Metal in the Mainstream: Implications of an Oscar Win
Published: Thursday, March 3, 2011
Updated: Thursday, March 3, 2011 12:03
I'm not a huge fan of film or the Oscars, but as I skimmed the headlines Monday evening, something caught my eye: "Trent Reznor wins Oscar for Best Original Score."
I was shocked. Trent Reznor... an Oscar?
For those of you who don't know, Trent Reznor is the genius behind industrial-metal one-man-band Nine Inch Nails (NIN). For some context, industrial metal is a subgenre that formed itself from the meshing of several metal subgenres, and is characterized by hard-rock-influenced instrumentals accompanied by heavy use of both vocal and instrumental distortion and synthesizers. Again, for those of you who don't know (as I myself did not until recently), Reznor along with NIN producer Atticus Ross, composed the original score for the Oscar-nominated film The Social Network, which eventually beat out contenders such as Hans Zimmer's Inception score and A.R. Rahman's composition for 127 Hours. Though I did not see The Social Network, after reading the article (as well as an interview in which Reznor likened the score to the music of NIN), I bought the soundtrack on iTunes, where I noticed it had rocketed to number four on the top-albums chart (alas, it still lagged behind Justin Bieber's My World 2.0, but that's another rant for another article).
Though the overwhelming word used to describe the soundtrack was "dark," it seemed much lighter, in some elusive way, than the bulk of NIN's music. Still, the influence of Reznor's experience with his band were clear, particularly on the tracks "A Familiar Taste" and "On We March." In my momentary giddiness over Reznor's win, I neglected to listen to the other nominated scores, so I cannot speak as to whether or not the largely ambient score from The Social Network is in fact the most somber. Drawing on the music of not only his own band, but various other sources (parts of some tracks sound almost Deadmau5-like, and the music of nineteenth-century classical composer Edvard Grieg makes an appearance), the hour-long score – as well as its Oscar win – has significant implications for the future of subgenres in the mainstream.
To win an Oscar is an affirmation of the legitimacy (in popular opinion, at least) of a work; to win an Oscar brings the recipient to the forefront of the public eye.
Though NIN is admittedly one of the more household names of metal – and nearly any underground genre, for that matter, though NIN is often credited with having popularized industrial metal—the band remains in partial obscurity due to the simple fact that its primary genre contains the telltale buzzword "metal." To mainstream listeners, the very mention of the word (or any such word: metal, hardcore, etc.) may cause any subgenre band to be lumped into a single category characterized by screamed vocals, screeching guitars, rapid drumlines, and general non-melodic "noise" (cue mental images of ragged, pierced and tattooed, neon mohawked, leather-wearing teenage rebels smoking cigarettes and thrashing wildly around in mosh pits). In the case of NIN, this could not be further from the truth – something that, with Reznor's score's overnight explosion in popularity, may finally be made known.
Herein lies a bittersweet paradox: while underground genres deserve to be recognized as a legitimate musical art form, this very recognition may itself be the death of the underground, leading to the popularization of styles that were built around and thrive on a culture of nonconformity and selective listenership. So, given Reznor's unexpected Oscar win, we are faced with a difficult choice: extol the occurrence as a victory for the underground, or mourn the potentially inevitable demise of everything it stands for. Though only time will tell what the eventual outcome will be, we are left to straddle a precarious middle ground as the fate of an entire musical otherworld is decided by those whom it sought to exclude.