Whether he’s singing songs of urban despair and sexual ambiguity with Nine Inch Nails or recording icy film scores for often violent dramas, Trent Reznor exudes a bleak, gothic air. His black-clad, nihilistic image is enough to make you ask: Where - and how - did Trent Reznor grow up? But while he may seem like someone with a troubled past, his childhood was actually pretty normal.
Growing up in Mercer, PA, Reznor had a childhood straight out of Leave It to Beaver. He went fishing with his grandfather, drank cherry sodas at drugstores, and watched a lot of TV. Of course, he also found himself searching his scalp for the mark of the beast and playing piano like a young savant. These stories about Reznor’s past definitely paint a picture of a young person struggling with his identity and looking for a way to express himself.
Reznor Considers His Childhood Mostly Happy
Reznor has never shied away from discussing his normal upbringing, often giving interviews seemingly as a way to get in front of stories that seek to "expose" his happy youth. He's remained open about the fact he was raised Protestant and went to Sunday school in small-town Pennsylvania.
Even when he was going through the trauma of his parents' divorce, he was being well cared for. His grandparents shuttled him to piano lessons and stoked his burgeoning talent.
- Photo: Beside You in Time / Nothing Records
He Was Perceived As A Clean-Cut, Good Boy
When Reznor was growing up in Pennsylvania, his teachers reportedly never saw him as the brooding electronic oddball he would eventually become when Nine Inch Nails took over the world. Even when Reznor was working on demos for Pretty Hate Machine, his boss said the singer always had incredible focus.
Reznor's grandfather told People that his grandson was a regular kid who happily went fishing and was even in the Boy Scouts: "He was always a good kid. Music was his life, from the time he was a wee boy. He was so gifted."
He Felt Isolated In Small-Town America
Seeing Reznor during the '90s in all his leather, gothed-out glory makes it hard to imagine the singer came from rural Pennsylvania. While he acknowledges he had a totally normal life in his hometown, he was aware a better, more interesting life for him was waiting somewhere else. He has television and an influx of rock magazines to thank for that. He told Rolling Stone:
I don’t know why I want to do these things other than my desire to escape from Small Town, USA, to dismiss the boundaries, to explore. It isn’t a bad place where I grew up, but there was nothing going on but the cornfields. My life experience came from watching movies, watching TV and reading books and looking at magazines. And when your f*cking culture comes from watching TV and every day, you’re bombarded with images of things that seem cool, places that seem interesting, people who have jobs and careers and opportunities. None of that happened where I was. You’re almost taught to realize it’s not for you.
He Displayed A Natural Gift For Music At An Early Age
Reznor didn't just pick up a synth in the 1980s like so many of his early industrial compatriots; in fact, he had played music since he was 5 years old. He started playing piano and followed that up with the tuba and saxophone, though he says the piano was still the one instrument that could always change his mood.
While speaking with the Village Voice in 2017, he explained:
At an early age I started playing piano and I felt like I was connected to it and it could make me feel better about myself. If life was sh*tty, I could play piano. I had something to say through this thing.