reptile nine inch nails

One evening I sat Beauty on my knees – I found her bitter – And I reviled her
Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell

On Reptile, Trent Reznor reveals the ugliest side of his persona, wounded by broken relationships he treads a crooked line between misogyny, body horror and a burning hatred for Courtney Love. 

If The Downward Spiral is an album that charts a narrator lost in a blizzard between the twin poles of his own egomania and self-loathing; Reptile is perhaps the song that best explores what happens when our inner pain becomes a way of seeing others.

On Reptile we hear a voice, divided, this time torn between attraction and repulsion – the narrator is caught in contradiction – he loves the one he hates. He finds a female antagonist: seductive, seemingly promiscuous and enticing, perhaps he is spurned, rejected and so he becomes the victim exploited by a cruel woman who toys with his feelings. Like the snake that seduced Adam and Eve she drips honeyed poison into his ear; so Reznor pours scorn upon her beauty, the dread weight of her attraction. 

reptile nine inch nails trent reznor courtney love
The HURT video

In the context of the album, Reptile confirms further loss of faith in others and relationships,  this time in the ‘goodness’ of beauty, women or perhaps even love itself. The female becomes othered and vulgar as a deceitful reptilian creature, void of form. The narrator feels so let-down by this [now] figure of hate, she/it becomes an object into which he can pour all of his gathered resentments of soured relationships. In the narrator’s attempt to find and appreciate beauty within his terrible headspace, he ends-up resenting it, seeking to destroy what he cannot have, control or contain; the reptile is some kind of monster, but the narrator’s bitterness at being denied or discarded by it, culminates in a deep self-hate projectd onto other, that is even uglier still. 

Onto her, he can project the true source of his pain and misery as target for blame and derision; the more he knocks her down, for making him feel this way, the better he feels about himself and the truer his feelings become until it is perhaps all women who have become monsters in his eyes.

This blog post is extracted from my book
Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral


Well, it is, and it isn’t. Reptile is sometimes considered a kiss-off to Courtney Love, but it is unlikely that the song is specifically aimed at her; as Reznor said to NME he had known Love briefly after Hole opened for Nine Inch Nails on six dates as part of the Further Down The Spiral tour, [1994] well after Reptile was written, recorded and released.

However, while Courtney Love is not the exact subject of Reptile, for Reznor she certainly falls into the song’s narrow mold of a confident, attractive, and independent woman who later becomes his tormentor and emotional abuser. Love, like few other women in music, always seemed in control of her own fate. Her parents had already separated by the time she was 5 years old, and years of living a hippy-esque nomadic lifestyle with her psychotherapist mother, along with a substantial trust fund allowance, meant that as a teenager she was free to roam with world and pursue new creative avenues. Living without regret Love fought for her own choices and admitted her own mistakes. Thus she would pop-up throughout popular culture as a Zelig figure, variously the lead singer of Faith No More (for two weeks), lost in post-punk Liverpool, and starring alongside Joe Strummer in the hellish Straight To Hell movie, as well as having numerous relationships with various rock musicians.


After so much challenging musical diffraction across The Downward Spiral’s second half Reptile is (for me) one of the more sonically rich tracks on the album, with more varied and  balanced dynamics. Music author, Chris O’Leary, considers the song a “sideways sequel” to the alienated-freakery of Bowie’s 1980 track, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) where drugs and a damaging relationship “we opened strange doors/that we’ll never close again” leave a young woman used and abused until her mind is so broken that she becomes “stupid on the streets” and can no longer find her way back into “so-so-ssso-society…” [see – Scream Like A Baby]. 

A range of clanging and grinding metallic sounds suggest the infiltration of wires into the blood, dehumanising transformation of man into machine, while the heavy droning guitars groan with scale and restrained power. And beneath this a deeper rising submerged in the mix is a sample from the 1989 sci-fi film Leviathan, remarkably similar to Alien, we hear the atmospheric sound of the innards of the film’s submarine as spaceship, the belly of some unknowable creature.

For Reznor this ‘she’ presents a further impossible state of body horror, a shifting, malevolent force without definite shape or form. Speaking to Axcess magazine in 1994 Reznor said: “I think it’s fairly grueling, but that’s what I like about it. It’s an ugly little track.” The brutish music is meant to convey an inner ugliness rising to the surface, while the confrontational lyrics are the acid that serves to strip away surface beauty that is not all that it appears to be. 

Writing about the Manic Street Preachers track, She Is Suffering, Daniel Lukes observed that the curse of being beautiful is to be objectified under a patriarchal, sexual gaze. For the Manics, sex is death [both ways] as beauty is tied to inherent decadence, it will eventually fade and decay as all flesh and man will ruin himself in his pursuit of its beholder. In Reptile the sublime terror of beauty is overwhelming and its power becomes threatening, exposing the weakness of the narrator to the point of absolute surrender.

Lukes noted: “On The Downward Spiral the feminine is sort of an animalized or demonic presence to be feared or engulfed by”, you cannot help but picture the psychological image of vagina dentata, the pussy that will swallow you and spit you again. The Reptile is a ‘queen bitch’ figure whose quality of being desired is its own burden. In Reptile a state of bondage is formed between the narrator and the creature he finds himself doomed to pursue. The predatory aspect of the reptile character is present in the novel and film, Under The Skin, where an alien creature wears the skin of a woman to attract and prey upon men, as a ‘harvester of souls’ succubus trope, as a monstrous creature (beneath) she is not interested in beauty in herself or others, only in its allure to attract new flesh.  

under the skin, reptile, nine inch nails, courtney love
Under The Skin

Why does Reznor use the image of a reptile? Through the snake, they are forever associated with Satan and his practices of temptation, sin and lust, when, appearing as a snake he tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. The couple are exiled from the Garden of Eden and denied God’s grace, cast into a world of sin where they are again confronted with the problem of evil and challenged to remain good in a wicked world.  Physical aspects of the reptile have been culturally aligned to this evil and deceit: being cold-blooded, as in un-feeling; slow and cautious movements seen as sneaky; the sheen of their scales wrongly perceived as wet sliminess, provoking disgust. As the Native American phrase would have it, to speak with [the snake’s] forked tongue, is to say one thing but mean another

The mutability of the reptile-form in the song suggests a being whose nature is only to tease and tantalise, its form is irreconcilable to itself, remaining  physically and emotionally unknowable. Writing for Alternative Press in 1994, Jason Petigrew noted that the song’s imagery presents a mental horrorshow of organic voices mated to mechanical and electronic noise, suggesting a hybrid, cyborg creature: “Reptile is pure dread that conjures the Image of having sex with one of the airbrushed mechanical monsters in a H.R. Giger painting.”

On the one hand, Reznor presents an alternative version of beauty in ‘ugly’ music that is purposefully distorted, filled with noise. What to some might sound desolate and seemingly unfeeling, to others expresses greater depth than lighter, more self-consciously ‘beautiful’ music that is shown to be saccharin, sentimental and insincere, while the horrific amazement of Reptile expresses the sublime’s tightrope balance between fear and wonder. 

Reznor told Raygun in 1994: “ The music that I like abstractly applies to beauty, generally, like the best stuff, when you hear it at first, I don’t know if I like that or not, you know. But you wanna maybe hear it again. By the fifth listen, you understand it and see through, you see into its beauty. By the tenth listen, it’s still revealing itself to you, rather than something that on the surface is very obvious and then lacking. That could apply physically in people, what I find, might find beauty, you know?”

The chorus enters on a huge echoing wail of guitar, like a terrific monolithic structure breaking the surface of what at first appeared as a dream, it is a painful nails-across-chalkboard screech suggesting a cry of pain forcing its way through a transformative state, its sonically ‘big’ sound that confronts us with a shocking break in the song, slashed guitar chords drive the chorus lines while pinched [synth] strings are picked over the top. The stuttering ticking sound is a camera shutter slowed down, suggestive of the blinking reptilian eye made electronic, the voyeuristic narrator reflected in its coldly detached iris, the shared watching moving through states of threat and desire. 


Courtney Love has had a long and difficult relationship with other musicians, particularly with Cobain’s former bandmates, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. So often Love has been the scapegoat who broke up Nirvana, She was both Yoko Ono and Nancy Spungen. Elsehwere she was a woman struggling with a heroin addiction alongside her husband, while getting pregnant and then raising a child, with the Cobain family subject to a scathing Vanity Fair article that they believed had been written with information from close confidants, leaving them feeling betrayed and vulnerable, with fewer and fewer people to trust outside of one another. Still stricken with grief Love gave an angry speech following Cobain’s death thanking the fans but lashing out at her husband for committing suicide and leaving her alone to raise their child.

Whether she is whatever people say she is, Love has unfairly become an object of derision in celebrity culture, often because she is outspoken and because she is a woman who fronted Hole, an extremely successful and critical praised 90s alternative rock band in their own right. Before Nirvana had even signed with a major label, Hole were the subject of their own signing frenzy, with expectations raised that they would be the next million-selling alternative rock band, on their own account, the parallel career with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and other grunge/alternaive acts simply marks similar roads travelled at the same time. 

People still get upset that (retrospectively) Hole sounded a bit like Nirvana – or was it vice versa – Love wrote songs alongside Kurt – even her voice shared a Kurt-ish rasp, they echoed one another. Heat Shaped Box was dedicated to her, and she inspired Cobain’s latent feminism across the In Utero album, from Pennyroyal Tea’s abortion drink to the cruel exploitation of Seattle actress Frances Farmer which coined and her eventual incarceration in a mental asylum where she was lobotomised, their lives only a few decades apart, she was cultural figure cruelly tossed aside with whom Love identified. READ MORE

There are similarities in Love’s struggle to become her own artist (and her own woman) with the recent controversy over Britney Spears battle to overturn years upon years of damage following the legal conservatorship of her father, and regain control of her life and career. Because of Love’s prominence, strength of character, and success in her own right, she occupied a difficult and permanently tenuous position within early 90s rock music, openly sexual and immediately sexualised, Love became the archetypal harpy, harradin, Jezebel, Delilah and Salome all rolled into one, she wants everything the world has to offer on a plate – and she wants it now.  


Love often made constant play on her persona and the vacuity of the media world that was so intent on defining her a toxic figure as: “a walking study/in demonology” this kept her a moving target, gladly acting up to fulfilling everyone’s negative perception of her. Her armour became the blond hair and red lipstick a pre-emptive defence and offence, resembling the cliche of Americana beauty this made her pursued but also naturally underestimated. 

She surprised many of her critics that she could fight her corner as well as any man, and better still, to redefine those  boundaries by which a woman is pre-emptively judged so she was no longer seen only in the light of her male contemporaries.

“While our culture admires the angry young man, who is perceived as heroic and sexy, it can’t find anything but scorn for the angry young woman, who is seen as emasculating and bitter,” 

Kim France, New York magazine, 1996

Often viewed as a domineering and manipulative figure the masculine traits which endorsed male rock stars: ambitious, charismatic, ladies man became slurs for female musicians like Love: greedy, egomaniac, slut-whore-cunt-bitch. Songs such as Reptile perhaps provided an excuse to hate these women, making Love an easy pariah, ripe for burning. She is commonly tarred with that same brush that argues she uses her body and flirtatious advances to get what she wants, diminishing any musical talent in songwriting and performing (much of a rock musician’s power and presence often comes from their persona, not just their songs). Within the song Reptile she is neatly straitjacketed into the role of a one-dimensional woman who uses her looks and sexual currency to pursue, exploit powerful, talented and charismatic men. Where as societal code would dictate that she should be made to feel shame, to check herself, where she might force herself onto the world. Less however is often said of the men who might pursue her, caught up in the allure of her popular image, rightly or wrongly, they see Love as someone to use and be used by, ‘she’ is a thing to be fixed, experienced, and if all else fails, disposed of, she is at least that, a person easily rejected, dumped, exiled to her own infamy. And with each of the many rifts it becomes easier and more acceptable to do so; it’s what she is; it’s in her nature. 

Love often presents like a child that was starved of attention growing up, which would drive a seemingly infinite capacity for self-regard. She made fun of this persona at the same time, using it to settle scores, deflect and encourage rumours throwing everyone off the idea of true Courtney Love, but still managing to claw back the pounds of flesh she felt had given away as much as had been taken from her.

plath, ted hughes, reptile, trent reznor, nine inch nails

She leant into the image of thorny fragility, lyrics on flowers abound in her songs playing the alternative Sylvia Plath card. Her vulnerability and resilience is what saw her easily compared alongside Kurt Cobain, again, Love used this in typical contradictory fashion. After stage diving into a crowd during a 1991 Glasgow gig she had her dress ripped off, the event proved traumatic.

From this experience she wrote the song Asking For It, exploiting the common phrase used to blame women for being raped or sexually assaulted in some way, either through flirting and teasing with men, or making themselves attractive while remaining unavailable – in the eyes of some – making them the (deserved) victim of male anger and violence. What seems to have affected Love the most is the hollow glare of being a public figure, that, like Christ, she in some way belonged to her audience who felt they had a right to her as celebrity figure, and by implication a right to her body. As he tried to get out of various audience members grasping hands a photograph captured the moment; it seemingly shocked her that in all this struggle someone would snatch the image as something to show to others. Worse still the photo  seemed to show her smiling, somewhere between a grin and a grimace; giving cynics an excuse to to doubt her version of the events; that she wasn’t just exploiting the situation (yet again) and put herself in harm’s way, only to use it later for her own gains. From the popular media point of view any complaint on her part would simply be more crocodile tears, the widow as victim. Love would get undressed (she used to be a stripper in Portland) and stage dive again many times, and only a few years later in 1994 in Chicago she played a one hour set and then leaps into the audience, her dress is ripped from her body as security rescue her from the audience. For many it seems to beg the question, who is responsible: Love for putting herself in harm’s way, or the audience or for acting upon the opportunity to abuse her?

In Love’s words: “We had just gotten off tour with Mudhoney, and I decided to stage dive. I was wearing a dress and I didn’t realize what I was engendering in the audience. It was a huge audience and they were kind of going ape-shit. So I just dove off the stage, and suddenly, it was like my dress was being torn off of me, my underwear was being torn off of me, people were putting their fingers inside of me and grabbing my breasts really hard, screaming things in my ears like “pussy-whore-cunt”. When I got back onstage I was naked. I felt like Karen Finley. But the worst thing of all was that I saw a photograph of it later. Someone took a picture of me right when this was happening, and I had this big smile on my face like I was pretending it wasn’t happening. So later I wrote a song called “Asking For It” based on the whole experience. I can’t compare it to rape because it’s not the same. But in a way it was. I was raped by an audience, figuratively, literally, and yet, was I asking for it?”


It’s hard to say if Reptile is representative of Reznor’s own relationship experiences, but we feel the narrator’s strength of bitterness and resentment channeled in the song an have to wonder where it all comes from. The lyrics chime with many of the criticisms Reznor would later make of Love, as if she had come to fulfil the expectations in his song. In interview Reznor said he tried to help and support Love in her career, but felt burned by the experience: “I thought I was around someone who was a victim and somebody who could use a friend, and what I was around was a very good manipulator and a careerist, someone not to be underestimated.” Reznor’s criticisms also suggest a grudging respect for someone as highly motivated and ambitious as himself. While Love suggested her own role of guardianship towards him: “I thought he [Reznor] would have a lot of problems like Kurt, but that I could fix them.” Tori Amos, a collaborator and a friend  too seems to have had a similar attitude towards Trent as the romanticised, vulnerable figure of the lost and damaged boy, in need of a saviour, for some women this aspect of his persona would remain romantically attractive along with a maternalistic edge.

Speaking to Details magazine in April 1995 Reznor explained how the experience of touring with Hole  was to prove an abrupt wake up call: “In Cleveland she (Love) was completely intoxicated, a fucking mess.” He recounted how at one after-show party she was passed out on a pool table with her dress hiked up, and people were taking photographs, as though it were all quite normal. “I thought, that was shitty. I’d be upset if people I thought cared about me allowed me to be in that position.”

“What I didn’t know then was her fierce competitiveness when she’s opening for somebody-she’s carrying the weight of alternative credibility on her back, and we’re a New Wave faggot synth band that’s easily dismissed. Even though my crowd doesn’t give a shit about that.” A few weeks after the tour concluded Love called to settle the dispute, and the two managed to smooth things over, but it didn’t last.

Nine Inch Nails’ 1999 track Starfuckers painted an extremely negative portrait of Love, transposing her into a sheer stereotype, into all blonde celebrity cliches at once. The video shot alongside former Nothing label signing, Marilyn Manson, is a cruel and shallow skewering of Hollywood culture: “My god pouts on the cover of the magazine / My god’s a shallow little bitch trying to make the scene” with Reznor as the broken anti-hero, he is caught up in his own curse being noticed and seen for fame and infamy’s sake only.

A number of media rumours would surface, presumably via Love, about the fallout of a possible relationship between her and Reznor, as well as driving a wedge between him and Tori Amos, a crooked and damaging love triangle, she accused him of making her pregnant and delivered a typically acid pun: “Nine inch nails, huh – more like Three Inch Nails” and a number of ongoing mentions over the years, as if to stoke the fires.  Reznor was at pains to point out they never slept together.


As with Piggy there is a contradictory impulse at the dark heart of Reptile. The narrator speaks of ‘She’ as a rejected and resented figure, once desired, adored even. He realises the inner flaws that the imagined ideal of beauty can conceal, perhaps the narrator has been betrayed and so he now sees the Reptile as ‘impure’, and because of the, perhaps impossible, standards beauty is held up to, ‘she’ will always disappoint. This mental disjunct suggests a new emptiness, the narrator is scarred by her/its absence as the reptile figure is someone/something he wishes to forget, but cannot escape from the memory of its beauty and his desire of it, driving his vocal disgust. In this light the song could again refer to the nature of obsession spilling over into addiction, as other vices on the album become manifestations of the narrator’s inner dissatisfaction, the narrator both loves and loathes them and so comes to hate himself for his slavish self-degradation. The song’s reference to a ‘beautiful liar’ is actually an address to beauty itself, where beauty is a liar and makes fools of us all.

The song offers a problematic view of lust or even a very a twisted take on ‘love’, attacking the reptilian ‘she’ figure the figure of blame. Reznor sings of temptation, but he is also  lured, ‘she’ has made a victim of the narrator and they remain united in a form of bondage towards a shared decline the narrator struggles to acknowledge within himself. There is a strong sense in which ‘she’ is being shamed, and that the fault of the narrator’s plight is one-sided, the narrator blames her/it for his own [willing] downfall. The short break in Reptile contains a sample from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre  movie [1974] of a woman stumbling as she descends a small hill (shortly before her male companion yells “man-eating lizard” – title inspiration?)  the sample loops so she is always falling down the same hill, perhaps expressing the narrator’s repetition of the same mistakes or being stuck in a cycle, as in I Do Not Want This, and again the sharpened metal grinds away.

The narrator refers to the reptilian figure as “my precious whore” suggesting his ‘valuing’ of her is always undercut with disdain. The song suggests promiscuity with the “seed” of others’ semen running from the vagina as a constant wound, to some an expression of vulnerability, but also  a form of empowerment and control over the consensual invitation to sex – an ugly image of sexual freedom? This presents attraction turning to repulsion, the narrator marks a trail of insects, followers, going where others have already been, reflecting a line from Closer which compares oral sex with the image of drinking honey from a hive, the nest or cradle of life, and this lustful ‘hunger’ being part of the narrator’s reason to stay alive; although once again he sublimates himself as a mere ‘insect’, a servant drone to the Queen of the hive he desires.

reptile eye, trent reznor, snake, lizard,

Reptile appears late on the album, suggesting that the (metaphorical) transformation and the final breaking-off of a relationship are closing stages of an internal transformation. The narrator emphasises a history of damage through lingering obsession, the relationship has left him tainted, but also an infector. The imagery of sickness, disease and impurity permeate The Downward Spiral, working as a metaphor for spiritual or mental health ‘damage’  of the narrator that Reznor’s fans will read into his persona. In Reptile the narrator speaks of bodily and emotional ruin after being exposed to a grotesque experience; as if acknowledging the suffering of sin, but without the need for religion to make sense of it.

In the context of the album, Reptile confirms further loss of faith in others and relationships,  this time in the ‘goodness’ of beauty, women or perhaps even love itself. The female becomes othered and vulgar as a deceitful reptilian creature, void of form. The narrator feels so let-down by this [now] figure of hate, she/it becomes an object into which he can pour all of his gathered resentments of soured relationships. In the narrator’s attempt to find and appreciate beauty within his terrible headspace, he ends-up resenting it, seeking to destroy what he cannot have, control or contain; the reptile is some kind of monster, but the narrator’s bitterness at being denied or discarded by it, culminates in a deep self-hate projectd onto other, that is even uglier still. 

This blog post is extracted from my book
Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral


Following the number of damning allegations of abuse made against former Reznor and Love associate, Marilyn Manson, Courtney Love recently made a statement/outburst on Instagram making serious allegations against Dave Grohl, with whom it was believed she earlier settled all legal grievances and also buried the personal hatchet, and in the same post accused Trent Reznor of sexually abusing underage girls:

“Here’s a few receipts from some mega aggressions I’ve had to deal with, make myself small for, stop righteous lawsuits over, (‘we are not doormats’ my sponsor always quotes to me) due to male privilege in all its vile toxicity. When @sharonstone was asked if she had any #metoo’s, she just laughed. We only get 1 right?

“I’ve had enough of this [Pile of Poo emoji] from these clowns leaning into my being scapegoated for breathing, for my husband’s death, for my ‘overt’ sexuality, because I’m an addict, etc, and a WOMAN, for over 27 years.

3 months before I left LA, I signed a document that effectively gives Dave [Grohl] (and Krist [Novoselic]) my descendants money in perpetuity. I was so broken. So scarred, so exhausted by him, I just fucking signed it. But it’s a lie. So I’m unsigning it.

“Because it’s nonsense. The chaos and fury over Kurt’s death being directed at me, deflected by Dave, while he enriched and continues to enrich himself, gorging on Kurt’s fortune and Kurt’s goodwill. 27! Years!!! I’ve had enough.

“I’m over being made small. And being ‘forced’ to ‘just drop it’ when it affects every generation of my descendants. Nicest guy in Rock? No.

“As for Reznor, At least? HE’S talented but still a creep. I’ve never seen so much systemic abuse of kids, girls as young as 12, by him and his crew, we all (the members of Hole) witnessed it.

“So while these two jack asses are not my #metoo’s because I’m saving my 1 up (because we only get 1) they’re darn close. fuckoff @treznor @nineinchnails @foofighters I really hope my example of standing up to them, putting a stop to them, will prevent any other women (or men) from this soul shattering level of personal and cultural abuse in future.

“Sexually, spiritually, financially.. #metoo #me3 #me88 etc etc ad nauseam. #blessed? Yeah to be breathing long enough to tell the tale. I’m cramming as much into every song as I can. Nam myoho renge kyo. ‘We are not doormats.”

A few days after it was posted and went viral across several media outlets the post was  removed – no doubt due to legal threats from Grohl and Reznor’s management teams. An apology followed immediately:

“I need to apologize for my recent post,” she wrote .”It was insensitive and it was wrong. No matter how I feel, there are real people behind my words and I need to learn to be more responsible with my words. I am truly sorry for those I’ve hurt and I will do better.”

This is sometimes what the internet has become, and not quite the original intent of the platform of information sharing ideas and debate – offence, backlash, public shaming, retraction, apology – like nothing ever happened. Though the words still linger in the memory. As an outspoken woman in the music industry Love’s challenge remains to bounce between extremes of self-sabotage and deserving sympathy, while trying to call out rock industry abuse and exploitation and retain her own artistic integrity in a celebrity-driven world she bought into.


  1. I really enjoyed reading your descriptions of the music itself. Your words capture a lot of *exactly* what I feel everytime I hear that song. Very well done. Even the wires in the blood bit. Spot on with that for sure. I’ve been a NIN fan since highschool in the early 2000s & love seeing articles like this. Reading about the depths this moody, dark, beautiful art has reached within others makes me feel more connected to our species. Thanks for writing this.

    However I never knew that the crowds went savage on Courtney Love over & over like evil goddamn monsters. That’s horrifying & I abhor how some humans can harm each other with such glee. She’s way stronger than I knew for surviving what I just learned about.

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