DLC-approved conservative Democratic ideology. The one truly revolutionary facet of his presidency - the color of his skin - has proven capable of obscuring every other obvious sign that he is not and has never been the true-blue leftie agitator in whom his fans desperately wanted to believe. How deep do you believe? Are you brave enough to see just how badly our guy failed to live up to our make-believe expectations?
The next verse draws the song more tightly into focus as an Iraq and Afghanistan-era protest song:
What if this whole crusade'sTwo disastrous wars in two far-off Muslim countries - often referred too either accusingly or triumphantly as "a crusade" - were conceptualized by their detractors as wars of blood for oil (oil which has, of course, failed to ever arrive). But instead of simply casting blame on the usual suspects, Reznor is careful to lay the blame precisely where it belongs: "we," those of us (all of us) who profit either enthusiastically or tacitly from the flexing of American military might and coercive foreign policy across the planet. We're all culpable here.
And behind it all there's a price to be paid
For the blood
On which we dine
Justified in the name of the holy and the divine.
Complicity is key. It's not enough simply to be opposed to bad policy and unjust wars, how money of us actually manage to get up off our knees and do something about it? It's a simple observation but no less powerful for its familiarity. It's not just the Republican functionaries or "values voters" or Reagan Democrats with "black and hollow" hearts, or the moneyed interests who keep the whole machine running smoothly for their own benefit and no-one else's, and it's certainly not just the specter of Mr. George W. Bush himself - it's the whole damned system that allows the situation to fester indefinitely: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."
Musically, "The Hand That Feeds" is a textbook example of how a comeback single needs to sound. It's muscular and confident, every bit the attention-grabbing earworm that "The Day The World Went Away" was not. The album from which the song was plucked was similarly strong (and strangely slept-on in the years since), positively concise by Reznor's self-indulgent standards, filled with punchy hits and uncharacteristic straightforward hard-rock riffs. In scope and accessibility, With Teeth is the anti-Fragile, all killer no filler. It also marks a slight return to Reznor's dance-y origins, after having spent years distancing his subsequent material from the industrial dance sound of Pretty Hate Machine. "The Hand That Feeds" rumbles and it crunches, but most importantly it runs with sufficient momentum to knock down a tree. It's just a great song.