The Importance of Trent Reznor in “Past the Mission”

Back in college, I had a radio show with my roommate that we called Complete and Utter Randomness. And one of my favorite ways to piss him off was to fawn over Trent Reznor’s contributions to Tori Amos’s “Past the Mission”. Even though the song was only credited to Tori, I would make a point of saying things like, “Here’s a song by Trent Reznor and Tori Amos”—anything to overemphasize my obsession with Trent and Nine Inch Nails, which the roommate was frustrated by.

The truth was, beneath the exaggeration, “Past the Mission” truly did intrigue me. I’d read many stories about the connection between Tori and Trent. I’d listened and listened and listened again to the Tori songs that made allusions to NIN—“Precious Things” and “Caught a Light Sneeze”—but they never told me as much about the rumored relationship as “Past the Mission” did.

When I begin to teach my English Composition students about the difference between analysis that looks primarily at the text and analysis that includes looking outside the text as well, we start with songs. In that case, we use different versions of the Harry Chapin tune “Cat’s in the Cradle,” and the students have a good chuckle at a DMC track, “Just Like Me,” until they hear the story behind the song. It’s a failure on DMC’s part, I think, that the students need to get background information in order to appreciate the work.

The same might be said about “Precious Things” and “Caught a Light Sneeze,” at least as far as their usefulness at the communicating the story of Trent and Tori is concerned. Sure, it’s fun to hear Tori berating “demigods with their nine inch nails” and talking about “[making her own] pretty hate machine,” but these lines function as in-jokes only, and require footnotes to understand. And, while I have no problem with footnotes in research papers, I don’t think they have any place in popular storytelling. Let the story speak for itself, I say. If outside information furthers the experience, that’s fine. But the experience itself has to be good to begin with.

“Past the Mission” operates on another level. Trent is actually there! He’s only there on the choruses, and you actually kind of have to strain to hear him, but he’s there. And, really, it’s the way that he’s there that explains everything.

Sure, I can read interviews (here and here, for instance) that explain how the whole thing came to be, but everything I need to know is there in the song. The male voice (Trent) is there to support the female voice (Tori), but is doing so reluctantly. His support is restrained, indicating that the relationship between these two voices is more supportive than protective. He’s not the older brother or the angry boyfriend trying to shout down the people who would do his sister/love harm. No, he’s the friend who understands her, who’s there to help when he’s needed and step quietly away when he’s not.

Was my teasing of my roommate way back when based on anything this cerebral? No, probably not. But I think I did understand this stuff, even if I couldn’t articulate it. And I felt it. I felt it in my gut that this song was important. And, being a pompous, overconfident pop culture scholar, what else could I do but lord it over him?