The debut album by Trent Reznor’s How to Destroy Angels, a band that also features his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross, has been streaming all week at the band’s website — and it’s really quite good. If we sound surprised, well, that’s because we are; the public response to How to Destroy Angels has been pretty negative since the beginning. But could it be that the hate directed at Reznor’s collaboration with his wife has always had more to do with the personnel involved than the music itself?
In fairness, the band’s early output didn’t exactly set the world on fire — the self-titled debut EP wasn’t amazing, but neither was it terrible. It’s hard to escape the idea that if it was Reznor collaborating with an unknown vocalist, or simply releasing those recordings with his own vocals on them, there wouldn’t have been anywhere near the amount of kerfuffle around the band.
Because here’s the thing: much of the controversy around How to Destroy Angels has centered on Maandig herself — and, notably, it precedes the genesis of the band, with fans seeming to take a dislike to her as soon as Reznor announced the news of their engagement in early 2009. Reznor was, in fact, so upset with the invective directed at her on Twitter that he closed his account two months later, explaining his decision in a long post on the official NIN forums. He specifically cited fans “spewing hate at Mariqueen and I,” and noted that “I really don’t understand what kind of ‘fan’ spends that kind of time and money to travel across the country seeing a band, to then dedicate an incredible amount of time and energy into non-stop hate diatribes online.”
Clearly, fans are always going to be suspicious of their idols taking new directions, especially fans as notoriously obsessive and possessive as Nine Inch Nails’. Ultimately, fanatics are a pretty conservative bunch, as evidenced by the ages-old tension at live shows between bands debuting new material and just playing the hits. Still, there’s rarely been a figure as divisive as Maandig — in fact, we might have to look all the way back to a certain Yoko Ono, the original subject of fans’ hey-she-broke-up-the-band vitriol, to find a rock spouse who’s inspired as much hate. And hey, the parallels don’t stop there, do they? Ono was a) non-white and b) female, both traits that seem to bring out the worst in fans.
You’d think they’d be happy for Reznor, no? But instead, there was suspicion as soon as his engagement to Maandig was announced — just look at the comments here or (shudder) here. “Our image of Trent is blown. She is terrible for him. and so temporary.” “She’s a tranny right????” “She’s a total gold digger who tweets about nothing but shopping since the engagement.” Et cetera.
The news that she had a musical project with Reznor only intensified the storm. Take a look here, for instance, where a women’s magazine that interviewed her was so taken aback by the ensuing comment section shitfight that it published a follow-up blog post about it: “While [we] were certainly excited to see such a strong reader response — one of the strongest we have ever had on the site — the extreme negativity of some of the comments made me wish people would get back to whatever it is they do on a daily basis.”
Sadly, though, this is what some people do on a daily basis. And the targets of their opprobrium are often female. The treatment Maandig’s received is all too reminiscent of the vitriol that gets directed at women online every day from behind the shield of anonymity.
There’s also a point to be made about the vicarious pleasure the public takes in seeing its rock stars living out the rock ‘n’ roll cliché, destroying themselves so we don’t have to. Reznor’s mid-’90s NIN output was so compelling precisely because he was so fucked up — you’ll rarely hear records as bleak and damaged as The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. He’s hardly alone in this respect — rock’n’roll is often born from adversity, and if you remove that adversity, you can remove the music’s raison d’etre. Bands start out young and hungry, get successful, lose their fire, and without it they end up making Be Here Now.
You’d imagine, then, that the prospect of losing your edge would be a frightening one for a songwriter. Still, that’s ultimately Reznor’s business and no one else’s. The man himself has the right to be happy and healthy — as he noted in his 2009 blog post, “I’m not the same person I was in 1994 (and I’m happy about that). Are you?” And in any case, his output in recent years hasn’t been the work of a man whose powers are entirely on the wane; everyone seems to agree that the soundtracks to The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were fantastic. Both of the latter involved two thirds of How to Destroy Angels — Reznor and Ross. The difference? No Maandig.
It comes back to not taking Maandig seriously as a musician. The general assumption was that there was nepotism at work here, that Reznor was making a vanity project with his hot, young wife, never giving any credence to the idea that it could be a genuine artistic collaboration. When you take into account the fact that Maandig was and is a musician in her own right, fronting her own band from 2004 to 2009, all you’re left with is baseless Internet misogyny. Perhaps the fact that the album they’ve made together is really rather good will go some way toward shutting people up. But then again, probably not.