That’s What I Get

“That’s What I Get” demo from Purest Feeling bootleg
“That’s What I Get” live at Irving Plaza, 1988
“That’s What I Get” original album version
“That’s What I Get” live in 1989 – “fuck yeah” version
“That’s What I Get” live in 1990

If the key to Pretty Hate Machine‘s success as a collection of songs lies in its intense blast of industrial-caliber emotions, the twin engines driving that machine are heartbreak and betrayal. As a young man, barely in his twenties at the dawn of Nine Inch Nails, many of Reznor’s earliest songs were motivated by the turbulent drama of personal relationships. Except for a series of private attempts at politically-motivated lyric writing (reportedly influenced heavily by the Clash, and too embarrassingly bad to even make the jump from written word to recording), the domain of most songs in NIN’s first years was in Reznor’s own painful romantic situations. Whether or not these songs stand up to critical scrutiny today (and parts of them certainly do not, viz. the infamously clumsy couplet-and-a-bit “how can you turn me into this/ after you just taught me how to kiss/ you”, routinely trotted out as a classic example of Reznor’s fumbling lyrical prowess), the songs undeniably resonated with a massive audience.

For proof, one need only consult videos from the band’s very first promotional tour in 1989. Reznor reflected back on these days as being the first time when he realized that his songs were making an impact on popular culture – people he’d never met were shouting his words back at him with powerful conviction. During performances of “That’s What I Get” captured on this tour, the audience can be heard singing along almost louder than Reznor’s own amplified voice. In the video clip linked above, he realizes this after the first chorus – and responds with a hearty “fuck yeah!” back at the slam-dancing crowd. Once Reznor found that his audience was actually paying attention to the uncomfortably candid diary-entry nature of his writing, it would slightly change the slant of NIN’s direction and focus. It was almost by luck, but with some strange collision of circumstance, Reznor found an artistic outlet to transmute emotional pain into a lucrative career. This opened up a whole world of exciting possibilities.

On Pretty Hate Machine, Reznor used aggressive sound design combined with hooky, rhyme-filled lyrics and danceable synthesizer grooves. “That’s What I Get” is another textbook example of this technique. It employs hard-edged, distorted noises – like those of a mortar explosion, or a metallic crash impact – punctuating the spaces between raw, naked vocal lines. The tinny, bare drum patterns Reznor foregrounded on his demos are demoted to background textures (the chorus uses a very common stock drum machine pattern, mixed on the right of the stereo image). Other synthesizer noises add melodic layers over top of one another in a stew of tense, never-quite-resolved harmonic patterns. With no more than one keyboard player on stage at this time, Reznor put most of these sequences onto NIN’s backing tape and chose only the most crucial of them to actually play live – or rather, for the rotating lineup of NIN keyboardists to play live. Reznor explained that this minimal approach to live reproduction made for a more exciting visual spectacle than watching a row of people standing behind keyboards did, and on that count he was absolutely right.

Guitars, a hallmark of the bombastic live NIN show, are entirely absent from the album version of this song. Richard Patrick, later to become front man of Filter, added a few simple, sustained chords to the arrangement when he was in the live band, but this contributed little to the already-rich mixture; it seems to have been something he simply chose to do, rather than stand onstage not playing and pouting. Patrick, being a very close friend and confidant of Reznor’s during the touring cycle for Pretty Hate Machine (they apparently would start to make out with each other in the middle of press interviews when on tour, just to make people uncomfortable) would later give himself credit for steering NIN away from this kind of material towards more aggressive, rock-oriented songwriting. As we will soon discover, it was Reznor’s own roots as an adolescent fan of arena rock that laid the groundwork for this eventual shift. After a few appearances on NIN’s 1991 European tour, during which the band’s amped-up aggression made it seem somewhat out of place, “That’s What I Get” was dropped and never returned to the setlist.