YES. I. AM.
“It sounded like fun, wrecking the world. It felt like freedom. It was the freedom, after hearing the news that a San Diego teenager named Brenda Spenser had, because she didn’t like Mondays, opened fire on her high school and killed three people, to write a song celebrating the event—as Bob Geldof had once done.”
-Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces
On Big Man With A Gun Nine Inch Nails presented the negative side of guns in America — gross and grotesque, violent and vulgar — another painful reality which some of its citizens prefer not to see. As the narrative voice behind The Downward Spiral album Trent Reznor is forever torn between running away and confronting the issue head-on.
As with the album’s expressions of suicide, obsession and depression Reznor highlights the horror; condemning gun violence, performing the very opposite of glamorisation. “Big Man” satirically challenged the culture of gun use and legal controls across the United States, viewed the myopic prism of a highly toxic masculine hegemony of sexual violence, presenting a “Big Man” character that extemporised the very worst of this mindset.
“Big Man” is far from Nine Inch Nails’ best song. It is big, dumb and brutish, it’s cartoonish mockery and satirical edge can seem insincere at first, and as a song it does not seem to add much to the album as a whole, except in taking its extremes of violence even further. The operative word of the song is ‘big’; size employed to achieve effect becoming the measure of inches contrasted with calibre, American scale and American ambition combined into a big dumb power trip. It is not subtle, but that is the point — perhaps this is why it was so widely misinterpreted and invited so much criticism and censorship. Reznor himself became a target, another media bad man demanding a political and social backlash against him as the figurehead of The Downward Spiral’s maelstrom narrative.
“Big Man With A Gun is a parody of the whole, super-macho misogyny thing.”
Why did “Big Man” in particular invite such invective? There is a case to be made for the song as a form of protest record, being, direct, fast and catchy, musically basic and more commercially-minded than much of the record, its message was simple and clear expressed through its form. As Reznor told Kerrang in 1994: “Big Man With A Gun is a parody of the whole, super-macho misogyny thing.”
The sample at the beginning of “Big Man With A Gun” is believed to have come from a studio-altered recording of a porn-star having an orgasm. The sample, titled “Steakhouse,” is credited to Tommy Lee of Motley Crue, it emphasises the conflation between the gun and the penis, violence and sex. The pounding attack of the drum and the throbbing synth pulse quickly take over, hammering the message home.
10050 Cielo Drive ‘Manson’ House where Sharon Tate was murdered became the ‘Le Pig’ studio where Reznor recorded much of The Downward Spiral – READ MORE
The recurring line of “Nothing can stop me…” appears and speaks to wider male hegemony of sexual-violence, aggression as empowerment and entitlement, underscored by the song’s image of putting a firearm against an unarmed victim. The force and forcing of masculinity is implied as a penetrative threat, the crude imagery of sucking on the muzzle, only to put a hole through someone’s head speaks of execution and sexual potency equated to penis size. Control comes to the fore with the shooter dominating the submissive victim, presenting the phallic threat of the male over the woman, the object that is to be done-to, to be fucked, the shooter holding the power of life and death over them.
“masculinity for Nine Inch Nails is damaged and damaging”VANESSA MANCHESTER
In “Mr Self Destruct” Reznor refers to the self as a bullet in the gun, adding the suggestion of a malevolent force manipulating the individual; in “Big Man” the loaded gun is not the problem, it is the threatening mentality and attitude of the person who wields it. Reznor’s song speaks of the mindset of being armed, not even as a form of defence, but for its own sake. His rationale behind the song is both expressed by and concealed beneath the irrationality of its narrator whose manic identification with his gun blurs into a rant that serves to feed and reinforce his hyper-masculine persona and allows him to present a self-image of strength, authority and empowerment as entitlement. This attitude as persona is designed to inspire unquestioning fear and awe which as Machiavelli noted is the true currency of power. In the film Full Metal Jacket , the marine corps training song of: “this is my rifle/this is my gun/this is for fighting [brandish rifle]/ this is for fun [grab crotch]”, is part of this mental mechanisation, re-programming human beings as machines of blood, to perform actions as process, equalising sex and violence and death. Reznor paints such a vulgar and corruptive portrait of the “Big Man” figure that the listener is almost certainly intended to feel disgust, revulsion and perhaps even hatred.
In “Big Man” the narrator seems temporarily displaced, overcome by a nihilistic voice that talks flippantly about reducing their victim, presumably to a sexual object, a potential victim or even a corpse, an act of degradation which is seen as a part of baser impulsive drive, performed “just for the fuck of it”. Casual and callous the impersonality of the Big Man marks him as an indiscriminate violator, holding life, sex and death cheaply. Reznor is openly condemning the voice in the song, the listener is supposed to be shocked and appalled by the violence of his language and the implications of his actions and in this surface-driven, somewhat banal, crudity the song succeeds, almost in spite of itself.
The chorus is driven like a command, chanting the order to: “shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot” a call to pull the trigger conflated with the mental and physical rush of ejaculation. The pop-simple one-word chorus is reminiscent of Nirvana’s “Rape Me” and “Lithium” and the Manic Street Preachers’ “Revol”; repeptition stands-in for emphasis and the crowds sing-along, perhaps without knowing, or thinking, what it means. The division that marks the individual from the herd has broken down, as with the pro-gun lobby, voices become a singular noise, their call is in truth, whether they realise it or not, the baying and braying for blood of enemies both real and imagined.
It is important to consider Reznor’s own perspective on masculinity to give context to the song. The “Big Man” character conflates sexual aggression with carrying a gun, feeding into contemporary ideas of the toxic male, exploring Reznor’s portrayal of relationships in his music, Vanessa Manchester noted: “masculinity for Nine Inch Nails is damaged and damaging”. Sometimes conforming to the expectations of physical strength and sexual aggression, as with Reznor’s frequent use of violent posturing in his commanding stage performances, he sees the inherent flaws in traditional ideas of masculinity. At heart its internal contradiction remains the inability and fear of fully expressing emotions, instead of allowing oneself to be vulnerable and exposed, a confessional mode he helped to define with The Downward Spiral. The song pushes the “Big Man” archetype as the internally broken but outwardly powerful individual into caricature.
Speaking in defence of “Big Man” Reznor explained the song’s invective was aimed at the misogyny and glorification of gun violence present in gansta-rap as it rose to prominence in the early 1990s. A simplistic style within hip-hop, that on the one hand highlighted genuine social issues of deprivation and racism in black communities across America, it also celebrated the self-perpetuating gang culture of drug-dealing, revenge killings, sexual objectification, and violence against women.
Although it is important to note that gangsta-rap only briefly peaked, after which its cartoonish and myopic portrayals of the black American experience, its reductionism of hip-hop at large meant its stab at authenticity could not be taken seriously. Speaking in defence of “nasty art”, Ann Powers wrote in the Village Voice in 1996: “The much touted ‘realness’ isn’t what attracts most listeners to gangsta rap; it’s the skill of the artifice, the way it molds the tension of ordinary experience into open-ended narratives.” And like most hip-hop, gangsta-rap was prolific and inventive with its swearing which will appeal to all teenagers and immature adults.
On the one hand, Reznor was barking up the wrong tree, attacking a straw man, but his vitriol against the worst images of masculinity in hip-hop were pertinent and could be applied across American society, regardless of race. Although the organised political gun lobby remains almost entirely a white effort, these are often the same voters and political figures that directly contributed to the ghettoisation of the poorest black communities who in turn were encouraged to arm themselves, along with drug dealers, gang members, police [to serve and protect], home-owners and civilians, entrenching the ongoing stand-off that demanded offence as defence.
There is certainly some white, privileged ignorance in Reznor’s targeting of gangsta-rap. Coming from Mercer, Pennsylvania, Reznor had only lived temporarily Los Angeles and had never been witness to a drive-by shooting, gang-related or other. His awareness of the harsh realities of gun culture was filtered through the biased and exaggerated medium of the television he was raised on. Reznor would later condemn the medium as being part of the problem, hypocritically sensationalising real violence while criticising violent and explicit imagery in music and films that sought to better reflect and examine reality.
From its inception, hip-hop tried to address its own issues with images of negative masculinity, through music that spoke of broken homes and emotionally distant, absent or abusive fathers who themselves were damaged through deprived upbringings. Accordingly, their sons praised their mother’s strength, vowing not to become like their dads. The problem being that many lost boys sought to become men in other negative ways, such as joining a gang. Finding fraternal belonging and role models within gang culture, and learning to identify with its violence and one-dimensional masculinity, often rooted in buried anger, as expressed in “Big Man” and “Mr Self Destruct”.
Trying to reflect the nature of male bonding around violence in Fight Club  Chuck Palahniuk took inspiration from a documentary that emphasised the lack of charismatic authority figures for many individuals outside of gang culture, whereas within it, members found a sense of brotherhood, each trying to help one another become men. Referring to his own gang experiences, the poet Donald Revell noted that even as part of a group, gang members are alone, together; each trying to fit-in, and later to stand-out, among their equally uncertain peers. Revell wrote: “A gang member imitates the forms of the society that denies his existence. In the absence of community, he is initiated and he initiates. In the absence of a cause, he makes war. In the absence of justice, he condemns and is condemned. A gang completes the erasure of identify begun by misfortune, and so it is a violence practiced unto itself.” Gang members would become entrenched in a cycle of like-for-like revenge murders between opposing gangs, while attracting systemic racism, prejudice, brutality and murder from police forces, which inspired musical responses to this wider societal hypocrisy such as N.W.A.’s Fuck The Police , a protest anthem against police harassment that seemed ahead of its time in what would follow with the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and the subsequent LA riots.
As with the critique of forced homogenous masculine identity in Fight Club [partially inspired by the lyrics of The Downward Spiral] “Big Man” would effectively misfire; inadvertently uniting broken individuals under the illusion of a common cause of alienation. They would become the new ‘minority’, as well as fuelling the angry misogyny of the Incel [Involuntary Celibate] movement and the uncensored free-hate speech of the 4Chan forum, so “Big Man” can easily be misappropriated as an anthem for these same ideas of ultra-masculinity as an exercise of power: the objectification of women and sexual aggression, which have became motivating factors for a new way of returning to traditional values in American politics and culture, exploited as justifications for wider violence. Whether it succeeded or not as a satirical protest song, or even as a challenge to censorship, “Big Man With A Gun” struck at the roots of American society and its permanently unhealed wounds regarding the nation’s flawed and difficult relationship with firearms, while its citizens continue to bear the human cost of this.
Around the same time as The Downward Spiral was released, Wales’ Manic Street Preachers released an equally difficult and extreme take on America’s culture of domestic gun violence, viewed as an internalisation of its imperialist and sometimes hypocritical peacekeeping missions in foreign conflicts. Their song “IfWhiteAmericaToldTheTruthForOneDayItsWorldWouldFallApart” 
“Fuck the Brady Bill”
A rallying cry for black American citizen’s right-to-carry; as the Black Panthers had first done in the 1960s as an expression of their rights and to protect themselves from the police. The song argues that drive-by shootings were written-off as non-priority law and order issues, because they occurred primarily in poor black neighbourhoods, a further act of discriminatory ghettoisation, that is, until the violence spread to white communities.
Manics’ co-lyricist, and sometimes guitarist Richey Edwards wrote accompanying notes to the song: “Brady Bill typical – glorify gun culture until The Massacre gradually moves from the inner cities to the suburbs.” The song called for the rejection of the Brady Bill, ironically a form of gun control, proposed by President Clinton. In a 1994 Melody Maker interview, lyricist and bassist Nicky Wire explained: “It would disenfranchise the black community, who generally don’t have [gun] licences. The white rednecks in middle America do have licences, but statistics show they cause as much crime.” The final line of the song, drawn from a marketing slogan for the famous Wild-West pistol brand, echoes the same sarcastic attack on masculinity in “Big Man With A Gun”: “If God made man they say/Sam Colt made him equal”.
“Speaking about individual perceptions of his lyrics, Reznor said to Plazm magazine in 1994: “I realize that once it is in the store it is other people’s domain to interpret. […] Unless it is something I feel really strong about that is being misinterpreted. For instance, I have been accused of misogyny and shit like that. I think, ‘You’re not getting the point.’ Like Big Man With a Gun, ‘Oh, you’re advocating…’ Should I even have to comment on that?” Reznor’s critique of the violent excesses of gangsta-rap [and the greater stereotypes of American gun culture], was in some ways, its own form of censorship, and he would find Nine Inch Nails brought to account, lumped into the same category of music that he tried to satirize.
In 1995, the politicians, William Bennett [former U.S. Secretary of Education] and C. DeLores Tucker [head of the National Political Congress of Black Women] demanded that the shareholders of Time Warner, who owned 50% of Interscope records, jettison its $100 million interest in the company. The campaign attracted national press interest as they attacked gangsta rap for its swearing, gun talk and misogyny as a negative influence upon young people. They also cited “Big Man With A Gun” as an example of the same kind of music that should be censored or even banned. Bob Dole, then Senate Majority Leader, jumped on the reactionary bandwagon, stating that Time Warner was involved in the”marketing of evil”. Dole, also attacked films such as “Natural Born Killers” and “True Romance”. Filmmaker Oliver Stone argued back: “It is the height of hypocrisy for Senator Dole, who wants to repeal the assault weapons ban, to blame Hollywood for the violence in our society. Hollywood did not create the problem of violence in America.”
Heston is shown in the Michael Moore documentary, Bowling for Columbine , holding a rifle high above his head in a victorious stance at an NRA event, reciting the haunting phrase: “from my cold dead hands”.
Charlton Heston also became involved in the controversy, threatening to remove his support from Time-Warner. Heston objected to the violently anti-authoritarian culture which he felt their records promoted. As late as 1968 Heston was a Democrat who supported the civil rights movement; following the assassination of Robert Kennedy he lent his support towards gun control in America, as if to try and turn the violent tide. He would later switch to Republicanism, becoming president of the NRA [National Rifle Association], from 1998 to 2003. Heston is shown in the Michael Moore documentary, Bowling for Columbine , holding a rifle high above his head in a victorious stance at an NRA event, reciting the haunting phrase: “from my cold dead hands”. In the video for his 2013 track, “Valentine’s Day”, David Bowie tells the story of a high-school shooter, Valentine, forming a plan to take-down the teachers and the football stars, but features no images of blood, bodies or even guns. The guitar is heavily weaponised, in some scenes it casts the shadow of a gun, bullets zip along close-up shot of the string performed through a headless guitar. Bowie is dressed all in white playing his guitar, hinting at some holy innocence of the victims, but equally the naiveté of youth, shows us how quickly a seemingly pure heart can turn cold and turn violent. He closes his stark and chilling performance by ‘shooting’ at the camera, the guitar neck as gun muzzle, the song ends by striking Heston’s victorious NRA pose, art reflecting the glory-culture of violence.
Producer Tony Visconti noted: “The subject matter is pretty scary. It’s related to people who go postal, about people who acquire a gun and do awful things with it.” but that Bowie’s overall statement was less about guns in general.
The big dumb song of “Big Man With A Gun” continued to suffer big dumb readings and interpretations from the very political and cultural figures it was targeted at. It is interesting that Nine Inch Nails was mistakenly lumped into the wrong musical genre of gangsta-rap, and criticised for its explicit and negative content, even with Reznor’s critics largely missing the intent of the song, misinterpreting the lyrics, often without having even heard the song. Ostensibly, Reznor was not criticised because of his attack on gun culture, which fell on deaf ears, overall he was criticized more for swearing and a surface-based misreading of the lyrics. There might be a fair charge that “Big Man” is ultimately a case of shock for shock’s sake; equally there is a defensive argument that Reznor was being censored for language not content.
The problem centred around aesthetic questions of personal taste masquerading as moral safeguarding. The hypocrisy of deeper American attitudes to explicit content is present in the film Apocalypse Now as Marlon Brando/Colonel Kurtz laments the ethical and physical horrors, and therein the actual obscenity, of the Vietnam war: “airmen are not allowed to feature girls on their aeroplanes, because it is obscene” as they would then go on bombing missions and drop napalm on civilians and agent orange on the jungle to strip its leaves. Reznor and other artists expressed, and even came to embody, the deepening the cracks in the ideal American dream forever delayed, unearthing the buried pessimism and bitterness of the white male hegemony losing ground; being exposed in the light of its own flawed social equality and abuse of firepower. What began as a witch hunt against explicit content turned into an attack on artistic expression, what musical artists can, and cannot, say in their lyrics.
“I realize we have a pretty big audience now, so how can I take that position and slip some things in that are potentially dangerous ideas? Not to decay the moral fiber of America, but to have something of substance to think about other than just fluff.”TRENT REZNOR
The rise of the black and white Parental Advisory sticker, which began as a voluntary marking for albums that contained swearing and other explicit content [first introduced 1985], had its own censorial power and reach of control. Many retailers would not stock explicit albums unless appropriately stickered, forcing the situation upon artists and record labels. But to teenagers, being explicit was also a marker of transgressive music and a new taboo, which sometimes highlighted greater social issues. Allowing the definition full-bloom, to be explicit means: “to state clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt.” Art can be ambiguous, but “Big Man” is not, it conveys an unpleasant image of America that was felt to be damaging to the public image of the nation, even though this message might still have been lost upon many.
Speaking to Keyboard magazine in 1995 about “Closer” and its very explicit content and swearing, Reznor said: “I realize we have a pretty big audience now, so how can I take that position and slip some things in that are potentially dangerous ideas? Not to decay the moral fiber of America, but to have something of substance to think about other than just fluff. With all this controversy about song lyrics, I was surprised that we didn’t get blasted sooner than we did. But their own idiocy and lack of knowledge crippled their argument. I would find lyrically a lot of the things on The Downward Spiral more dangerous than the gangster rap stuff.”
“Big Man With A Gun” remains a key example of the ongoing artistic battle for the soul of America, where ugly music and the expression of ugly truths conflict with the security of wider cultural identity. The fact such music often seems to demand a desperate and knee-jerk, reactionary response to stamp-down on dissatisfaction — being fucked-up, feeling damaged, alienated and disenfranchised — suggests in itself the need to rescue America’s popular image from uncomfortable home truths.
Reznor pointed out the track appears around the three-quarter mark of the album, its wildness, the rant of the lyrics and almost aimless guitar, show a mind at a severe point of delirium, at a loss to madness, he told Keyboard in 1995: “Listening to it later, there were a lot of things about “Big Man with a Gun” that I wouldn’t put on there now. It fit an emotion I thought needed to be on the record, but there was probably a better way of accomplishing it now that I’ve had time to look back at it.” It was perhaps because of the song’s thrashy, angry almost adolescent outburst-style, and the fact that Reznor admitted he had written the lyrics in a rush, that the track was included on the album as an afterthought, a fragmentary piece of music that is 1m36s long. But it is ironic that the relatively throwaway lyrics added form to a song about callous attitudes towards throwaway, derisory violence.
You cannot choose your audience, or fully control where, why and how your music is played or exploited: as simple thrash for chauvanistic gym-bros living in Beverly Hills, at racist far-right rallies in heartland America, or in distant torture cells of Guantanamo Bay. Transgressive music such as “Big Man” speaks to the most disenfranchised and alienated in our societies and remains ripe for misinterpretation that can have wide-reaching and serious consequences that Reznor had never intended or even considered.
As the critique of forced homogenous masculine identity in Fight Club would effectively misfire, inadvertently uniting broken individuals under that very pseudo-cause considering themselves the new ‘minority’, as well as fuelling the angry misogyny of the INCEL [Involuntary Celibate] movement and the uncensored free-hate speech of the 4Chan forum, so “Big Man” can easily be misappropriated as an anthem for these same ideas of ultra-masculinity as an exercise of power: the objectification of women and sexual aggression, which have became motivating factors for a new way of returning to traditional values in American politics and culture, exploited as justifications for wider violence. Whether it succeeded or not as a satirical protest song, or even as a challenge to censorship, “Big Man With A Gun” struck at the roots of American society and would continue to open up old wounds regarding the nation’s flawed and difficult relationship with firearms, while it continues to bear the human cost of this. It was not just Reznor and Nine Inch Nails who lost – it was all of us.
“I just started shooting, that’s it. I just did it for the fun of it. I just don’t like Mondays. I just did it because it’s a way to cheer the day up. Nobody likes Monday.”BRENDA SPENSER