When Captain Marvel's marketing machine kicked in last September, Nine Inch Nails fans were quick to point out the classic NIN t-shirt worn by Carol Danvers in one of the film's first-released photos. The sight of Captain Marvel (ostensible savior of the cinematic universe owned and operated by the squeaky-clean Disney corporation) rocking a t-shirt for the band behind such songs as "Closer", "Happiness in Slavery" and "Heresy" was admittedly a little jarring, the kind of thing we NIN fans never expected to see.
Certain, shall we say, grumpy corners of the band's fanbase seemed annoyed to see Danvers wearing that shirt, but those complaints were few and far between. Sure, Captain Marvel's technically a Disney movie, and yeah, it was moderately wild to see these two disparate entities crossing paths, but the costuming choice made sense: Captain Marvel was, after all, a '90s-set period piece, and Carol Danvers likes things which are badass. Of course she'd be wearing a NIN shirt.
Then came the Captain Marvel/NIN crossover t-shirt, sold directly via the band's website (it's still there, if you'd like one). Again came a smattering of complaints. The read-between-the-lines sentiment seemed to be that Nine Inch Nails - and, more specifically, Trent Reznor, the band's face and frontman for the past three decades - shouldn't be lending the group's name to ephemeral pieces of pop entertainment. Reading even further between the lines, the eyerolls felt like yet another example of fandom getting its hackles up over the false perception that the thing it loves (in this case, the infamously dark, violent and angry music of Nine Inch Nails) is being treated with anything less than deadly seriousness.
That creeping suspicion turned explicit in the wake of Black Mirror S5's “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too". The episode prominently features a pair of Bizarro World covers of two classic Nine Inch Nails tunes ("Head Like a Hole" and "Right Where It Belongs"), the lyrics of which have been twisted into a grotesque parody of modern pop music. If you haven't already had the pleasure, here's the just-released video for "On A Roll", which tackles the former.
“Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too" may not be a particularly successful episode of Black Mirror, but I'd heavily quibble with the complaint that Reznor's music was used improperly (this is a conversation I've had no less than four times since the episode's release), or the argument that lending these songs out is somehow a "sell-out" move. Including these numbers, and then showing us - explicitly, in the case of "Right Where It Belongs", which we first see Cyrus performing straight-up, sitting alone at a piano - how her management tweaks the darker, original lyrics into something more palatable for mass consumption, perfectly captures the point being made by the episode. It absolutely works. You might not like the cover versions, but that's also part of the point - neither does Ashley O.
More importantly, though, I'd argue that this entire situation belies something we have long suspected and rarely been given proof of: Trent Reznor's mischievous sense of humor. Back in 2009, Reznor unleashed an April Fool's Day prank which suggested he'd just completed work on an album called Strobe Light, which would feature highly-unusual guest performances from artists like Sheryl Crow, Chris Martin and Justin Timberlake (fun fact: that prank was given new life this past year, when one particularly dedicated fan created an entire Strobe Light album based on the gag's initial description). It was a helluva gag, made all the better by the fact that it seemed so unlike something Reznor might normally do. Same goes for the Ashley O covers.
Speaking as someone who grew up with the man's music, I find much value in these occasional glimpses into the human being behind NIN's particular blend of sturm und drang. Even if you're not as entertained by them as I am, you've gotta admit they serve to create a more well-rounded portrait of the artist. There's also an argument to be made that these recent creative decisions are just the latest in a long line of evolutions for both Reznor and the band.
Indeed, Reznor has always evolved with the times, staying well ahead of the tech curve and always changing as an artist (The rage-fueled addict who delivered The Downward Spiral is probably not the same person who recently cleared a sample from Ghosts to be used on Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road"). It would seem obvious that this constant evolution is part of the appeal of being a NIN fan, but Black Mirror's Ashley O covers have really put that line of thinking to the test. To my eyes, this has less to do with people not getting the point or not liking the covers, and much more to do with some folks not wanting Trent Reznor to have a sense of humor about himself.
Which, of course, brings us back around to the self-seriousness of fandom. The perils and pitfalls of modern fandom are well-documented by this point (particularly on this site, where we've spent no small amount of time trying to wrap our heads around what the hell is wrong with everyone these days), but it bears repeating that one of fandom's most readily identifiable symptoms is an unwillingness to poke fun at itself or the things that it loves, a refusal which most commonly takes the form of a furious social media dogpile aimed squarely at the source of the hijinks. It's the same sub-section of fandom that resists change, the same sub-section that launches fan petitions over casting announcements, the same sub-section that will not stand idly by while the thing they love is getting roasted (even when the roasting is well-deserved). These are the same folks who are unwilling to meet Black Mirror's NIN covers halfway, and it's a bummer to see, especially coming from a fanbase which has weathered way bigger curveballs than the Ashley O covers.
As such, my pitch to you is this: let Trent Reznor have his fun. The dude has more than acquitted himself as a serious artist. He's put in plenty of hours of Brood Time, giving us three decades' worth of angry music to listen to. Nothing has changed on that front. Of course "Pissed-Off at Everything" Trent Reznor is the flavor most NIN fans prefer, because that's the flavor that drew us to the band in the first place, but that shouldn't mean the guy can't have a little fun with his own image. Letting our most beloved artists change is vital to keeping fandom healthy, but it's also important because it allows those artists to feel safe enough to take creative risks. Even if you don't love the results, you gotta be supportive when an artist you love decides to take them. If nothing else, it keeps things interesting.