If the decade in Modern Rock were a Shakespearean comedy (and what else could it be? Between hanging with Romeo + Juliet and Abercrombie & Fitch, and lending a name to superproducer Shek’spere and a script to 10 Things I Hate About You, he had a huge decade, second only to Kurt among dead white guys), it would end with four starfucked lovers left on stage. Having survived confusion, lies, and bitter wit, they would join in a glorious double wedding and exeunt omnes into the utopian future. Ah ModRock!—a midsummer night’s dream that lasted longer than anyone could have hoped, or wanted.
Act I opened with Tori Amos flirtatiously stage-whispering, “those demigods with their nine-inch nails” (“Precious Things,” 1991). Trent Reznor RSVP’d via “Big Man With a Gun” (1994), the role-playing answer to her “Me and a Gun.” When he sang in her choir on “Past the Mission,” you could feel them getting closer to god: twinned keyboard conceptualists freaked with guilt, avatars of the baroque and the interior.
Act II: Things fall apart. Trent saw his reflection in the snow-covered hills and thought it was love. But it was just sincere flatterer Marilyn Manson, who for a little bit of Nothing made Trent feel like a man. Spurned Tori marched out the pigs for cover art on Boys for Pele (1996); inside she purred, “made my own pretty hate machine.” She took her love and she turned around. And her fury took her higher: On her Courtney Love ode, “Professional Widow,” the Bosendorfer babe hit the stage shrieking “starfucker” over a groovyhatefunk so deep it landed on Decade of Ibiza (1997).
Yet because this is a Shakespearean comedy, everyone must dally together before it all gets sorted out. One day while Marilyn was out frolicking, Courtney and Trent made the rock star with two backs—or is that the head with two holes? It’s an act comical to the last, ending with Prince Reznor’s royal guard standing by in the hotel room. Amos nailed them both in “She’s Your Cocaine” (1998), detailing “the way she makes you crawl,” electro-banging over a murky boom. “Prince of Darkness?” she fumes as Act III ends. “Try squirrel of dimness.”
In the field of permutations, foul flowers grow; witness the Marilyn/Courtney fling. Were they not both comatose (“Sugar Coma,” 1997; “Coma White,” 1998)? Were they not both beautiful monsters (“Beautiful Son,” 1994; “The Beautiful People,” 1996; “Reasons to Be Beautiful,” 1998)? Thankfully, Act IV was brief.
And now, finally, the circuit is complete: Sashaying from the wings for “Starfuckers, Inc.” (1999), Trent rehabs Tori’s vocab and spits venom over Marilyn and/or Courtney: “My god pouts on the cover of a magazine, my god’s a shallow little bitch trying to make the scene.” Sheesh, god: Sometimes you just don’t come through. The song’s a breakneck noisedisco apocalypse overseen by the ghost of Carly Simon; who could ask for more? Except, no one cares. Welcome to Act V, in which catastrophic ennui obliterates the audience. Marilyn promises an “Astonishing Panorama of the Endtimes” on some wrestling-friendly compilation, and no one cares. Hole’s ragged bit of gender-baiting industrialismo, “Be a Man,” leads off Any Given Sunday (free MP3 at www.brookelyn.com/beaman/index.html), and no one cares. Reznor, silent all these years, releases two more singles in quick succession: the industrial version of a power ballad, and the artrock version of an existential crisis, and no one cares. Tori, not to be outdone, releases two singles simultaneously, sending the pretty baffling “Bliss” to ModRock stations and the pretty coherent “1000 Oceans” to Adult Contemporary. The only people who care are drinking radical tea and paying rent in faerieland.
Maybe it’s not a comedy after all: no couples, no weddings, no utopia. Just a tragedy with mismatched heroes: a Hamlet and a Lady M, an Ophelia and a clown, every one with a knife in their back catalog. If they have one great single among them before the curtain drops like a guillotine, you won’t hear it in Sugar High; I quit. But anyway, listen: It’ll be Tori’s “Glory of the ’80s.” Between a modal synth wash and a Quaalude blues, she phases back to peoples’ parties circa 1985 and discovers that Then was just as grotesque as Now, with silicone party Barbies and Bugle Boy models and “no one feeling insecure we were all gorge and famous in our last lives.” For a famously opaque lyricist, each detail is transparent to anyone who managed to live through this, the music just distorted enough so you know you’re too high to get home, the melody’s doing flake while the bass does yoga and “my husband ran off with my shaman but they love me as I am.” Checking to see if anyone out there’s listening—past the party, beyond the stage—she proposes, “the end is nothing to fear.” And then “Blow the end. Now, baby, who do I gotta shag to get outta here?”