What Trent Reznor Taught Me About Public Personas
In 1997 the band Nine Inch Nails filmed a music video for their hit single The Perfect Drug. In the video the lead singer, Trent Reznor, looks like he’s stepped out of an Edward Goyer drawing. His skin is so pale it’s blue. His jet-black hair hangs down to his long black coat. He roves a hedge maze, wielding a scepter. He sits beside a phonograph with a vulture perched atop a skull. He lip syncs, lying down on a bear skin rug.
On the commentary track for the video Reznor said, “It’s the furthest out of myself as I’ve been in a video… I was thinking what the hell am I doing?… Am I me or am I this vampire-like absinthe-laden character?”
Many fans saw this brooding caricature as an accurate portrait of Reznor. We saw him as a modern day Poe figure shut up in his mansion overlooking the mausoleums of New Orleans, waiting for a tourist to walk by so he could feed on them.
Reznor’s lyrics read like diary entries reworked into a rhyme scheme. His love songs are less about romancing someone than they are getting the feeling off his chest. There’s authenticity in his vulgarity. He sings openly about self defeating intrusive thoughts, addiction, and suicide.
His music struck a chord with many of us growing up with depression. He had a talent for stealing the words right out of our mouths. The media still struggles to define mental illness, but here was a singer who could articulate it better than the experts.
Reznor became our public advocate for depression, whether he wanted the job or not. Since his lyrics had a confessional quality we assumed we knew him intimately. We hated anything that challenged this perception. We demanded his persona stayed consistent. We didn’t want to see pictures of him smiling, jogging in broad daylight, or wearing a color other than black.
In 2015 Trent Reznor appeared in a video announcement for the launch of Apple Music. Gone was the wafer-thin brooder from The Perfect Drug video. This Reznor had short cropped hair, muscle weight, and a polite salesmen’s pitch.
For fans who hadn’t seen Reznor since the 90s this was a different person. Many of them refused to believe that their emotional avatar and this suave pitchman could exist in the same head. Many went on twitter tirades as if they felt personally betrayed. Their definition of Reznor didn’t allow them to see him as a whole person.
Of course Reznor has matured over the years, he’s gotten sober, had a family, but I don’t think he ever lost his edge. I think he’s just allowed people to see a more complete picture of him. I believe he’s always written his bleakest lyrics in the heat of the moment, but that he never stopped striving for happiness in the times between sessions. He never documented times without conflict and the fans never knew him in any other context.
If you’re a writer on the internet you should ask yourself if your readers really know you. Which version do they know? Do you ever feel like you put up fronts? Has your persona ever gotten away from you? Let’s examine some of the false faces I’ve worn and what writers can do to correct their own online identity.
The Many False Faces of the Internet
Bob Dylan famously said, “God, I’m glad I’m not me.” regarding the persona the media had crafted for him.
Bloggers craft their own personas, but they can be just as inaccurate as Dylan’s or Reznor’s. This is often the case for aspiring novelists who think a blog is an obligatory step to getting published. We’ve been led to believe that before anyone will want to get to know our work they have to get to know us, that before we can build a platform for our fiction we have to build ourselves into a brand.
This is why so many early blogging entries lack authenticity. We’re mimicking the tone of bloggers with followers. We’re not writing in our own voice. We put up fronts that we think will get a positive response. We pander to an imaginary audience.
In my time as a blogger I’m guilty of putting up at least three different fronts which I call: The Hater, The Self Saboteur, and The Senator.
The Hater belittles anything that passes through his sightline, not because he genuinely hates it, but because he thinks his tone makes him bulletproof. The chip on his shoulder shields the heart on his sleeve. He wants to share his art with the world, but he puts spikes on everything he makes to let readers know if they offer one iota of criticism they’re in for a flame war.
The Hater wears armor to protect himself from others like him. He’s too clever to ever feel sincere.
The Self Saboteur
The Self Saboteur over shares personal information. Vulnerability is their default tone, because that feels real, even when it’s just another pigeon hole. Writers always strive to articulate universal truths. Sometimes we try to do that by listing local truths, hoping we touch on something that resonates with everyone.
There’s bravery in telling a good sob story, but so many of our experiences aren’t ours alone. So many of our secrets are only partially ours to tell. The larger our readership becomes the more likely we are to mention someone who happens to be in our audience.
The problem with sharing too many personal details is we set ourselves up for some truly awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversations.
The Senator tries to be as likable as possible. He’s inclusive to a fault, hyping his humility, criticizing nothing. He writes like he’s campaigning for public office, mirroring the sentiment he gets in his comments, loving everything his followers like.
The Senator is the least offensive of my false fronts. He keeps it vanilla, modulating his beliefs through a PC filter. He minds his privilege, piles on disclaimers, and puts no joke out there without an artist statement.
The Senator is good for confidence boosting slogans, obvious advice, and positive platitudes. He never picks fights, but he rarely inspires real change.
How to Find Your True Self in the Words You Share Online
I have cycled through each of these extremes in search of the perfect online identity. It’s tough to be edgy and inviting at the same time. It’s hard to be vulnerable and give sound advice. It’s a chore to be both charming and genuine.
The lesson I had to learn was that The Hater, The Self Saboteur and The Senator were all facets of my personality. Each needs to surface when I’m feeling them the most, not when I think my audience wants to hear from them.
In his book On Writing Stephen King says, “First write for yourself, then worry about your audience.”
Even if you know something has resonated with your followers before you should blog about what’s true to you in the moment. Write the article you would want to read and your passion for the subject will resonate.
Why Bloggers Should Hate on Things in Moderation
A little sarcasm goes a long way, but too much can be alienating. I criticize a lot of popular media, but I’m watching the extent of my fervor. People define themselves by the things they like. If I attack their favorite film they might feel like I’m attacking them.
Recognize when you’re being The Hater and dial him down.
One of the reasons I don’t write a lot of articles reacting to politics is that many of my beliefs are fluid. If I commit a partially formed opinion to words I might not want to defend it in a month. My writing style is brazen, which makes me sound set in my beliefs, but sometimes I read up and doubt my position.
You Can Be Honest Without Being The Self Saboteur
There are many ways to share revealing information without being The Self Saboteur.
Not all of my problems deserve to be documented. That’s why I only post journal entries when what I’m sharing is part of a broader conversation. I’ve found ways to draw out the truth without including details I’ll have to apologize for later. I use a lot of rhetorical devices, mixing my friends’ experiences with my own.
I often advise writers to use their humiliation, but humiliation works best when the situation is behind you. If something is ongoing wait it out before sharing.
I don’t understand bloggers who write under their real name and post grievances with family members, recent exes, and coworkers, and who blab about the chemical cocktails they consume. This is a case where keeping it real can go wrong. I’ve had employers who comb through their employees’ social media accounts. I live in an ‘at will’ state, which means employers don’t have to give a reason to fire anyone. Keep that in mind when you gripe about that hag in the cubicle next to you.
You Can Be Likable Without Acting Like You’re Running for Senate
You can be polite without having to worry about being all things to all people. Just respect your core audience. If they don’t feel like ‘Liking’ and commenting on a cause you’re championing eat your humble pie and move on. I’ve brought up a number of topics I couldn’t get to resonate. This doesn’t mean I’ll never talk about Net Neutrality or the pseudo science behind regression hypnotherapy again. It just means I’ll put some time between mentions.
Bloggers need not be squeaky clean, but I try to limit my profanity and save my explicit content for horror stories.
I’ve been listening to Nine Inch Nails for over twenty years now. I have a picture of who the real Trent Reznor is, but I might be way off. I’ve only seen what he’s chosen to show me. The truth is, I don’t need to know the man’s every thought to make a profound connection with his art.
We bloggers don’t need to gut ourselves for our audiences to see that we have heart.
I’ve put a lot of myself online, but I keep just as much to myself. No matter how many Photoshopped selfies I post in my gallery you will always have an incomplete picture of me. Hopefully what I share is enough for you to make a meaningful connection.
My audiobook Terms and Conditions is now free on Bandcamp. You can listen to it right here!
After getting a lot requests for prints of my art I decided to open a store on REDBUBBLE where you can find prints and a whole lot more.