Nine Inch Nails’ debut album Pretty Hate Machine is now 31 years old – it’s legacy continues still…
Pretty Hate Machine was released on 20 October 1989 – notable as Nine Inch Nails first album – it was also the meeting point between synth-pop, industrial music, rock, merging into alternative metal and electronica.
From here Trent Reznor would strike out to strange, new, and sometimes, dangerous musical territory that would edge further into darkness, beginning his five-year album cycle of The Downward Spiral , The Fragile  and going slightly further on With Teeth .
The unique synthesis of Pretty Hate Machine’s synths, keyboards and programmed drumbeats, along with heavy guitars was marked by contrasts that would define Reznor’s future direction for the Nine Inch Nails project of sonic extremes.
Even though the album’s liner notes stated “Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails” – marking him as an auteur in every sense – to perform the songs live, without resorting to a series of tape decks and a drum machine, Reznor adopted a “surrogate band” (- Pink, The Wall) of human machines to give the songs edge on stage.
From the proto-rap of “Down In It” and squelchy synth lines and raunchy guitars on “Head Like A Hole”, to the widescreen chorus of “Terrible Lie” and the piano balladry of “Something I Can Never Have” – NIN’s pop-savvy accessibility was there from the start.
Tom Breihan wrote in Pitchfork : “Pretty Hate Machine, still my favorite of Reznor’s albums, is basically a dirtied-up Human League album.” The album also betrays Gary Numan and Depeche Mode influences, whose keyboard riff and sequenced arpeggio-driven pop would expand to match their stadium ambitions.
By contrast, the Broken EP/album focussed almost exclusively on guitar-heavy aggression, a purposeful reaction to Pretty Hate Machine’s more radio-friendly sound – heavier and more intense than any of the leading grunge bands of 1992, it could even be seen as an experimental metal album.
By 1992 Pretty Hate Machine had sold 350,000 copies, more than many of Reznor’s industrial peers, and a significant achievement for an alternative band’s debut album.
In 1994 The Downward Spiral would achieve a much wider cultural, commercial and critical impact that ultimately transcended the first major releases of Pretty Hate Machine and Broken. But their presence in shaping that album would remain significant, both for Trent and his fans – it could be argued that with the continually evolving Nine Inch Nails sound, Reznor has continued to wrestle with the tension between these early musical extremes to the present day.
Nine Inch Nails’ played as part of the 1991 Lollapalooza tour [July-August], from New Orleans to Orlando, as with their legendary Woodstock performance in 1994, it proved to be a watershed series of events. Emerging on-stage covered in their [then] trademark corn-starch, other groups appeared too clean and too keen to entertain, NIN’s appearance alone placed them as a band apart, bringing Reznor’s private war and their internal conflicts to the stage. ICE-T played guitar with them for Head Like A Hole and at the end the band trashed all of their equipment. Their performance massively increased their profile amongst major record labels and audiences.
Coming-off the road in September 1991, Reznor said the band were “imploding”. The theatrical element of the band members’ on-stage ‘violence’ of bumping, tackling and body-slamming into one another had become increasingly real and “negative”, where blood was spilt and equipment trashed, a mode of behaviour more or less replicated by the audience Reznor had goaded into the same frenzied state. It was the purposeful aggression which added pressure to the standard tour routine of shows, generic hotel rooms, waking up just to travel all day and do the same thing the next night. Nine Inch Nails did not tour again until March, 1994.
By 1992 Pretty Hate Machine had sold 350,000 copies, more than many of Reznor’s industrial peers, and a significant achievement for an alternative band’s debut album. Reznor explained to Musician magazine in 1994 that his early success was already soured by ongoing business issues: “I got everything I wanted in my life… except I don’t really have a life right now. I don’t have any real friends, any relationships that mean anything to me, and I’ve turned myself into this music-creation-performance machine. When I got off the road after the Pretty Hate Machine and Lollapalooza tours, I didn’t write a note of music and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it anymore, to be honest with you. But we had this horrible fucking lawsuit hanging over our heads in order to get off our old label, TVT.”
Fast forward a few years and Trent Reznor hit the road again, revitalized following the critical reception of The Downward Spiral released in April of 1994, Nine Inch Nails entered the stage of Woodstock in that same year like returning heroes. It was with album track, “March Of The Pigs” that Reznor coined perhaps the ultimate festival anthem, its portent of self-abasement, of filth and glorious degradation, would be fulfilled by their performance at Woodstock 1994.
Beginning as a trashy, thrashy, moshing anthem, March Of The Pigs’ 269bpm drumming in ⅞ time signature is off-kilter, yet taut and precise, being the fastest song NIN ever recorded and perhaps the most explosive. The song is an example of shock as musical spectacle, bursts of guitar employed as a weapon – it pushes, shoves and surges like massed bodies in a crowd driven into a helix wave – every instrument caught-up in the fast, mad thrusting motion, expressed in the repetitive stabbing of synth notes.
The song is a fantastic paranoiac mess, as the narrator sees himself surrounded by pig-figures coming at him from every direction as both gullible victims and demanding aggressors. Reznor barks orders in broken syntax callings for the pigs to: “Please/greed/feed.” There is no time to think, question or hesitate; the song barrels headlong into the vortex of the drums and guitars hammering out broken steps, like some twisted game show, the emphasis is upon forced entertainment and instant gratification. The circus call of ‘step right up…’ becomes the same invitation to ‘come and see’ of Mr Self Destruct’s Fantastically Inevitable Car-Crash.
After the punishing, almost monotone force of Broken, Reznor said he wanted to avoid repeating himself. March Of The Pigs takes the listener at the same kind of hard angles; jolted by a flurry of punches to the face. But this intensity is completely defused by the jazzy-schtick piano break where Reznor interrupts the song with a sour, sarcastic refrain — stopping everything — just to ask the audience if they now feel ‘entertained’. Without waiting for an answer, the song jumps back into its frenzy. As a warped partner of the song Piggy, March seems to progress the idea of separation, falling into the rock-star-mode of purposeful distancing and isolationism.
A 1995 article from Newsday magazine entitled The Casualties of MOSHING: Nights of Nine Inch Nails and Broken Bones describes the mosh-pit in anthropological terms of physical primitivism, while noting the cathartic possibilities offered. Moshing is: “An activity very remotely resembling dancing, it originated in the slam-dancing of the punk-rock ’70s – It’s fun, it draws a crowd, it’s a great release for the pent-up anxiety and angst of adolescence – and it’s dangerous.”
The author gives a vivid account a NIN gig at New York’s Nassau Coliseum in 1995: “From the upper mezzanine the fans looked like a roiling, rumbling sea, or a giant, porous trampoline for the surfers, who rolled and lolled along a rippling surface, limp as rag dolls, flipped and flopped by hundreds of hands. A pair of legs would kick up and disappear into the surging mob.” There is also a sense of mutual survival, people catching and throwing one another back into the relative safety of the group’s inner ring; to the jostling crush of equally absurd and obscene postures like the distorted bodily architecture of pornography. This is surrounded by the outer ring, a circle running away with itself into seemingly perpetual motion, until the song stops.
From the imaginary stage Reznor sees the ‘pigs’, his audience, adopt a purely physical system that is both disciplined and wild, in keeping with the music, marshalling themselves into the mosh-pit state, the collective noun for pigs, a ‘drift’ or a ‘drove’, is reflective of these herd-like wave motions. The song itself uses chaos to enforce a new kind of order, the uniformity of the rhythmic march is deconstructed into an [organised] riot, that drives the orbital bodies on the floor pursuing their own momentum to become one continuous flow resembling the group behaviours of herd animals or a murmuration of birds, themselves suggestive of the wider spiral patterns found throughout nature.
March of the Pigs continues the anthropomorphism of Piggy; across the album Reznor uses imagery of herd and hive animals, the narrator referring to beings outside of themselves, possibly humans, as pigs, reptiles, flies and sheep. The connotation of sheep is obvious: faithful followers shepherded into organised belief systems, such as religion, conforming to societal expectations. An early reference to pigs appears in the song Last from Broken, with the line “pigs we get what we deserve” meeting with the line from PHM of bowing in supplication as a mark of servitude, these behaviours are seen as crimes of weakness.
In March… the emphasis on bodies and movement suggests a herd mentality of animals guided into a flow of bodies, which through gullibility, ignorance or willful following they are complicit in, so pigs become active participants in their own execution. The contradiction being: if the pigs at the gig poggo to the beat they are slaves; equally, if they deviate and break from the herd they exile themselves as freaks amongst outsiders. This situation could also be applied to the private citizen or audience member enmeshed in systems of mass behaviour. From his role as front of house mixer for NIN and engineer on The Downward Spiral, Sean Beavan was positive about the benefits of the live experience: “Every night I saw the catharsis of the audience – ‘someone feels like me’ they are all together, it makes people feel better.” Reznor’s song suggests that while gigs might prove beneficial emotional exercise, no new knowledge is gained, the pigs remain hungry, always wanting more.
March has a Fight Club-like energy of people venting their buried frustrations, but performed en-masse, caught up in the flow this is the same madness of crowds as the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg that roused a nation to war, and in sport crowds where collective euphoria projected through the team overrides individual thought, spectators and players are absorbed into a collective. This comparison has been made in explorations of third way alternative politics, where a silent majority becomes activated through mass presence. This effect is explored in David Bowie’s Fashion , expressing fears of the goon squad via a glam stomp, later aped by Marilyn Manson in songs such as The Dope Show  suggesting that in the rush of the performance the audience also become the stars, creating a shared equality.
During a break in the band’s 1994 Woodstock performance of March Of The Pigs, Reznor unambiguously addressed the crowd as: “All you miserable muddy fuckheads” followed by the phrase: “doesn’t it make you feel better?” In interview he alluded to developing fan fear and feeling alienated in his role as the supposed leader of the crowds watching his shows, telling Musician magazine in 1994: “You’re meaning what you’re singing and looking down at these subhuman things going, ‘Take a shit on my head, spit on me, anything’. That fucks up anybody after a while.”
Needless to say the anthropomorphism of March serves to drag humanity down into the mud by emphasising the baser instincts in our animal drives of hunger-violence-sex; the innate biting, pushing, sucking behaviours we condemn as animalistic are in fact all too human. Reznor strips away the layers of civilising illusion that humans are innately superior, to show that while we are capable of choice and can achieve group unity, we remain motivated by self-preservation and personal desires. Reznor would echo the misanthropic tone of March… in a 2018 Guardian interview: “We’re just animals that, left to our own devices, will kill each other. We’re only out for ourselves anyway. This illusion that we’re more than that is nothing but that: an illusion.”
The meeting of piggish bodies and moshing aligns with the song’s imagery emphasising raw physicality, smell, taste, suggestive of appetite, obsession into the decadent excess of addiction. There is a lustful, phallic image of shedding skin or layers, perhaps the superficiality and false security of our most strongly held beliefs, less a transformation, more exposing the authentic and potentially ugly core and breaking with self-image, Reznor told Circus magazine in 1994: “When you peel back the skin sometimes you find that what you see is not always the person you thought you were.” This relatable fear of exposure and vulnerability is also expressed in Nirvana’s song Lithium, where Kurt Cobain addresses feelings of ugliness as inadequacy, but recognises they might be shared in common with the listener.
March has also been interpreted as an attack on the negative aspects of musical fame, with attention and scrutiny of the media, obsessive fans and hangers-on, enforcing the image of the persona onto the person, demanding exposure to the point of pure exploitation where Trent Reznor, as the idol of Nine Inch Nails, must make a spectacle of himself. There common aspects here between the music industry and factory-farming, whether art or pigs, both are sold as product, for pleasure experience, with artists sometimes herded like animals to meet demand. Perhaps this indicates why the amorphous Pink character of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, resonated so much with Reznor. Pink embodies of vulnerability being used and swallowed-up into the music industry machine, a globule of being, raw protozoa, like fleshy pig as potential victim, he is a martyr to the needs, wants and desires of others, projected onto him, they all march at him constantly demanding and wanting more.
In March the narrator frequently refers to his desire to watch a system be torn down into collapse, it is hard to know whether this is aimed directly at the still-hated Steve Gottlieb and TVT, or simply the music industry at large for their exploitation of artists. Certainly Reznor would later provide his own industrial revolution, founding Nothing records, establishing his own online distribution, as well as producing creative commons licensed music in The Slip album  His resistance to the expectations of ‘being in a band’ was present in the destructive live performances of Nine Inch Nails as a band unit smashing their equipment, and attacking each other, effectively sabotaging their music for the sake of performance, subverting the whole idea of being a beast of burden, made to entertain and to satisfy the audience.
In his Rolling Stone review of The Downward Spiral, Jonathan Gold noted the album’s exploration of: “The power of the suffering over the guilty and the consumer over the consumed.” This relationship hinges on control and status. The pig victim is bound to the slaughterhouse; its operatives rely on their bodies as food-source and for employment; and the machines that require material for processing; as the pigs are the fans bound to the artist and their work, to feed upon and adore; as the artist needs their audience to feed their own hunger for success and artistic achievement, all run through the mill of the music industry.
When asked by NME in 1994 about his repeated references to pigs, Reznor said: “I guess I just used that word generically, as a metaphor for people I don’t like, or myself, or things don‘t like.” By including himself in this, Reznor offered the painful realisation that in wearing the masks of our respective roles we are all pigs now, sometimes equally muddy, thwarted and flawed, bound to one another in the march as both spectacle and spectator, and once it stops no-one will sleep soundly and nothing will ever be alright.
The Downward Spiral is Nine Inch Nails’ most consistent, unified piece of music and remains one of the most artistically and culturally significant albums of the 1990s, with an influence that reaches well into the present day. The album expressed the mood and the atmosphere of its time—political, social, and personal—but more importantly it continues to resonate with countless fans and new generations of listeners. Almost in spite of itself, it has become, for many, that rare thing—the album that saved your life.
Released on March 8, 1994, to immediate critical acclaim, Spiral went on to sell over 5 million records in the United States alone. It accomplished this working for and against its fusion of transgressive themes and ideas, such as depression, obsession, addiction, BDSM, violence, atheism, and self-loathing—ideas that remain shocking today, still court controversy, and are, for some, highly offensive, directly challenging societal norms through freedom of expression and confronting middle America with itself, the harsh truths that many would prefer to ignore.
The Downward Spiral explores the depths of one human being’s capacity for pain and suffering in the face of nihilistic self-annihilation, a descent into his own personal hell. This is delivered from the perspective of a narrator persona that both is, and is not, Trent Reznor, and as the album’s chief architect, he would struggle to extricate himself from the spiralling narrative that he created and would ultimately follow.
The spiral model establishes the album’s theme and form, expressing the nature of progressive decline. The narrator strips away layers of artifice, shedding metaphorical skins and personal relationships as an emotional drain to pursue his own splintered and fractured idea of becoming a more empowered individual, but this pushes the worst aspects of his nature to the fore until he is confronted by the end zone of nihilistic meaninglessness, coming to terms with the seeming inevitability of his own self-destruction.
Control is the overarching theme that dominates the narrative, a conflicted exercise of power over the self and the infinite needs of obsession and addiction. The narrator wrestles with and tries to resist the external forces of organized religion, censorship of transgressive sexuality, and the weaponization of masculinity; this would also become manifest in Reznor’s professional conflicts with his record labels as he fought for both commercial independence and creative control.
The album’s great strength is to express and make empathetic this very personal struggle, and it becomes a unique record as both an album of music and a scorched-earth artifact brought back, or recovered, from the brink of the abyss. The album becomes an experience to witness, a spectacle to look upon, with listeners either forced to turn away or compelled to see the record through to the every end.
Trent Reznor’s great musical achievement was to bring the computer and the studio to the fore as instruments in their own right in an era when the technical and creative potential of music production software was still emerging. In his liner notes essay to the 2016 LP reissue of The Downward Spiral, the author John Doran suggests that the album was part of “the end of music,” as it had been previously defined for much of the twentieth century, with Reznor utilizing the amplified noise and selective adaptation of the electric guitar and the sampler, meeting in the middle of the evolutionary musical spectrum. Nine Inch Nails was sonically daring compared to the dominant musical styles of the early 90s, an era caught between pop and grunge hegemony. Spiral was already ahead of the alternative curve; it sounded like the future, and it still does today.
The album is less about electronica, sequencers, and synthesizers, and more about applications of technology to manipulate and subvert our expectations of what music can be. Working closely with his production team of Flood, Alan Moulder, and Sean Beavan, Reznor created ghost-in-the-machine performances, othering sounds to make synthetic music sound organic, and vice versa, for technology to express and make empathetic human experiences of pain and suffering, without crushing the life and soul out of it. The album’s power remains intensely physical: guitars shred, stab, slash, and collide; Reznor yells, screams, whispers out his losing breath; drums are beaten and pounded into static—the literal sound of music breaking down reflecting the album’s self-possessed expressions of decay. NIN became less a band and more a machine for Trent Reznor to make music within.
Reznor applied the classical piano training of his teenage years and his musical arrangement skills to bend, distort, and break the rules of composition, attacking what had become traditional rock orthodoxy, to create something genuinely original and groundbreaking. The album forced a reevaluation of all genres, creating a space beyond the labels of industrial, metal, and synth pop to produce a record that quickly outstripped these narrow definitions and broadened their horizons. Reznor remained keen to stress some debt to industrial music but argued that he simply brought elements of that sound into the mainstream. For many journalists, industrial was just an easy tag, but for Reznor, aspects of that sound became one of many tools.
The Downward Spiral is a record of extremes, often displaying uncompromising sonic brutality: conjoining ecstasy with misery; energy with apathy—demanding to the point of exhaustion. The album was radical in how sharply it shocks and soothes the listener, several times within the same song, speaking the unspeakable through measures of force and restraint, weighing pauses against returning onslaughts, exploiting ambient abstraction of quiet awe and resonant silences to create tension, fear, and dread.
The album was constructed to be listened to as a self-contained whole that Reznor [falsely] claimed had no singles and limited commercial appeal. On first listen, the album can appear monolithic and unapproachable in its density; from its hostile sonic extremes to its challenge of difficult self-knowledge. But as with much difficult art, it requires investment of time and attention and becomes more rewarding over time—a very different beast to the short attention span-grabbing and track-skipping qualities of music today.
Reznor spoke about his intent to create a densely layered album that revealed itself to the listener over time. Comparing this approach to the instant appeal of hit singles like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he said to Chaos Control zine in 1992, “That’s a fucking great song, but I could live another five lifetimes without hearing it again.” Spiral works more like a unified piece of classical music: each song is a movement revisiting and refocusing another aspect of the album, and the endings of tracks overlap and feed into one another. Like Mark Rothko’s abstract expressionism, Reznor produced collages of sound, composing in raw strokes of sound to create a complete non-image, direct but various, that still evokes feeling but remains inexplicable as anything but itself. The poet Patrick David Robertson compares the album to Piranesi’s fantastical prison etchings, at once containing a multitude of perspectives, fourteen different aspects of the same struggle compressed into one singular spectacle—from the misanthropic thrash of “March of the Pigs” to the inverted death disco of “Closer” and the redemptive howl of “Hurt,” all of which would become key singles but still contribute to the wider narrative of the spiral, not simply a collection of music packaged as product veering between killer and filler.
One of Trent Reznor’s key achievements was non-musical. The Downward Spiral was part of a wider shift in 90s alternative music that established a more confessional, and by implication authentic, tone. Anger as a form of dissent increasingly became a dominant theme and helped to break the silence around mental health issues of depression, self-loathing, and suicide. This spoke directly to disenfranchised American youth and resonated with the growing pains of teenage angst in the most open and explicit way since punk’s more vacant nihilism. The Downward Spiral was a subconscious reaction to the prevailing narrative of pop music’s generic positivity and its somatic mass effect that said “everything is fine and well in America.” Spiral went deeper to expose the underlying spiritual issues, both discovering and establishing an audience for music of alienation and existential dread.
For many listeners, working through the record’s spiralling thematic trajectory helped them to articulate their personal emotional struggles, forging a more intimate connection between fan and artist. Reznor’s cathartic scream became theirs, and while it might not offer definite answers, resolution, or even hope as a unifying message, it gave a voice to the voiceless such that they felt less alone in their suffering. One fan, Grant Piercy, said: “I was a lonely teenager coping with depression, sitting in the darkness and listening to the album all the way through, on repeat. The Downward Spiral was my therapy. I could hear something new with every listen, some sample or synth buried deep in the mix.” The album’s offer of emotional exegesis was double-edged: for many it would encourage emotional solidarity, reflection, and perspective, while for others it dredged up and deepened negative feelings that could manifest in destructive behaviours.
Writing in 2008 about the consequences of depthless negative introspection, Twemlow and Fonagy noted: “Nine Inch Nails lyrics offer an example of the beliefs of a segment of our civilized but violent society. The lyrics spiral into degradation, hurting, torture, and humiliation, culminating in a sadomasochistic frenzy of personal destruction resulting in the ultimate erasure of the self.” If the bubblegum alienation rock of Nirvana’s Nevermind and its loud-quiet dynamic of sing-along choruses would be the most prominent alternative album of the 90s, then The Downward Spiral was the album that maintained a deeper and enduring influence on music, art, and culture, having more in common with the challenging visions of self-loathing body horror of Nirvana’s 1993 album In Utero. Cobain’s apocalyptically angry slacker pose suggested by the eternal shrug of Nevermind’s title, intended as an ironic dig to wider indifference, was a pose in sharp contrast to his often on-point and liberally right-on interviews. This underlying message was perhaps lost among the millions who bought the record just to sing along.
The Downward Spiral’s individual struggle merges with a focus on bigger, more universal themes, and like a particularly demanding and confrontational artwork, it demands a reaction from the listener. Its unflinching [self] portrait of the narrator, stripped of delusion and artifice, dares the listener to perform the same kind of moral inventory, revealing and confronting us with aspects of ourselves that we would prefer not to see. It presents the struggle of the comfortable to accommodate painful truths into their worldview, and for the disturbed to find comfort and resilience in its expressions of suffering and mental anguish.
The brute honesty and explicitness of the album threatened to tear down the pretence of the established order of assumed civility; its very presence stood out against the hypocrisy and oppressive moral sensibilities of the baby boomer generation. Born in 1965 and raised in the era of the Manson murders, Kent State, Altamont, and Vietnam, Reznor produced work that echoed the violent aftermath of the sixties’ broken promises and failed revolution that would become the diminishing returns of the American dream, which for so many remains forever out of reach. The youth of the 1990s, who would become branded as Generation X, were fueled by a schism between ironic detachment, righteous anger, and a deeper dissatisfaction with the American way of life, knowing that only the pursuit of happiness was guaranteed. In the eyes of the establishment, they stood for nothing but aimless rage, idleness, and liberal entitlement while living under the ongoing mandate of the Reagan-Bush axis that slowly edged America toward a neoliberal consensus that continued to accept, and even to accommodate, a growing culture of violence.
By virtue of the album’s aesthetic challenge, The Downward Spiral and Reznor would become easy targets for censorship. Reznor exposes the natural connections between sex and violence but tempers this with a critique of male chauvinism and misogyny. Far from being just a young, angry white male album, Spiral exposes the oppressive monster of the male gaze and its self-image; songs such as “Closer” subvert the submission/dominance of heteronormative gender roles within sexual politics while pushing for the right to consensual deviance. And with his attack on America’s gun culture, Reznor hoped to shatter the idols of traditional masculinity, displacing rock music’s prevailing mode of stoic machismo, the silence that kills. This made the previous generation of bands—openly chauvinistic and unapologetically exploitative of women—seem less rebellious, instead being representative of culturally ingrained conservative attitudes. Revisited in hindsight of the Incel movement and contemporary friction caused by white male privilege at large, the album can seem both progessive and prescient on issues that remain at the forefront of social debate today.
The Downward Spiral remains the definitive NIN record, and its overbearing legacy has become the standard by which all subsequent releases are judged. While The Fragile is often the fan’s favorite album, many would acknowledge that The Downward Spiral is the greater work of art, and except for his soundtrack work, it remains the record for which Trent Reznor is most well known in popular culture. For many NIN fans, Reznor would never achieve the same extremes of darkened introspection and sonic invention of Spiral, but it was perhaps moving on from The Downward Spiral, and reversing the negative trajectory it had forced upon him, that saved Reznor’s life and freed him up to pursue new creative instead of continually trying to repeat himself.
Reznor once told the Chicago Tribune in 2000: “I’d love it if 20 years from now one of my records is referenced like Talking Heads’ Remain in Light or Bowie’s Low. In the 1970s music was still looked at more as art than as product.” Today, listeners have come to regard The Downward Spiral as something of a holy grail within the band’s discography, and its perennial challenge of grace under pressure remains as emotionally powerful as when it first came out. The Downward Spiral endures as a singular piece of music that continues to reflect the angry, righteous pain of Reznor’s generation. Its power is undeniable, and once heard, it can never be forgotten.
–The above text is an extract from my book, Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral, available online and in bookshops.
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.
Shard Cinema charts the brief history of glass as the ultimate liminal material and how the spectacle of the screen has increasingly become the lens through which we view the world. The author, Evan Calder Williams argues that while the vista of the cinema screen brought new worlds of sight and sound to the viewer, it also has increasingly been co-opted to present audiences with more spectacle and less substance. This more-ness is driven largely by scale but also the power of shock and awe to overwhelm the audience into non-thinking submission, with colours and shapes taking the place of plotting and intelligent camera work, at the cost of physical cinematography work which is a large part of what helped to establish moving film as both artform and the medium.