10,000 Lies: Non Entity

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the last thing I expected was a new Nine Inch Nails song. And yet, when the ReAct Now benefit happened within weeks of the disaster, there was Trent Reznor on live TV with a piano and a boombox. The song he debuted that day was “Non Entity”.

I’ll get to the song in a moment, because I think any analysis of this performance has to begin with the sparseness of it. You see, this, my friends, was Nine Inch Nails Unplugged. The band had never performed on the ubiquitous MTV program back in the day, but what Trent Reznor proved to his audience here, both here and with his performance at Bridge School Benefit at around that same time, was that a stripped-down Nine Inch Nails could work just as well as the stripped-down version of Nirvana once did.

The minimalist arrangement of “Non Entity” actually remains the definitive version for me, so much so that the live, full-band version found on Beside You in Time is jarring and almost unlistenable. For me, the song will never sound right if anything is added to the mix other than a piano, a vocal, and a drum-machine (played through a boombox, of course).

Lyrically, whether intentional or not, the song works well as a Katrina tribute, particularly in the final chorus.

Here’s how the song goes:

The sky is not the same

shade of blue.

Every single thing

I believe isn’t true.

Missing in a maze of monochrome.

How did I get here?

How can I go home?

The echoes in my eyes,

of all they used to see,

burning down the world—

the ashes and debris.

And all that’s left of me:

Non entity.

Try to stand in line,

try to obey.

The ghosts of what I was

keep getting in the way.

Staring at the sun,

blinded by the light.

Now I’m afraid I’m fading out of sight.

The echoes in my eyes,

of all they used to see,

burning down the world—

the ashes and debris.

And all that’s left of you,

and all that’s left of me,

all have washed away.

Non-entity.

The words are vague enough to apply to just about anything, but when I think about the fact that Trent spent more than a couple of years living in New Orleans himself I do find myself straying toward the “It’s about Katrina” side of the argument, rather than the “It’s not” side.

The two lines that prove a problem are from the chorus: “burning down the world—/ the ashes and debris”. Obviously, unless you were stuck out in the Gulf of Mexico on a drilling platform that was being rattled by explosions, the hurricane wouldn’t have burned down the world so much as drowned it. But there most certainly was debris, so…

I think the way around that problem is to view those two lines as kind of flashback. They are preceded by the line about the echoes in his eyes, after all. Viewed this way, the song becomes a sort of lyrical sequel to “Burn” (from the soundtrack to Natural Born Killers). In “Burn”, the narrator screams that he wants to burn the whole world down. The narrator of “Non Entity” seems to have done just that, and come to regret it.

And now he’s finding that, as a refugee from his own past, he has something in common with those who are suddenly refugees from a much more massive catastrophe than his self-immolation. Notice the addition of the lines “and all that’s left of you” and “all have washed away” in the second chorus. Those are the lines that really seal the deal for me. No longer is the narrator singing of fire and fire alone; water has entered the equation. And I’ve got to believe that means something.

Once those lines have been sung, it’s impossible for me not to go backwards and re-experience the song in a whole new way. It is not just about the downfall and heartbreak of an individual. It is suddenly about the many instead of the one. Everything they believe—that the government will rescue them, will help them rebuild—isn’t true. They try to stand in line, try to obey. But who they are—black, poor—keeps getting in the way of them receiving proper treatment and proper respect. Staring at the sun, they are blinded by the light that they hope will burn all of this water away. But judging by the way their country has reacted to their plight, they have just cause to believe that they are fading out of sight.