The story behind Broken: the music and the movie.

Nine Inch Nails, formed by multi-instrumentalist Trent Reznor, is a band with a long and rich history. It all started when Reznor shopped around his initial demo tape and was picked up by TVT records in 1988. Three years, four halos, and one ugly legal dispute later Nine Inch Nails was signed on with Interscope records and Reznor had been given his own studio Nothing. The first release from Nothing/Interscope was the short, brutal and very successful EP Broken. This is the story of halo five.

It is no secret that NIN is my favorite band, and thanks to that obsessive fandom that I was able to launch my professional writing career. I have already written quite a bit about The Downward Spiral (and it’s relationship to Fight Club), so in honor of that I thought it would be fun to wind back the clock a bit and explore the only NIN release to win not one, but two Grammys. (For the record, Reznor absolutely hates the Grammys and has been very vocal about it for years. But it’s worth mentioning that 1993 and 1996’s Best Metal Performance Grammys were from that release).

As any fan knows, the difference in vibe between the 1989 debut album Pretty Hate Machine and Broken is rather severe. It was a bold departure for Reznor, who was still in the process of making a name for himself. His original label wanted him to make another album that sounded like the first one: a bit angry, a bit dancy, and pop-influenced regarding structure. They wanted him to play it safe, which went against his instincts as an artist. So he began recording new music in secret while his manager shopped around for another record label that would leave Reznor the hell alone to do what he does best.

He found that label in Interscope and jumped ship on his TVT contract, under the stipulation that they would get a slice of royalties from his next several releases even though they would have nothing to do with the funding or marketing or anything else.

By that point, Reznor was ready to give up on music entirely if he didn’t get out from underneath the thumb of TVT and Steve Gottlieb (the man behind the label). Reznor agreed to their ridiculous terms to get the ball rolling on releasing some new music under Interscope.

In the long run, though, the last laugh was on them. The entire EP was a middle finger to TVT, from top to bottom. The grammy wins must have felt like rubbing salt in an open wound for Steve Gottlieb. Reznor even whispered “Eat your heart out Steve” at the beginning of Physical, because he knew exactly what he was doing.

One of my favorite aspects of Nine Inch Nails is the autobiographical nature of the lyrics. Some of the first lyrics for Pretty Hate Machine were pages lifted directly from Reznor’s journal, and he maintained a degree of that honesty, vulnerability, and exposure throughout the rest of the NIN catalogue.

Of course the lyrics were also written to have an openness to interpretation, a general relatability on a universal level that angsty teenagers always gobble down like so much candy. I was one of those angsty teenagers, and his approach worked like a charm on me. But the more you learn about the man behind the music, the more you see how straight-forward the music really is.

Pretty Hate Machine depicted a talented nobody with a broken heart and a healthy dose of mistrust for a variety of authorities around him. Basically Trent Reznor at the time.

The Downward Spiral depicted a budding rock star who also happened to be a real person and rather timid and normal, comparatively. That album expressed the struggle between those two states of being. It also portrays the devotion he had to make it in the music business, by cutting out relationships, religion, outside influence and really anything else that might be holding him back from realizing his vision. The Downward Spiral is a cautionary tale about the life of Trent Reznor up until 1994.

Which brings us back to Broken. The theme of the album involves slavery, rage, being taken for granted, hatred, frustration, and every other feeling that Reznor had about his situation under TVT. Although each song is wrapped around the theme, I’ll just quote Happiness in Slavery to make the point. 

slave screams he thinks he knows what he wants
slave screams thinks he has something to say
slave screams he hears but doesn’t want to listen
slave screams he’s being beat into submission
don’t open your eyes you won’t like what you see
the devils of truth steal the souls of the free
don’t open your eyes take it from me
i have found
you can find
happiness is slavery
slave screams he spends his life learning conformity
slave screams he claims he has his own identity
slave screams he’s going to cause the system to fall
slave screams but he’s glad to be chained to that wall
don’t open your eyes you won’t like what you see
the blind have been blessed with security
don’t open your eyes take it from me
i have found
you can find
happiness is slavery
i don’t know what i am i don’t know where i’ve been
human junk just words and so much skin
stick my hands thru the cage of this endless routine
just some flesh caught in this big broken machine

The linear notes end with the following quote, in case there is any doubt,“No thanks: You know who you fucking are. The slave thinks he is released from bondage only to find a stronger set of chains.”

For a long time I assumed that most fans understood the record label conflict was at the heart of many lyrics throughout the work. But maybe not. Maybe the shocking grotesque nature of the music videos along with the underground Broken movie threw fans off the scent of something so innocent as a legal battle being the subject of discussion. Maybe the intensity and bombastic delivery of the songs properly disguised the work and this will be a revelation to some. I hope so.
For the record, I just watched the Broken movie for the first time (in research for the post). I’d heard about it for decades, but was always warned about it being the grossest thing ever, so I decided to take a pass until now. I am not a fan of Saw or any of the other so-called “torture porn” movies. It’s just not something I understand or appreciate. Quite frankly, seeing the twenty minute film made me reconsider publishing this post at all, because some things are best left buried and forgotten by time. It is the sickest, most disturbed thing I have ever seen in my life.

Image result for NIN BrokenThe Broken movie consists of a number of bondage-and-torture-themed music videos surrounded by clips of what looks very much like a real snuff film. The entire ordeal is book-ended by a third perspective: the murderer being hung for his crimes.

Now the idea of “bondage and torture” being metaphors for his record contract situation has already been established. But the snuff film portions just take the whole experience from the realm of edgy to the padded rooms of the seriously disturbed.

I highly doubt Reznor ever thought the movie would actually see the light of day. He knew he was a bit beyond “too far” and was still seeing what he could get away with. But I don’t think he saw this project as being a commercial release. I think he planned to have a few VHS copies leak and be distributed underground from the very beginning, which is of course what happened. But why? Why would he spend the time and money making it in the first place?

As it turns out the whole thing was a big inside joke. The film is yet another example of Trent Reznor taking an event from his life and reinterpreting it through his band as a completely new work of art.

What inspired the Broken movie in the first place was a camera tied to a balloon which contained footage of the first NIN music video, Down in It. The camera took a shot of Reznor lying down in an alleyway, covered in corn starch and looking dead. There were two figures standing over him with leather jackets bearing the NIN logo. The video crew rigged the shot so that the camera would be released right above Reznor and float up to be grabbed on the rooftop before it flew away. That was the idea, at least.

But the first camera got away. It flew out of Cleveland and eventually landed in a farm hundreds of miles away, to be found by a farmer. He took a look at the film and thought it was some sort of gang murder, so he alerted the authorities. Eventually the FBI got involved and opened up a case on the mysterious alleyway murder. That case remained open for a full year until finally Nine Inch Nails was popular enough to have a fan in the FBI who saw the film, recognized the logo, and solved the mystery once and for all.

When Reznor found out about what had happened, he thought it was hilarious. But the wheels in his head started to turn and within a few years, the notorious Broken movie was made. Whether or not it was a good idea is still up in the air.

For your own sanity, I urge all readers who have not seen Broken to continue living your life free and innocent of the trauma it may cause. Did I mention how messed up it is? No. You want laughter in your life. And I seem to have painted myself into a grim and grotesque corner here with my choice of subject matter. But all is not lost!

You see, I first found out about the Trent Reznor FBI case through an episode of the antique news show Hardcopy which ran a special regarding the case. From the 90’s news style, to the beret-wearing dramatized depiction of what a fan of NIN must look like, to the dig, “Nine Inch Nails? More like Nine Inch Noise!” there is plenty of laughter to be had. Enjoy!