For broke college students on a steady diet of smoky bars, a $50 show isn’t really an option. But that’s too bad – shows like Nine Inch Nails at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on Saturday provide the opportunity to mingle with a harder-edged crowd that is almost nonexistent in Ann Arbor. The leather-clad bunch, rocking ripped fishnets with back tattoos of serpents, butterflies and ill-advised Chinese characters – an older, tougher crowd-filled the seats. To these people, paying 50 bucks for a ticket means getting your money’s worth, even if that entails dropping another grand on refreshments. While NIN might be something of a critical darling, they’re evidently still considered “rawk” by a healthy portion of the music-consuming audience.
After the massive critical and commercial success of 1994’s The Downward Spiral, Reznor become something of an exalted figure in rock’n’roll. Then came the fallow years: A five-year layoff, a lukewarm response to the double-disc The Fragile and appearances in Marylin Manson videos all contributed to the slow decline of Reznor’s iconic status. Compounded with the artistic decline was a personal one – financial problems stemming from a shady business partner led to significant substance abuse problems. Reznor was quoted in a recent SPIN interview as saying, about the last several years of his life, “I was clearly trying to kill myself.”
White Teeth, therefore, was the redemption piece. With the overwhelmingly positive response, Reznor and Interscope could breathe easy – Nine Inch Nails proved to be the unit-moving force it once was. Beginning the set with a thin white sheet separating them from the crowd, the band flailed around on stage as silhouettes. The curtain rose, revealing a jacked Reznor in his black leather pants and cutoff shirt. The band proceeded to move militantly from one song to the next, Reznor gripping the mic with two hands, one foot behind the other, looking like someone you do not want to fuck with.
The band’s bombast sounded amazing within this setting, as it should – the drums hit hard, the keyboards sounded adequately eerie. The curtain descended halfway through the set, leading to the band playing behind a video montage of animals, suburbia’s creepier residents and tanks, culminating in a ludicrous clip of President Bush ballroom dancing.
When the band reappeared, Reznor had made a wardrobe change and seemed refreshed. The night culminated with a bang-bang-bang trio of songs. First, Reznor did a “Hurt” solo on the keyboards, which got the loudest reaction of the night. “The Hand That Feeds” sounded dancier and stronger than on record, and with the first NIN single, “Head Like A Hole,” as the set closer, Reznor managed to whip the crowd to a fever pitch. The touring band spent their time smashing guitars to pieces as Reznor marched off triumphantly.
While Saturday night was popping off on stage, the atmosphere in the crowd was disappointingly sterile. The fact is, these kinds of shows reached a zenith in the’70s, when drugs and free love were omnipresent; going to the show as much as an excuse to get wasted as anything else. With more and more crowd regulation, today’s audience is reduced to paying $8 for a beer, leaving the quaaludes at home.