Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Bearded God Speaks

My roommate is fond of writing titles. His personal talent for it shows through in his views on the title in literature: for example, he takes issue with books that don't title their chapters. I inevitably forget chapter titles by the time I'm on page two, so I think I take a different view, but that's hardly evidence against his reasoning. This is a piece on the recent song titling of Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, simply a small thought I've been thinking for much to long to write down all that well.

"The Bearded God Speaks" is, of course, my personal title for "30 Ghosts IV". With the album Ghosts I-IV, Reznor truly appears to have taken a step directly away from language. This could be interpreted in any number of ways: Nine Inch Nails's frequently political (or at least underground) and often suicidal lyrics could simply have seemed to him too derivative. Considering Reznor's drug addictions as well, one might consider the usual subject matter hard to go back to, although NIN's next (and currently last) album, The Slip, would return in that direction. Over all, Ghosts I-IV looks like a sneak peek of Reznor's future, currently occupied at least partially by his position as soundtrack co-maker (with frequent NIN producer and collaborator Atticus Ross) for director David Fincher and looking perhaps to do more in the scoring biz.

But this post is not so much about speculation as to what caused Reznor's choice of titling on Ghosts I-IV, but rather an analysis of his course of action. Let us consider Reznor's own words on the project (from the album's Wikipedia article as per usual):
When we started working with the music, we would generally start with a sort of visual reference that we had imagined: a place, or a setting, or a situation. And then attempt to describe that with sound and texture and melody. And treat it, in a sense, as if it were a soundtrack.
Now this is not where my view of Ghosts as the precursor of The Social Network OST comes from (just listen to the albums and then try to disagree with me), but it does mesh well, now doesn't it? Reznor's lack of titles is then simply the ultimate expression of the "show, don't tell" sort of advice you get from really bad books on writing (or making art for that matter if you want to broaden it since Reznor is a musician). In any case, the titling process of any piece of art has always connected, for me, back to writing, and has, for me, often been a difficult process. The beginning of a piece is something I have always had trouble with, being able to know where to begin--I've never been able to write out of sequence, although I do think this would be something I'd be capable of--and titles have the same issue, you simply don't know what to do with them. Like introductory paragraphs, they're perhaps best written last, and yet I've never succeeded in doing so with the either of those.

Consider a sentence from an unintelligible story I've written and quoted from on this blog before (here; where my quote actually concludes with the following sentence):
You see, what drew me to Dali was that, in my medium, to create his greatest pieces of work, all I would need to do was string together the perfect string of words, my specialty, and yet...yet he had beaten me at that as well.
What is perfect about this sentence for my current example is simply all that is not strongly communicated in the words and yet is very much what I meant when I wrote it. As a writer, I see my art-form as the least skillful; we all deal with language every day of our lives, we construct it to communicate and deconstruct it to comprehend. In the quote our narrator is speaking (and in this sentence I, myself, am also strongly identifiable with the narrator) of La persistencia de la memoria, Dali's most well known work, and one that I find beautifully titled. In conversation recently I discovered that, for me, the title is referring to the death of time and that the ants and melting clocks show how no matter how far you might get away from your past, memory can persist. To create that thought as a writer, I simply use words. If we accept an idea of the title as a capitulation of the work, the "set of terms or articles constituting an agreement between [the] governments" in conflict within the art to quote from Merriam-Webster's (and save my ass by turning the simple misuse of a word due to lack of knowledge of its definition into a metaphor), then the title can largely stand in for the work itself. Perhaps my roommate would agree with me here, but it isn't exactly a point I'm arguing, so I'll say with the point I'm describing here, rather than espousing. (I will admit to taking some pride at times in writing sentences that really read horribly.)

This would largely be true in the case of a book or movie like Fight Club where the title itself is what becomes the cultural icon: people still talk about supposed underground fight clubs or refer to such, while they aren't often saying "You wake up at Seatac, SFO, LAX," and the homoeroticism of the film appears to have largely been lost on the culture, but the title has firmly found its niche. Rather, then, than picking a title that would speak for the work in a more mundane way, through language, Reznor chose to, as I've noted, "show not tell," or in this case perhaps "play rather than speak."

The most interesting part of all this, for me, is the way that Ghosts is, in fact, a very visual album. In place of the titles, where we only have numbers and the word "ghosts," you can define the music as different based on both the unique songs and their album covers. Reznor's brilliant decision to create a different cover for each song as well as release the album with a forty page pdf of images that correspond to the tracks largely takes the entire album outside of the medium of language and puts it firmly in a different place. One that I am uncomfortable in, as critic or reviewer, defining, myself. A label, if one were needed, should come from Reznor. Of course we can quote him and say "visual," but that is a cop-out.

Perhaps the coolest thing about this entire thought that has been forming in my head has been the way that this break on titles for Reznor's instrumental tracks really paved the way for the exact opposite: The Social Network OST has some great titles. The best perhaps being a reference to Ghosts, as a remix of "35 Ghosts IV" is brilliantly named "A Familiar Taste," both fulfilling a title-lover like my roommate and an adding a neat little Easter egg to fans of Reznor and his work. Later titles such as "Eventually We Find Our Way," "Complication with Optimistic Outcome," and "The Gentle Hum of Anxiety," really do add an element of understanding to this record that is much appreciated. Perhaps it is a stupid suggestion, but I do feel that we cannot discount Reznor's break from titles on Ghosts when evaluating the eventual greatness of titling that we find on his Oscar winning The Social Network soundtrack. This perhaps being the best ending of the thought, which I had considered even before truly listening to the soundtrack, that I might find.

NOTE: The renaming of fifteen of the tracks of the soundtrack in the sampler submitted for awards nominating and the resulting weaker titles (such as "Cocksucker," "Bathroom Sex," and "Does She Have a Boyfriend") has more to say about Hollywood than Reznor's own ability to create titles in the current writer's opinion.

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