There Is No You: Seeing Nine Inch Nails at Red Rocks

Well, this is certainly a low-pressure exercise, isn’t it? Not only am I the first person to use the Sprious Experience Stipend (and thus the first person to be subjected to the public humiliation of writing about it) but my Experience™, far from being the revelatory once-in-a-lifetime type of event I’m sure our People Ops team was hoping for, is something that most people reading this likely have much, much more experience doing. Yes, that’s right – I drove to a state adjacent to my own and went to a live music concert. Please, hold your applause at my incredible bravery and sense of adventure until the end of the blog post.

Since the event itself isn’t going to be particularly interesting to most of you, I am forced to instead talk about myself and my own relationship to the experience, although frankly I would much rather chug vinegar again

Let’s start with how we got here. For whatever reason, concerts have just never been a thing I’ve considered doing for most of my life. It wasn’t something my family did, in part because the Colemans have never had a lot of money to throw around (especially now that the ticket monopoly has caused even the crappiest back-row seating to require a second mortgage) and in part because we’re all nerdy shut-ins. This is essentially the same combination of factors that has caused me to never see a Huskers football game despite reluctantly living in Lincoln for the better part of a decade.

However, this all changed because of a sentence we’re going to be reading and saying for the rest of our lives: And then, the pandemic happened. For me, this meant spending the 16 months between the beginning of the pandemic and my eventual vaccination completely alone in a tiny house with four rooms going slowly insane. Somewhere in that time I made a conscious promise to myself that if it was ever safe to be around large groups of people again, I was going to say “yes” to a lot more things I as an introvert had previously said no to: work events, international travel, anything to get me out of the house…including, yes, concerts. 

So when Nine Inch Nails, my absolute favorite band of all time, announced that they were performing in Colorado shortly after Sprious announced the Experience Stipend program that would pay employees to try new things, well, it was an easy decision.

Like almost all of my favorite art, Nine Inch Nails was something I had a hard time connecting to at first. Growing up I felt like the band was an easy target for mockery due to its extremely edgy sensibility and the sense that Trent Reznor’s most popular (and therefore best) work was behind him as soon as the 2000s hit. When NIN returned with the 2013 album Hesitation Marks after a long hiatus, a friend sarcastically bought it for me as a joke. I gave it one or two listens for the meme, but found the harsh noise, bleak lyrics, and unusual singing style much too off-putting to enjoy. The one song I really liked was “All Time Low”, specifically the part around 2:35 where Reznor screams “EV-RY-THING IS NOT! O! K!”, which I found oddly cathartic to sing along to. This is what we in the writing business call “foreshadowing”.

As the years went by I learned to appreciate a few of the most obvious NIN songs and had a very remote interest in the band due to its involvement in a lot of other things I liked (Quake, David Lynch movies), but I didn’t really give them a fair shake until film critic Scott Wampler wrote a passionate tribute to the band’s 1999 magnum opus The Fragile on its 20th anniversary. For the first time, I sat down with some headphones and really listened to a Nine Inch Nails album, in full, on Spotify. What I heard didn’t win me over right away…but intrigued me enough to keep listening.

The appeal of NIN is hard to explain to people who prefer their music to have instruments and melodies instead of weird industrial machinery samples and screaming. It’s hard to explain why, as someone who now regularly listens to their entire catalog, one of my absolute favorite songs of theirs is “The Background World”, a 12-minute piece where the last seven minutes consist of the same instrumental loop repeating 52 times, becoming more distorted and compressed with each repetition until the last three minutes are just violent static.

More astute music critics could point out the symbolism of these pieces, the joy in Reznor’s dense musical compositions (which always offer new details to discover), his ability to pull musicality from the sound of the world around us, his experimentation with new forms of mixing and mastering. But all I can offer by way of explanation is this: this is what the inside of my head sounds like. Maybe your own thoughts sound more like rock and roll, structured and always driving forward; or folk music, thoughtfully finding beauty in patterns; or rap, technical and grandiose. My brain is like Trent Reznor’s – it’s always trying to kill me, and the only way to stop it is to drown out the noise.

Back to the concert itself. An important piece of context for our international readers and those who (like me) have never been to the Red Rocks Ampitheatre before: it’s at the top of a friggin’ mountain, almost two full kilometers above sea level. The historical record says that the indigenous Ute tribe were the first to discover that 200 million years of geographic processes had produced an area with nearly perfect acoustics, and while there’s been a lot of colonization and construction since then which carved some of the rock formation into seats and gift shops and places where you can buy a two-dollar beer for $17.95, the theater itself is still made of two natural rock formations. In addition to providing a uniquely beautiful view during the concert, this means that you need to prepare for about an hour of hiking before the music even starts. The above photo shows what the top of the mountain looked like from the parking lot, and this one shows the vice versa:

Let’s just say that I was very glad that I’ve been using the Sprious Monthly Challenge to get back into shape before this trip.

As for the concert itself, it was of course exceptional, but in a rather unexceptional way. Having spent months preparing by watching YouTube videos of other live NIN performances, the setlist was mostly unsurprising. As the rare fan who prefers the band’s later and less famous work, I was very pleased to hear a couple deeper cuts like the anti-American anthem “Survivalism” and the capitalist death march “Every Day Is Exactly The Same”, one of my absolute favorites. We were also treated to an amazing natural light show when it began storming over Denver. There was no rain in the theater, but the breeze kept us cool and the distant lightning made it feel like G-d himself was rocking out along with us. Here’s a video (featuring the opening act, Yves Tumor):


If you, like me, have never gone to a concert like this before, let me tell you why you should. It’s not for the opportunity to hear your favorite musicians perform live, although that’s obviously great. It’s not because drinking and dancing are fun things to do, although they certainly are and you should certainly do both if you feel so inclined! It’s for the same reason every movie is better in a theater than it is at home: community. Even if you have the best home viewing setup that money can buy, it can’t replicate the energy of ooh-ing and ahh-ing at every twist with a big group of strangers. Even if you have great headphones and know every single song by heart, listening at home isn’t the same experience as climbing to the top of a mountain with a huge audience that knows those songs just as well as you do, singing and screaming and dancing and crying together.

All the most cruel and evil impulses of our world win when you feel isolated, when you see yourself as an individual, when you decide that you’re in some way better (or worse) than anyone else out there. And these same forces are defeated, if only for a moment and only in your own mind, when you get together with a group of likeminded people, stand on top of a mountain, and scream that “EV-RY-THING IS NOT! O! K!” It’s probably not surprising that Nine Inch Nails wrote a song about this, and performed it the night in question as the encore. 

So wherever the Sprious Experience Stipend takes you, my fellow travelers, I encourage this above all else: don’t go there alone.