The hidden history of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” – an excerpt from my book, Into The Never
At once, the most chart-friendly and overtly controversial single from The Downward Spiral, “Closer” is a hymn to the joy of sex, by way of sado-masochistic self-flagellation; while continuing to explore the deepening loathing of the album’s narrator. The song is impressive because it challenges our understanding of the gendered roles of sexual dominance and submission, while being defiantly sexy and miserably un-sexy, at the same time. With “Closer”, Reznor provides his warped take on the pop-standard of unrequited love, he told Details magazine in 1995: “It’s super negative and super hateful. It’s ‘I am a piece of shit and I am declaring that and if you think you want me, here I am.’”
“Closer” is both playing-to and kicking against the mainstream. It is the most commercial track on an album Reznor claimed to have no singles, let alone anything MTV or radio-friendly. But he was still able to produce an undeniably hook-laden experimental pop song that has a unique sound of its own. For better, or worse, “Closer” is NIN’s equivalent of Gary Numan’s “Cars”, both songs use expansive synths and powerful widescreen choruses that demand attention, with lyrics that seek connection from a place of alienation.
The song opens with a now-iconic loop of the reversed kick drum from Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing”. Its laconic drum intro is itself a drum machine, its sound resonating with the truncheon beating sample from THX1138, but this time, pain has given way to pleasure. Reznor said he sampled a range of drums for “Closer” to create a retro ‘so bad it’s good’ disco-in-decline vibe. “Nightclubbing” itself could be seen as a post-modern take on the end-of-the-night comedown; Reznor channelling that same sheen of drag cabaret sleaze that Iggy and Bowie discovered in their late-70s Berlin exile.
“Closer” is undeniably catchy and easy to hum along to, seemingly at odds with many of the hard-angled time signatures elsewhere on the album, but like the best pop music it doesn’t stand still, Reznor constantly adds layers of Spectoresque instrumentation. Much of which sounds like faulty, de-tuned instruments suggestive of broken machinery. Slippery tape loops screech, whine and grind, running away with themselves, like The Beatles’ squealing fast-forward tape loops that introduce “Tomorrow Never Knows” . While a sea-sick organ progression groans and lurches, like a drunken fairground ride. This could have been John Lennon’s mellotron organ that Jimmy Iovine loaned to Trent, Sean Beavan remembered it still contained the original tapes from the intro to “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
The backing vocals of the pre-chorus drive the track forward, sharing the common doo-wop and wooh-wooh sounds [see Rolling Stones’ Sympathy For the Devil] present in so many soul and Motown hit singles, but replaced with “Help me” is it another fine example of Reznor’s pop nous. “Help me” is the buried torment behind the song’s swagger, reminiscent of the Hellraiser phrase: “I am in hell [help me]” which Reznor adapted on Broken. It is perhaps a cry for sexual release suggestive of addictive need beyond enjoyment.
The 808 drum machines [or is it 808-effect drums?] edge the song into dancier territory, the beat is slinkier and more insinuating, sensual and penetrative than almost any other heavy guitar electronic music of the 1990s. Alexander S. Reed praises the track for this very weirdness: “Closer queered and othered itself, it was shock to the bro-rock audiences who expected straightness, not ambiguity.” Reznor himself had his doubts, claiming that the Prince-like harmonies of the verse were perhaps too far outside of his musical image and the expectations of industrial music’s unremittingly abrasive and hard-hitting sound. Reznor said to Keyboard magazine in 1995: “Closer was the scariest song to write because there would have been a time when I wouldn’t have allowed myself to be that obvious, I would have been afraid that it wasn’t tough enough, or it was too disco. When I was writing it and I came up with that bass line, I thought, ‘This is so obvious, but fuck it.’ I mean, if you listen to the whole album, that song, musically, is the most digestible if you’re trying to pick a single, but it’s also crippled from the start because of the chorus.”
Reed argues that “Closer”’s high-powered disco/soul/funk grind is meant as a realist approach to sex, in contrast to mainstream saccharin uses of ‘love’ in popular music, as a stand-in term for sex. Of the era, East 17’s awkward lyrical fumblings and Boyz II Men’s swooning and gutless anthems were marketed to sexually under-age pubsecent teens, pitching the mature [adult] male in contrast to the girls’ immature peers. This is already far more disturbing than anything offered by Nine Inch Nails et al, but given the anemic tone of boy-band music it was deemed harmless and innocent.
Reznor faced his own challenges of interpretation: “What I hoped would have been a higher art thing became a frat house, date-rape, strip club anthem thing. Sad. I mean, it is an ugly song, no doubt. It’s not nice. It’s not life-affirmative. It’s probably the ugliest on the record, which is why I dressed it up in nice easy-to-listen-to music.” [Keyboard, 1995] “Closer” has often been voted one of the sexiest songs ever recorded, although Reznor has continued to complain of hearing it in numerous strip clubs [he also claims to have heard “Hurt” being played there, most likely to a particularly sad and laconic pole dance], even though “Closer” seems to possess exactly the right blend of sexual empowerment and consensual exploitation that such venues demand.
For all of its pop wonder, Reznor knowingly sabotaged and subverted the airplay potential of “Closer” through saying “fuck” in the chorus, it is a trigger for the ear, once again a provocation to the censors, demanding a reaction from the listener. Trent said to Huh magazine in 1995: “It’s a device to make you listen. And at the same time it kind of cripples the song’s ability to ever do anything really in terms of success.” A Rolling Stone live review from 1994 noted: “You haven’t really lived until you’ve heard a gang of Wayne State sorority sisters moan: ‘I want to fuck you like an animal’, which has sort of the same resonance that ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ might have had 30 years ago.” When “Closer” was released as a single and remix, the word “fuck” was either removed or the line re-sung as “Just like an animal”, making the swear all the more obvious by its absence.