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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Remystifying Nine Inch Nails, “Closer,” and All the Pretty Machines

Rob digs deep into Trent Reznor, ‘The Downward Spiral,’ and NIN lore and comes back with some stark personal realizations

Ringer illustration

Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. In Episode 70 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re breaking down the sultriest song in the Nine Inch Nails catalog, “Closer.”

A word that pops up often in interviews with Trent Reznor, in glossy magazine cover stories about Nine Inch Nails, a word that Trent himself often uses is demystification. Demystify. He worries that rock stars now—and now started around 1994—rock stars have demystified themselves. Rock stars now talk too much, take too many photographs, slather themselves on too many magazine covers, and in general do too much explaining, not to mention tweeting. They’re ruining everything. They’re ruining the illusion. We know too much about them. We know too much about him. Is this even helpful? Trent Reznor was born in 1965 and grew up in Mercer, Pennsylvania, in northwest Pennsylvania, near the Ohio border. From a stultification perspective, in my experience, the only thing worse than being in Ohio is being near the Ohio border, in any direction. Right? No? OK. Trent was something of a piano prodigy; his piano teacher thought if Trent devoted his life to it he could be a concert pianist, but Trent balked, in part because he thought pianist sounded like penis.

Trent did an interview in 2017 with the journalist David Marchese, for Vulture, one of my favorite Q&A situations in recent memory, and he was talking about growing up in Mercer, and toxic masculinity, and the internet, and rock stars who tweet too much. And Trent says, “Growing up, I didn’t know what Pink Floyd looked like and I didn’t need to know. In my mind, they looked like fucking wizards, man. I remember seeing a picture of Supertramp, and I loved Breakfast in America—and I was like, What the fuck?” End quote. I, too, loved the 1979 Supertramp album Breakfast in America, and I will concede that Supertramp were not the coolest looking guys in town, they looked like the third-, ninth-, 16th-, 45th-, and 200th-place finishers in a Charles Manson look-alike contest—a whole lotta hair and not a lotta swagger, in Supertramp, visually—but mostly now I just want to know what Trent Reznor thought Supertramp looked like.

Wizards, I suppose. Trent thought Supertramp looked like fucking wizards. Nearsighted, racquetball-playing wizards. Trent keeps complaining about this to Vulture, he says, “And forget photos: I didn’t know anything about them. Something in me needed the people making the music I loved to seem larger in life. I needed heroes. David Bowie was a fucking alien, you know? As it happens, he was a fucking alien. I was lucky enough to be friends with him and he was even cooler than I’d thought. But demystification is a real problem. There’ve been people whose music I can’t like anymore because I’ve seen them bitching on Twitter about a waiter like a fucking asshole.” End quote. Trent Reznor used to be on Twitter but he quit because he couldn’t stop yelling at trolls. He’d get so pissed. It was great.

OK. Did that help? Is context useful? Does it help you to know what Trent Reznor looks like? Sure, he’s a glowering, angrily handsome, rock-star-looking dude. He was intimidating when he was super scrawny and intimidating later when he got super jacked. Does it help you to know he’s 5-foot-7? No, honestly, I thought he was taller. Does it help you to know he briefly went to Allegheny College in Pennsylvania? He told Spin magazine, “I was going to college for computer engineering and I thought, I love music, I love keyboard instruments, maybe I can get into synthesizer design. The excitement of hearing a Human League track and thinking, that’s all machines, there’s no drummer. That was my calling. It wasn’t the Sex Pistols.” End quote. He dropped out. Round about 1984 he moved to Cleveland, which is within the Ohio border, for all the good that does it.

Oh, forget it. It’s time to re-mystify Trent Reznor. Trent Reznor was a fucking alien wizard who crash-landed on this planet in 1989 and descended from the burning mountaintop with two stone tablets. One of the stone tablets said SOUL, and the other one said HOLE.

Yes, “Head Like a Hole,” leadoff track on Nine Inch Nails’ debut album Pretty Hate Machine. There’s other glowering dudes in this band, eventually—live, mostly—but for our purposes, and usually for his, Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails are synonymous. He is it. He is them. No offense but I’d think real hard before joining a band led by this guy.

As an 11-year-old in 1989, I bowed down before MTV, and what I deserved was more MTV. And there’s Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, on MTV, Trent’s got jet-black, super-long, almost dreadlock’d hair, he looks like the Predator, if the Predator sunburned easily, there’s like wires and menacing black tape strewn everywhere, menacingly—I’m glad I didn’t have to vacuum the set of this video afterward. Rad video. Super intimidating. I’m not joking. As an 11-year-old I was super intimidated. Trent Reznor the alien wizard invented industrial music, as far as I was concerned. Let’s skip the part where I drop like 15 band names, from Throbbing Gristle forward, in a nervous attempt to convince you I don’t actually believe that. Mystify. We’re mystifying. Trent Reznor invented industrial music, industrial music here defined as “Sad, angry men emoting disconcertingly amidst noisy machines.” Here we got a song called “Dig It,” from a Canadian industrial band called Skinny Puppy. (Sorry, I’m name-dropping, I can’t help myself.) This is from Skinny Puppy’s 1986 album Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse. That’s Mind colon The Perpetual Intercourse.

All right, plenty of unnerving clanging machines here, but we’re a little light on the emoting, yeah? Let’s get some emotion, let’s get some star power, let’s get as close to rapping as Trent Reznor ever got. Here’s Track 3 on Pretty Hate Machine. It’s called “Down in It.”

Trent was happy to tell anybody that Skinny Puppy’s “Dig It” inspired “Down in It.” I’ll leave it to you if “Down in It” constitutes an improvement on “Dig It,” but it’s certainly a refinement. There’s a pop-song bounce and a pop-song gloss to “Down in It.” This song appears on an album with the tremendously marketable title Pretty Hate Machine, which was an improvement, objectively, on the album title Mind colon the Perpetual Intercourse. And Trent’s got undeniable, gargantuan star power, too. Trent’s vocals are emotionally fraught, and more importantly they’re clean. They’re discernable. They’re human. The way Trent explained it to Spin magazine, he said, “Pretty Hate Machine was about juxtaposing human imperfections against very rigid, sterile, cold arrangements. You can’t just have icy vocals over icy music. If the music is very precise, make a vocal tape that’s less perfect, so you’ve got this meshing of man versus machine.” An insidiously catchy chorus helps, as well.

To hear the full episode , and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.