Louis Roux on Nine Inch Nails and the Politics of the Apocalypse

Living in the End Times: Year Zero and the Politics of the Apocalypse – Louis Roux


To say that Nine Inch Nails is a band is a bit of a misnomer: it is in fact the brainchild of one artist, Trent Reznor, who writes all of the lyrics, composes most of the music and plays most of the instruments. Coming mostly from a single artist, then, it is easy to see a unified vision in the albums that are for the most part concept albums, following direct story lines. The Downward Spiral (1995), for instance, tells the story of a man descending into madness and isolation, building an emotional wall between him and everything else. The Fragile (2005), released a decade later, follows on this album by exploring the consequences of tearing down this wall.

Year Zero (2007) takes place in the year 2022. After an unprovoked atomic attack by the USA on the Middle East, and the resultant conflicts and terrorist attacks on American soil, the world is in chaos. Global warming has reached crisis point and the weather has become more destructive than ever, especially after the nuclear holocaust. Resource scarcity is the biggest factor in international warfare. The American government has clamped down and renamed the year to year zero, the year America was ‘reborn’. Elections are no longer free, the draft has been instituted and there are tranquilizers called Parepin in the water supply to keep the populace calm. The most powerful authority is the U.S. Bureau of Morality, an NSA-like organization that keeps tabs on the people, apparently to combat terrorism, but also abducting, interrogating, torturing and executing dissenters, communists, homosexuals, Muslims, and any other ‘deviants’, under the auspices of an extreme version of the Patriot Act. Reports and rumours about ‘the Presence’, a ghostly hand reaching down from the sky, are beginning to circulate and no-one is sure whether it is God, aliens, a weather phenomenon or the hallucinatory effects of the medication in the water. The album shows, in my view, that ecological disaster can never be divorced from political, religious, class or gender concerns, and although much of the album focusses on technology, religion, violence and imperialism, it is always against the backdrop of a ruined earth.

Year Zero is the first Nine Inch Nails album to have an overt political message, and its story is also much looser, following several characters instead of the usual lone protagonist. What makes Year Zero truly special, though, is its use of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) for promotion, allowing listeners to become directly involved in the story of Year Zero through websites, secret codes hidden in merchandise, USB flashdrives dropped at strategic locations at concerts and other interactive materials. This makes the story of the album highly personalized for every user, since no-one will follow the same chronology. Due to the fluid, transient nature of the ARG, I will not try to follow the plot, or to construct a specific storyline, I will rather isolate motifs, themes, phrases, characters and other aesthetic elements from the album and its associated media and subject them to a close reading. In short, I will not be analysing the work as one would a traditional novel, but rather as a rhizomatic,[1] open-ended artwork. It is difficult to grasp, to tame, but all the more valuable for that: if the rhizomatic creates confusion in the ‘normal’ homogenous order of things, it also creates the space for dissent and rebellion in the gaps left by that confusion – spaces that Year Zero makes full use of. I will enter the work through the songs and attempt to link them to some of the websites and other media found in Appendix A, Exhibit 24,[2] a collection of many of the websites and other media, collected as evidence against someone only known as [SUBJECT CLASSIFIED].

A short introductory song, ‘HYPERPOWER!’ begins as a fast-paced marching anthem, with crowds screaming “Power! Power! Hy! Per! Power!” This quickl y devolves into screams and yells of confusion or pain. In February of 0000, there was a bioterror attack on a nightclub called the Star Chamber in Cleveland, Ohio. A transcript of a phone conversation between someone in the nightclub and her father is available in E24 and tells of “This guy came into the club really freaked out. And we, we didn’t even see the knife. And his shirt was soaked red. And Joey said “Holy shit you need a doctor.” And then the guy just stabbed him, and he was sweating blood, and screaming, and he wouldn’t stop until someone killed him with a beer bottle.” The conversation ends when Mia sees that she is sweating blood, begins crying, and dies (46).

Later, there is an interview with an officer who responded to the Star Chamber attack. He reports that he heard screams, and saw “Feds” quarantining the building, wearing haz-mat suits. He sees an agent crying orange tears (48-55). From these testimonies we can see that the weapon used in the attack is Red Horse, an ebola-like virus, and that the agent’s tears were orange due to use of the vaccine, Copper, restricted to use by agents, senior officials and church leaders only (193). Under the ‘Freedom Act,’ people can be detained indefinitely for subversive activities or thoughts, and Officer Slanski, it is made clear, will be kept under its auspices. The crying agent later released her account of the attack (see E24 220) and it becomes clear that it was planned by the government to spread fear of terrorism.

From this short song, and materials tangentially related to it, we can already see much of what is going on in the universe of Year Zero: a theocratic, secretive government, false flag terrorist attacks, and the ‘Freedom Act’.

The Beginning of the End
This song picks up where ‘HYPERPOWER!’ left off, with a strong four to the floor beat. It sets the tone for much of the rest of the album – while the drums are still analogue here, the guitar takes the tone of noise music, atonal and screeching. The narrator warns that “we think we’ve climbed so high / up all the backs we’ve conquered / we face our consequence / this is the beginning of the end”. On Another Version of the Truth, a resistance forum website that discusses many of the issues of Year Zero more and more participants begin reporting the Presence. As one poster says: “####they’re right. Something is coming. I don’t have to convince you, though. You’ll find out the fucking #####on enough. I’m clean, I’m smart, I’m off Parepin. I don’t use or abuse, I don’t believe in ghosts or God or aliens. But I saw it. ####, I was getting off shift. It came down maybe three blocks away. When it was over I pissed myself and I was cryi####four years old. I went through this thing like I was the whole planet and I was us raping the planet at the same time. Paving over every field and dumping crap in every ####. I ####ith this woman and when it was over she said it was an angel. I sure as hell hope not. What#### it is, it is *coming*. Now. And it is *pissed*.” (E24 231). The Presence emerges (for some) as some kind of vengeful force, coming to avenge the destruction of the earth and the exploitation of its people.

A scathingly ironic song, ‘Survivalism’ opens with the lyrics “I should have listened to her / so hard to keep control / we kept on eating but / our bloated belly’s still not full / she gave us all she had / but we went and took some more / can’t seem to shut her legs / our mother nature is a whore.” Survivalism is the practice of preparing for some unknown catastrophic breakdown of the socio-political order by stockpiling goods, food, water and weapons. The song seems to expand the idea of survivalism from right-wing individuals to entire nation-states: the stockpiling of oil, consumer goods and weapons that inevitably cross the line of sustainability and end up creating the catastrophe that it was preparing for. By gendering the earth as a woman, especially a mother, being raped the song ideologically ties exploitation of the earth to exploitation of people at the margins, while at the same time invoking the Oedipal incest taboo: Oedipus sleeping with his mother leads to the downfall of both.

The narrator of the song goes on to say “I got my propaganda, I got revisionism / I got my violence in high-def ultra-realism / all a part of this great nation / I got my fist, I got my plan, I got survivalism” and “Don’t try to act surprised / we did just what you told us / lost our faith along the way and found ourselves believing your lies”. The narrator seems to be making the argument that his subjective violence is merely a physical manifestation of the systemic violence perpetrated by the USA. Here we find what Žižek refers to in his book, Violence: subjective acts of one-on-one violence, while still abhorrent, need to be treated for what they are – symptoms of a greater socio-political illness (8-13).

Aesthetically, ‘Survivalism’ marks the beginning of an aesthetic that will increase and take on greater dominance throughout the rest of the album – clearly influenced by industrial metal and noise music, though using much more digital instruments, I will term this aesthetic ‘digital junkspace’, to borrow Koolhaas’s term for the aesthetic of malls and other ‘postmodern’ architectures. This aesthetic is also obvious in the look and feel of E24.

The Good Soldier
This song makes great use of loops and layers – the beat and the bass riff keep cycling throughout, but the song builds up in layers until, in the coda, it becomes almost-noise, perhaps showing how war is a self-perpetuating problem-solution dialectic that inevitably leads to complete destruction. In E24 there is a comic, written and drawn by a soldier in the war in Syria, called One Country at a Time, which makes explicit reference to the line in the song, “I am trying to believe.” The narrative of the comic follows a troop of American soldiers in Syria. When they come upon a bombed out village they find a twelve year old Syrian girl. The captain, despite protests from his subordinates, decides that they should take her to her relatives 50 miles away. On the way there the Presence appears and many of the soldiers are shot by enemy snipers. The recipient, and poster, of the comic tells of his father’s history in the military and how his sister was abducted, raped and murdered by an ex-Special Forces soldier suffering from PTSD (E24 236-256). The comic and the song tackle themes of alienation and disillusionment, as the captain says when the narrator asks him if he still believes in the ‘cause’ of the war, “I’m trying.”

A complex and intriguing critique of the industrial-military complex, this song and its related materials are difficult to grasp and bring into coherence. Perhaps we can find some illumination in the site created by the character Angry Sniper, BeTheHammer. Here, Angry Sniper shares his experience in the military in his ‘bio’ page:

ME: small town. no jobs. I WAN####. i believed what they told me. what did i know back then? what do you know now? joined the 105th [a Special Forces unit that only recruits members of the Evangelical Church]. Saw things. Did things. Came back. joined the police. ####ed people like you. THEM: the parepin makes you ####, but kills aggression. different soldiers get different pills to put it back. regulars get little blue ones we call them ‘die-agra’. blue pills keep you frosty and get your soldier on. blue pills are fun. Some##############ood at your job, they give you red pills. the red ones are called ‘blisters’ or ‘bloody mary’ or ‘jerk’. red pills erase the line between killing and fuc####. so#######ects are permanent. your family, you can’t go back########################fterwards. LISTEN TO ME: some of the things i remember didn’t happen but this one did. aurora, illinois, night, 5 of us. cell of unregistered muslims with the N#### stayed out of the air, walked in sas style. 47 houses##### first one – quiet, quiet like santa clause. the next part very intimate, sudden and slippery. gasps and sighs. towelling off and then the next house, the next, the next, and we don’t stop, never stop until the last ##########omes up and ######lick, we’re sweating. i came four times. when your doo##### open in the middle of the night, you need to know who is coming through it. (128)

We can see here that the religious and chemical control of the populace takes on an even more sinister form in the military: the soldiers cannot be blamed for their actions as they are all indoctrinated and manipulated by the larger power monolith of the theocracy. When the bio-power exerted on the populace meets the juridical power exercised by the military we see the emergence of what Achille Mbembe terns ‘necropolitics’ – a biopower that is not aimed at “the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes” (Foucault 263), but at destroying these bodies (Mbembe 16-25).

The idea of bio-politics is expanded in ‘Vessel’. Beginning with “I let you put it in my mouth / I let it get under my skin / I let you pump it through my veins / I let you take me from within”, the most obvious literal interpretation would be to link it to Parepin, but I believe the song is also aimed at the insidiousness of ideology and its workings on the populace. While the drug enters them, so do constant messages of patriotism, morality and fear. The people, in essence, become vessels for the ruling ideology. One of the best examples of this can be seen on the site ThePriceOfTreason, run by the USBM (64-79). They use Abraham Lincoln to justify their suspensions of human rights, thereby linking what is in reality an industrial, capitalist project to ‘Americanness’, and using a false allegory to give themselves historical precedent. The site contains stories of normal, white bread Americans who make the mistake of not trusting and listening to their government. One of the most telling anecdotes is that of Ilse Stanescu:

Ilse S###### now-defunct Washington Post, used her position as a journalist to protect terrorists in the Uni######rocess of covering a story on Muslim students in Georgetown University, she learned that several were carrying out acts of civil disobedience, but failed to al####thorities.
After a bomb scare on the National Mall, Stanescu was summoned to appear in front of a grand jury and required to na######ources for her story. She refused. That was her choice ####### without consequences.
Like many a self-styled ‘crusading reporter’ before her, Stanescu was jailed for contempt of court. Prison inmates by law are defined as unfit parents. Stanescu’s husband thus ######bility for the child. But as a person married to a felon, his salary was capped under the #########centive plan.
Ilse Stanescu reconsidered her decision and offered to name her sources. By this time, however ########### country. Stanescu was charged with aiding and abetting terrorism.
Unable to afford the costs of a church school, Stanescu’s daughter was sent to a public school in the slums of ########, DC. On the last day before Christmas vacation, Cori Stanescu disappeared on the way home from school.
Ilse ################# currently divorced. Her daughter is missing. All because her decision to give up the names of known terrorists came three months too late.
Sometimes the “free press” isn’t so free.

This story tells us outright how unfair the system is, but still blames it on the person being punished. There are ideological blind-spots – apparently the writer of the article could not see that it was indeed the government’s fault; the government gets placed above the possibility of critique, in the realm of the super-ego. ‘Treason’ becomes the ultimate crime – the crime of turning against your own, but carefully redefined so that ‘your own’ can only be your country (in the most abstract sense of the word), and not your family, your friends, your community, or your beliefs.

Aesthetically, with its distorted, machine-like vocals, the atonal droning and whining of the synths and digital beat show the induction into the machinery of the system, the individual becoming more and more like the ideological apparatus. Which leads us to…

Me, I’m Not
The ‘digital junkspace’ aesthetic can be seen very clearly in this song. “If space-junk is the human debris that litters the universe, Junk-Space is the residue mankind leaves on the planet. Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course, or more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout” (Koolhaas 175). The whirring, droning, clicking of the synthesisers in Year Zero are not industrial, they are too unharmonic, not rhythmic enough. They do not represent the workings of real, nuts and bolts machines, but rather the workings of the systematic capitalist machine – out of synch, unpredictable, jarring and heart-breaking. The junk of capitalism can be seen in every corner of the Year Zero aesthetic, especially in Exhibit 24 – broken, distorted, glitched. Individuality disappears to be replaced by a uniform idiosyncrasy, that of the glitch. In the post-political late-capitalist society, as in E24, things become harder to grasp, to read, to understand. There is simply too much junk, too much nothing, too much junkspace. Words become fragmented and lose meaning. Identities become besides-the-point.

Capital G
As if the album knows how pathetically self-aware and referential that last section was, it hits us with a rather straight-forward industrial metal (using the term here strictly as a classification of genre) satire. Sung from the perspective of a capitalist, the song makes explicit the ruling standard of exploitation: “I’m sick of hearing about the have’s and the have not’s / have some personal accountability / the biggest problem with the way that we’ve been doing things is / the more we let you have the less that I’ll be keeping for me. // well I used to stand for something / now I’m on my hands and knees / traded in my god for this one / and he signs his name with a capital G.” The ‘capital G’, it later becomes clear, is ‘Greed’ – one can hear crowds chanting it in the background. The word ‘capital’ also takes on its double meaning in this song.

The sites that most closely echoes the views of the narrator of ‘Capital G’ is TheViabilityIndex and MiningForLife. The Viability Index is “the real estate investor’s guide to changing property values” (134), it lists global cities and gives them a score out of ten – ten being the most viable for ‘development’ and 0 the least. Each city has a summary of what is wrong with it, and a spin potential real estate developers can put on it to still make a profit: Miami is under the sea due to global warming, but you can still sell it as an opportunity to scuba the “largest manmade reef” (140), Memphis has become a breeding ground for diseases like cholera and malaria, but, as the spin puts it: “Elvis died here. SO CAN YOU!” (143).

MiningForLife is a recruitment site for Anglo-Johnson in South Africa (341-344). For both employees and ‘non-employees’ there are ‘conversion options’: in return for safe housing, food and education in the A-J compound in Pretoria, you can give blood, marrow, corneas, skin or a kidney, to be used for ‘saving’ the mineworkers (though in reality it is merely extending their lives and thus their capacity to work and their suffering). These employees’ bodies are not just being exploited in the traditional Marxist terms of labour, but also in very real, very terrifying, literal terms. The body-politic is being dismembered to sustain the economic machinery in which it is inserted.

These two sites show that even in a world decimated by ecological crisis, the capitalist machine will find ways in which to function for as long as the system itself is not dismantled. And what is truly terrifying about it is that it does not seem all that far-fetched or unrealistic.

My Violent Heart
‘My Violent Heart’ seems to be the manifesto, or anthem, of Angry Sniper – the disillusioned and alienated ex-soldier mentioned earlier. It promotes extreme, violent resistance as the consequence of the overarching exploitation. The mode of resistance advocated by Angry Sniper is set out on his website:

kill people.
start there. everything else is posturing.
i killed people in post-iran after we dropped the bomb on tehran. they told me i was protecting america.
this is a war. the government of the united states has declared and is fighti#########people of th###### and people all over the world.
i kill people. that’s what war is.
when i say the government of the united states is at war with you this is not propaganda. i know because i was them. i was the guy that broke down your door at 4AM ####did things to you with pliers until we knew the names of your friends.
unders##############nment – in any way – is not an act of free speech or a way to make your voice heard or a chance to impress your friends with your principles. resistance is treason and they will kill you for it.
suffering is the point. ########not enough to be willing to die for your country. you must be willing to kill for your country as well. that is what war means.
i kill people. so should you.

While he is quite obviously an extremely disturbed individual, Angry Sniper might not be entirely crazy when suggesting “a nation of lone gunmen” – all other modes of resistance have been effectively destroyed by the government. There do not seem to be many other choices left. The sites like OpenSourceResistance and FreeRebelArt that promote passive resistance have been shut down, and the creator Niel Czerno, was executed for his passive resistance, his ‘treason’. With Angry Sniper the exploited body is beginning to take its vengeance in the very terms the exploiting class had used to destroy it: “You have set something in motion / much greater than you’ve ever known / standing there in all your grand naiveté / about to reap what you have sown.”

The Warning
‘The Warning’ comes with an increase in Presence sightings, as reported on AnotherVersionOfTheTruth and other sites. The narrator of the song tells us that “I was standing right there / when it came down from the sky / the way it spoke to us / you felt it from inside / said it was up to us / up to us to decide // ‘You’ve become a virus / that’s killing off its host / we’ve been watching you with all of our eyes / and what you seem to value most / So much potential / or so we used to say / your greed, self-importance and your arrogance / you pissed it all away / We heard her cry / we’ve come to intervene / you will change your ways and you will make amends / or we will wipe this place clean’.” It is interesting to note that the seemingly incongruous piece of static heard at the end of the song, when run through a spectrographic analyser,[3] shows an image of the Presence. The Presence is, literally, in the song, leaving its trace, its autograph.

Who or what the Presence is, is not important. What is important is that it can be no other way. Passive resistance, it has been proven, is suicide. Active resistance is immoral. The system will not collapse under its own weight. The only way that the Year Zero situation can be resolved is by total annihilation from outside/within, by an apocalypse.

Conclusion: Zero-Sum
This essay hopes to have shown that while the ecological crisis might be the situation of our lifetime, it isn’t – and will never be – something separate from politics, economics or ideology. We are too firmly invested, on the symbolic as well as literal level, in the earth for the ecological crisis to be free from our ideologies and agendas. To save the earth more must be done than to work from inside the inherently violent system that created the crisis in the first place, the system itself must be dismantled or we will face the consequences. It is a simple, and as complex as that.

[1] A work that is ‘rhizomatic’ as defined by Deleuze and Guattari is a work that “shatters linearity”, has a “substantive multiplicity” that is not cyclic but always open, stretching out to infinity, that can be entered at any point, exited at any point, no point (or ‘rhizome’) being more important than the other: “a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. […] the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, “and… and… and…” (1-26). A work of this quality is perhaps what Barthes imagined when he executed the Author and spoke of the ‘writerly text’ (see: Death of the Author and S/Z).

[2] Much of the text on the websites are unreadable, due to distortions. When referencing I will mark unreadable parts with ‘####’.

[3] A tool used by music producers, it effectively makes sound visible, producing the frequencies on a single graph. It can also be used in reverse, draw a ‘picture’ and it will produce the sound.


42Entertainment & Nine Inch Nails. Exhibit 24. Available online.

Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix. A Thousand Plateaus. Bloomsbury: London. 2013.

Foucault, Michel. ‘Right of Death and the Power over Life’, in The Foucault Reader. ed. Rabinow, Paul. Penguin Books: London. 1986.

Mbembe, Achille. ‘Necropolitics’, in Public Culture 15(1): 11-40. Duke University Press. 2003.

Nine Inch Nails. Year Zero. EMI: Los Angeles. 2007.

Žižek, Slavoj. Violence. Profile Books: London. 2009.

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