Y2K Revisited

Steven Berger

Evangelical soldiers on the ground, omnipotent hands in the sky and pacifying drugs in the water – these are symptoms of the dystopian future Nine Inch Nails predict in Year Zero, their concept album about a totalitarian America in 2022, which hit stores last week.

Nine Inch Nails took the term “viral marketing” to new levels with Year Zero. Clever fans, tipped off by some unusual highlighting on a tour T-shirt, spread the word and worked together to unearth a string of disturbing Web sites that provide the backdrop for the end of the world, or Year Zero.

These Web sites are part of a larger cross-media project for the Year Zero concept, which includes an Alternate Reality Game, or ARG. An ARG is an interactive, narrative-based game that often relies on fan participation to progress the story. The URLs to the two-dozen or so Web sites uncovered so far were hidden in anything from Morse code in songs to USB drives left in Spanish bathrooms during NIN concerts. The Year Zero ARG was developed by 42 Entertainment, the same company behind Halo 2’s wildly successful “I Love Bees” campaign.

With the ARG, exploration of futuristic concepts are not limited to the album itself. In fact, the Year Zero ARG’s distinction between reality and fiction is heavily blurred. Last week, NIN went so far as to hold an exclusive concert for a select few fans at a meeting of the “Resistance,” a faction in the ARG, only to stage a “raid” of the venue by a SWAT team. The video is available at the group’s Web site, www.opensourceresistance.net.

Additionally, NIN frontman Trent and record label Interscope Records remain silent on the issue, refusing to comment to the media on any part of the Year Zero ARG. In an article on their Web site, a source told Billboard that Year Zero is the first of two concept albums, and the Year Zero ARG will continue for another 18 months.

The politically-charged Year Zero is NIN’s first concept album, though not their first foray into politics. The band pulled out of the 2005 MTV Movie Awards after MTV refused to let them display an image of George W. Bush during their performance of “The Hand That Feeds.” The song, from 2005’s With Teeth, is widely regarded as a stab against the president.

Year Zero leaves little room for interpretation – its content is derived from fears of governmental abuse and the union of church and state. Song titles, including “The Beginning of the End” and “Another Version of the Truth,” hint at political themes – the lyrics spell out the concept’s message explicitly.

The song “Capital G,” the album’s next radio single, opens with “I pushed a button and elected him to office and / he pushed a button and it dropped a bomb.” Reznor told a German Web site the “G” stands for Greed and not George, which makes sense since the album is set 15 years in the future.

RTVF Professor Mimi White, who studies mass culture, says while celebrities can influence politics, their visibility can also be damaging.

“Media celebrities do see that they have kind of an automatic platform, but that can be double edged,” she says. “They can bring more attention, or it can (hurt) them if they’re seen as expressing things the wrong way or having an unpopular opinion.”

So far Reznor has made no compromises on his political stance, regardless of possible backlash. He started the walk down one spiral, but it’s unclear whether it will be difficult to walk up another.

Medill freshman Steven Berger is a PLAY writer. He can be reached at [email protected]