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Nine Inch Nails
Song: "Starfuckers, Inc."
Album: The Fragile
(Nothing/Interscope) by Patricia MacCormack
PopMatters Film and Video Critic

All The Fun of the (Not So) Fair

Anyone who has ever fantasised about the goth freaks on Ricki Lake getting together with freaks from the circus will love the video clip for "Starfuckers, Inc." The clip, of course, includes a couple of rock stars, ostensibly completing America's current televisual simulacra. In the past, Nine Inch Nails' video clips have traversed the sacred ("Closer"), the profane ("Happiness is Slavery"), and (gasp!) even the boring ("March of the Pigs"), but they are almost always lush visual carnivals. The new video takes a real carnival as its setting, but can't decide whether to use it as a blasting condemnation of the music industry or a self-ironizing excuse for fun, an ambiguity that makes "Starfuckers, Inc." at once seductive and stupid, and jolting enough to get away with both.

This seduction begins with the use of that notorious word in the title, itself frequently alluring in its brazen flouting of censorship guidelines, but also often an essentially stupid ruse to sell records to rebellious teens. On MTV, the clip is shown as "Starsuckers, Inc." Trent Reznor purportedly wrote the song about his falling out with Marilyn Manson, and hence it is an apparently scathing attack on the alternative music scene selling out to their record companies. Trent's love affair with Marilyn is so embittered that he even covers a few seconds of Carly Simon's ode to Warren Beatty's ego (or Mick Jagger's, or someone else's, depending on whose version of pop apocrypha you hear), "You're So Vain."

The NiN song's tongue-in-cheek nature embellishes itself here. Goth may be deliciously weird and perverse but it is still vain, especially in Manson who's image oscillates between zombie movie extra and Bowie rock god. Considering the sombre, grindcore ethereality of the other songs on The Fragile, "Starfuckers, Inc", like Manson's Bowie-esque shape-shifting, stands out for its marketability. It is the only real "pop" song on the album, preying directly on adolescents who like glitter with their goth.

Manson's relevance to this song seems astute. Reznor sums up both his own selling out by writing such a song and Manson's persistent image/sound sell-out. Nothing sells out to the consumer market quite like using the word "fuck" in a song's title. We end up wondering who the hell doesn't sell out? And would a real pop god -- "shallow little bitch trying to make the scene" -- risk writing lyrics like this? The ostensible divide between pop ("sell-out") and goth ("credible") does not begin to address the interdependence or subtleties of each, but it has been at the heart of Reznor's and Manson's concerns for some time.

The pop-goth conflation extends to pop culture. And pop culture demands that everything from music to film, or from art to the amputees and the other assorted minoritarian bodies frolicking with strippers in this clip, becomes "fashion." The grotesque performance is less so, due to the varying conditions of the human bodies, and also more so, due to the speed of the clip presenting the overwhelming images -- true to pop culture's call for "Next!", the extremity of images must be matched by their frequency and disposability. Grotesque metamorphoses into fascination rather than repugnance, or maybe an abject ambiguity of both. The result is not trashy, but deliriously baroque.

Reznor, looking suspiciously like Robert Smith (teased hair, bad make-up, and an expanding girth) water-dunks and throws cream-pies at Courtney Love lookalikes. Rock gossip claims Reznor had a brief affair with Love in 1994 and she became obsessed with him. My question is, who was the star and who was the fucker? That year, after all, was Nine Inch Nails' heyday and Courtney was just getting famous but now, certainly, Love would be the star. So who is fucking whom? Reznor seems to suggest a star is seduced by corporate record deals, and artistic integrity gets fucked when the dotted line is signed. Does Reznor see the record company that offers a "'sell-out" seduction, any record company that's not his (because Manson was first on Reznor's Nothing label)? Is the problem that both Love and Manson cheat on him with a larger record company, thus exchanging "alternative" for "pop" and hence "cred" for "sell-out"? Or is it that Love did eventually become more successful than Reznor? And who is that mysterious blonde in the limousine with Reznor throughout the clip?

Eventually, the blonde strips off "her" wig and peels her gloves off to reveal... Surprise! Marilyn himself lewdly rekindles his relationship with Reznor. The simple binaries Reznor offers are elucidated as self-ironising and destined to exceed their own rudimentary definitions. The pop world, with its miscellaneous musical chairs relationships, at last expresses some consistency. Yeah right, or perhaps those of us who care about who is dating whom, whether on Ricki Lake or Entertainment Tonight, can get it faster and funnier in a four-minute clip.

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