One of the sharpest things about Allen Hughes’ magnificent new documentary series “The Defiant Ones” is the parallel he draws between the music of Dr. Dre and Nine Inch Nails. Both artists came off as scary and dangerous to concerned parents in the ‘90s but for Christians and conservatives in white, middle-class suburbia, Trent Reznor was perceived as a far greater threat to their children. After all, it wasn’t as if the socio-economic problems that begot gangsta rap would suddenly appear in the affluent suburbs; there was, however, real fear that the dark messages and imagery peddled by Reznor could seize their teens and steer them toward Satanism.
Turns out Reznor did not give rise to a generation of devil-worshippers. The question of his legacy, then, is purely artistic: Specifically, can Nine Inch Nails still be as thrilling and scary as they were at their peak 20 years ago? Based on their festival-closing performance on the final day of FYF Fest in Los Angeles on Sunday, the answer is absolutely yes.
Nine Inch Nails opened with “Branches/ Bones” from their 2016 EP Not the Actual Events, before launching into “Wish,” a song that remains as visceral and pugnacious today as it did when it was released 25 years. Two songs later we got “March of the Pigs,” another piece so driving and forceful, you have no choice but to submit to its chokehold grip.
If young NIN fans came for the anger, they stayed for the disillusionment. The exquisite self-loathing of “Something I Can Never Have” and “Hurt” speak directly to the crushing insecurities of our teenage years and seeing those songs performed decades later — when the churning angst feels like a distant memory — offers up, to paraphrase NIN, a powerful reminder of who we used to be.
Of course, rage and dissatisfaction are hardly the exclusive domain of NIN and their FYF Fest brought to light what has always been the group’s secret weapon: Beneath it all, they make music you can dance to. “Copy of A” is a straight up electronic jam, “The Hand The Feeds” swings with a disco backbeat, and “Head Like a Hole” — their final song before the encore of “Hurt” — is really just a dance song with loud guitars (it’s also a perfect middle finger anthem to parents when grounded in your room, but that’s another story).
There’s no doubt that NIN owes their success to the talent and charisma of Trent Reznor. Leveraging teenage rebelliousness into a career that now finds him cashing executive-level checks from Apple, Reznor succeeded at playing the music industry game like few before him. Yet his brooding magnetism is still there; seeing him clutch the mic like it was the last branch keeping him from plummeting to his death, Reznor looked every bit the rockstar savior we worshipped as kids.
In a weekend that featured sets from ‘90s iconoclasts like Bjork, Missy Elliott, A Tribe Called Quest and Erykah Badu, Nine Inch Nails’ performance was a fitting finale. Few of us would want to go back to those tortured adolescent years but for 90-minutes, teenage torment felt like a sublime vacation.
Other highlights from day three of FYF….Freedom is Free by Chicano Batman is one of the best albums of 2017, a flowing mix of funk, tropicalia, jazz, Latin and light rock. The sharp-dressed band performed a tight set early in the day and likely earned more than a few new fans, as their sunny, groovy sound is ideally tailored to Sunday afternoons in the park….Mac Demarco had a hangover so bad, he openly wondered if his brain might fall out of his assh*le. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and even after a few too many the night before, Mac’s gloriously cheesy smooth rock sounded great. Like the other acts, Mac’s set was perfectly timed: His languid music is well suited for the magic hour. He also has a hugely endearing stage presence: He ended his set crowdsurfing into the audience and his cover of “A Thousand Miles” — in which he replaced all of the lyrics with “Making my way downtown” — was one of the most delightful moments of the entire weekend….Iggy Pop is ageless, in person and on record. Songs like “I Wanna Be Your Dog” still snarl and his voice has all of its theatrical croon on slower numbers like “The Passenger” and “Gardenia.” And as a performer, the shirtless wonder remains thrillingly reckless, whether pouring a bottle of water over his head and entering the pit on “Search and Destroy” or whipping the mic stand like a disobedient child….Solange has been earning rave reviews for her current live production and it’s easy to see why: Her voice sounded angelic and the monochromatic color scheme of her stage design and costuming created a strong, unified aesthetic. The choreography was on point and her band sounded fantastic on both old songs and new cuts from her tremendous 2016 album Seat At the Table. There’s very little in the way of official media from her tour and that’s just fine; her set truly is something you simply have to experience in person….Run the Jewels wrapped up the Lawn Stage and their set — heavy on new music off the great RTJ3 — was exhibition in the power of rap groups. Gangsta Boo made an appearance on “Love Again” and she led the crowd in a chant of “Pussy Power” (more evidence of the group’s infectious egalitarianism). They also ended their set with a heartfelt tribute to Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington ahead of “Down.”
Click here to check out our look at day one of FYF and read about Frank Ocean’s incredible Saturday set by clicking here. And for all of our coverage of FYF Fest, hit this link.