NIN: Defining Post-Industrial Youth in America

The focus of this discussion is on the band Nine Inch Nails, led by singer-songwriter Trent Reznor. Reznor had an ability to combine the elements of industrial music (experimentation with electronic sounds) with the structure of popular music to create a unique sound that was successful in the public sphere, while maintaining a dark, heavy aesthetic that was oftentimes horrifying and difficult to listen to. His artistry defined a period of economic instability in the United States during the late 1980s and 1990s, when middle-class American youth were aware of this turmoil and therefore angry at the world.

The foundations of Industrial music started in the 1970s with the band Throbbing Gristle, whose lead vocalist was a woman named Genesis P-Orridge. The members of TG lived in a time when the physical world around them was changing: human-run factories were closing, and anarchy was springing up against the political scene in England. P-Orridge and her bandmates, living in post-industrial Europe, had this philosophy: any object that makes noise is an instrument, any person who can create the sounds is a musician, and there are no rules about how to make music.  They had no formal musical training, no frame of reference for how to create sounds, they just did what came to them organically, from their environment. Their sound was weird, to say the least: it did not have any of the patterns or chord progressions that were used in music up to that point; it was more ambiance, noises that they layered together to convey their feelings.

Throbbing Gristle – Maggot Death (youtube):

The movie “Nine Inch Nails and the Industrial Uprising,” posted on YouTube in a seven-part series, goes into a lot of background and influencers of the industrial sound, of which there is no one specific style. Brent D. Woods, in his thesis Industrial Music for Industrial People: The History and Development of an Underground Genre, also discusses  bands and sounds that contributed to this genre, among them Depeche Mode, Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk, and styles like electronic body music (EBM) and the avant-garde. He defines industrial music as having four key components: synthesizers, anti-music, extra-musical elements, and shock tactics (Woods 41). These components developed through experimentation and the use of electronics to turn sounds into music, which is industrial music at its core.

When industrial music reached North America, the artists combined its electronic sound with elements of rock and roll, metal, and thrash. Examples of these bands are Skinny Puppy, from Canada and Ministry, from Chicago, Illinois. They took synthesizers, which had already been around in music, but used for structured pop music, and created deep, scary sounds to add to their metal elements of guitars, bass, and drums.

Skinny Puppy – The Choke (youtube):

These early industrial acts influenced Trent Reznor directly, when he moved from Philadelphia, where he was receiving formal education and apprenticeship in music, to Ohio, along America’s so-called “rust belt.” The environment there during the 1980s was similar to that of England in the 1970s: industry changing, steel mills closing, people losing jobs. All of this, combined with miserable weather, contributed to a general feeling of pessimism and meaninglessness, especially among the youth, as described by NIN member Chris Vrenna and scholars in the documentary (part 2, 2:40-4:30).

What ended up happening is that artists began to create music that was more and more abrasive, never being satisfied with the sound that they were producing, and always seeking more thrill and shock value. This phenomenon was described by Luigi Russolo in his “Futurist Manifesto” (1983), as cited by Woods:

“The ear of the Eighteenth Century man would not have been able to withstand the inharmonious intensity of certain chords produced by our orchestra (with three times as many performers as that of the orchestra of his time). But our ear takes pleasure in it, since it is already educated to modern life, so prodigal in different noises. Nevertheless, our ear is not satisfied and calls for even greater acoustical emotions” (Industrial Music, 38).

So you have bands taking typically pop-oriented instruments, synthesizers, and using them in their thrash metal, reflecting the angst that they felt toward the political and economic system.

Reznor was able to market the industrial sound by being relatable to a large audience, having a hook, telling a story. When NIN’s first single “Down In It” came out, people were a little confused because the production was polished, making it sound like pop, unlike the stereotypical, rampaging, chaotic industrial music of the time, but it was also experimental, as industrial should be. He brought production value to industrial music. Other pop bands, like depeche mode, were not afraid of a hook, could make industrial “noises” into structured “songs,” but Reznor kept that unsettling element of industrial as a key component of his music while making it just pop enough to be well-received.

NIN – Down In It (youtube):

Compare that with the following work by NIN, the EP Broken, and the song “Happiness in Slavery.” The video for this song was grotesque and gut-wrenching (literally). Reznor had some fascination with morbidity, and though it is extremely disturbing, he definitely had fans who supported his art, otherwise he would not have achieved the level of fame that he did. A very important aspect of his popularity is the fast beats at low frequencies and catchy bass-lines that have a heart-pumping quality about them, making people want to move and dance, even if that dancing was rather violent. This theme persisted throughout the band’s career.

Violence is another aspect of the industrial music scene that Rich Patrick of NIN describes in the film. The youth at the time had all this pent-up anger, and it came out as violence at live shows, which is a typically masculine behavior. Not only were fans in the audience moshing and slam-dancing, the performers themselves incorporated violence into their shows, and that was a very masculine depiction of them. The physical violence went hand-in-hand with the destructive noise.

Finally, I wanted to mention the song “Closer,” which is by far their most popular song, off the album The Downward Spiral. I remember hearing this song on LA radio station 106.7 KROQ in middle school, and having the uncensored version on my iPod. There is no way my parents would have let me listen to it if they heard the actual lyrics, yet it achieved such fame. This is the perfect example of how Reznor was able to penetrate the music industry with his perfectly-imperfect formulated sound, brutal as it may be. He borrowed from many styles of music that existed in different times and spaces and was successful in bringing industrial music to the masses during a time of economic disparity in the United States.

NIN – Closer (youtube):


Cultural Appropriation of Drag Balls


Madonna, in her music video for her song “Vogue” very obviously steals the looks and actions from drag balls, but does so with respect.  The above image is from the movie, “Paris is Burning,” and shows the extravagance and eloquence of the balls.  Voguing, the syle of dance that was created by these balls is heavily incorporated in Madonna’s music video.  It features expert voguers dressed in similar attire (although arguably toned down in some cases) to what would be worn at the balls.  While this is obviously taken right from the drag ball culture, I do not see any evidence that it was done with mal intent or disrespect.  The dancers and drag performers in the video are given center attention and often seem to be the object of envy.  There is also no racial bias as covered in Tim Lawrence’s article “A history of drag balls, houses, and the culture of voguing.”  Performers and dancers of different races are shown side by side or one after another with no obvious preference in Madonna’s music video.  I would argue that the music itself also takes from the drag culture in its grandiloquence and over-the-top nature.  Madonna obviously did this for an effect and likely used all the appropriations from the drag ball culture because it inspired her to create the song.


Lawrence, Tim. “A History of Drag Balls, Houses, and the Culture of Voguing.”

Livingston, Jennie, et al. Paris Is Burning. Prestige, 1990.

Madonna. I’m Breathless. Vogue. Sire Records, 1990.

Bob Marley vs NWA Activism


Bob Marley and the rap group NWA had similar political goals, but attempted to accomplish them in different ways.  Bryan John McCann, in his dissertation “Contesting the Mark of Criminality: Resistance and Ideology in Gangsta Rap, 1988-1997” provides a link between reggae and rap with his statement that “The nationalist politics at the heart of Jamaican cultural traditions, as well as the residue of the Black Power movement still
occupying the streets of New York and other urban centers, gave early rap music a
decidedly nationalist character (124).  Marley and NWA both encouraged Black nationalism and wanted everyone of African descent to be proud of where they came from.  Marley took strides, even outside of his music, to encourage peace as well as Black nationalism.  According to JTMP, there was even one concert where he was able to get “the two political candidates running for office in the violent and deadly 1970s Jamaican politics to hold hands and call for peace” in the middle of his concert (JTMP).  This is one main difference between Marley and NWA as general peace was not a main political focus of NWA.  Much of NWA’s focus surrounded the Black Power Movement with the goal of giving African Americans a solid foundation and a way out of poverty through legal means.  Much of Bob Marley’s influence was worldwide and NWA was limited just to the US, which was another key difference.  NWA makes many more references to US culture and locations, such as Compton, which allows the group to focus more on American sociopolitical issues.  Marley’s music emphasizes peace talks and bringing together of separate parties, while NWA’s music encourages the political mobilization of African Americans, pushing them to become more politically involved and conscious of their “Black Power.”  The style of music is also very different between the two artists.  Rap was founded based in part of influences from Reggae, but Reggae is usually much slower and in many places more instrumental than rap.  Regardless of the differences, both artists were crucial in the formation of a national Black identity in the late 20th century.


McCann, Bryan John. “Contesting the Mark of Criminality: Resistance and Ideology in Gangsta Rap, 1988-1997”. The University of Texas at Austin. August 2009

JTMP. “The Greatest Activist Musician in History: Bob Marley.” Justice Through Music,

Group 1: Major Scene in “Straight Outta Compton”



Straight Outta Compton poster.jpg

Group 1: Pick a quote or a scene from the movie that you think encapsulates the social commentary of this movie.  Explain your Selection.

One scene that I felt demonstrated clear social commentary on issues such as police brutality and racial injustice, was when the government told N.W.A not to perform specific songs.  During a 1989 concert tour, the FBI demands that N.W.A stop performing “F tha Police” because it encouraged violence against law enforcement. Police in Detroit forbid them from performing the song, and a riot breaks out when they perform it anyway.  This scene from the film truly tries to capture the tensions between African-American communities and local police departments.  It is important to note that this movie had a specific goal to showcase the historical component of race relations during the 1990s and decided to include this scene as a climax of these tensions.

N.W.A was a very controversial group at the time and it is important that the film demonstrate their obvious politically charged lyrics.  The rap group purposely used their lyrics to tell their stories of racism, police brutality, and other injustices in order to expand this into a wider audience (McCann).  The movie specifically showed the group defying the government’s request to not perform the song, which leads to a major riot in the city of Detroit.

I strongly believe this scene encapsulates the social commentary of the film, because it demonstrates that N.W.A will not back down when they truly believe in a cause.  They felt mistreated by authorities and wanted to play their music which they felt they had a first amendment right to play.  To them, this was another instance of the system being unjust towards them due to their race and controversial nature of the music (McCann).  Overall, this scene shows they are not afraid to take on deeper issues with harshness as well in order to improve the lives of themselves and others from their communities.  The movie does a good job in portraying this strict social commentary from the rap group during this climatic scene, as well as throughout the entire film.


Article: “Contesting the Mark of Criminality: Race, Place, and the Prerogative of Violence in N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton”, Bryan J. McCann

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Hack #5: Ghetto Bird by Ice-Cube

ice sube

[VERSE 1] Why, oh why must you swoop through the hood
Like everybody from the hood is up to no good
You think all the girls around here are trickin
Up there lookin like Superchicken
At night I see your light through my bedroom window
But I ain’t got shit but the pad and pencil

I can’t wait till I hear you say
“I’m going down, mayday, mayday.” I’m gonna clown

Cause every time that the pigs have got me
Y’all rub it in with the flying Nazi
Military force, but we don’t want ya
Standin’ on my roof with the rocket launcher
“So fly like an eagle.”
But don’t follow us wherever we go
The shit that I’m saying, make sure it’s heard
Motherfuck you and your punk-ass ghetto bird

“Ghetto Bird” (1993) – Ice Cube

The song Ghetto Bird (1993) by Ice Cube is about racial tension and discrimination between the police and ghetto neighborhoods. Ice Cube makes it apparent that cops play on black stereotypes, and how these ideas affect the treatment of minorities or how these minorities view police under these circumstances. More importantly, Ice Cube offers the perspective of someone who is discriminated by the police while narrating a police chase, illustrating the aggression that both sides—law enforcement and constituents of LA ghettos—have toward each other, building awareness for the roots of anger that occur from constant surveillance due to race.

la's most annoying icon

To begin, Dr. Gwendolyn mentions author Arthur J. Gladley’s connection of Hip-Hop to the youth culture, acknowledging that the content early rappers offered were “artistic and designed to cope with urban frustrations and conditions” (Gwendolyn). Often times, various Black Panther parties set the precedence for this type of expression against law enforcement, creating bold and passionate lyrics that would eventually inspire groups like NWA to create songs like Fuck the Police (1988) (Gwendolyn). The beauty of Hip Hop and inspirations like the actions of Black Panther parties with rap created the foundation by which rap groups found it acceptable to begin voicing out against established institutions. In this case, the aggressions begin with ghetto stereotypes, and are quickly followed by discriminatory actions by the police; Ice Cube begins with blatantly calling out the police for thinking that there is nothing in the hood except for crime and sexual delinquents.

“Why, oh why must you swoop through the hood
Like everybody from the hood is up to no good
You think all the girls around here are trickin”

In response to a fault that Cube acknowledges for its existence in the hood—partially denouncing the fact that this is not a good representation as to what good the hood has to offer—he accuses the police for their foolish arrogance.

Up there lookin like Superchicken
At night I see your light through my bedroom window
But I ain’t got shit but the pad and pencil

He essentially tells the police, directly, that entering a ghetto neighborhood does not give police the right to think that they are above-all, since they look equally as ridiculous in the sky, searching for trouble that may or may not exist (searching for/expecting trouble instead of responding accordingly to it). The police, through these unnecessary actions, are discriminating against entire communities of people, creating the racial tensions and aggressions that the Black Power Movement began to express.

Tupac Shakur’s cultural-political activism causes this song by Ice-Cube to be a direct reflection of the reality of police relations in the ghetto; at the same time as showing the discriminatory actions of the police, Ice-Cube presents the perspective of urban youth and explains where the aggression comes from. Tupac utilized Hip Hop music as both a rallying source as well as a nuanced way of calling attention to the way old social interactions are affecting the urban youth of America (Stanford).

I can’t wait till I hear you say
“I’m going down, mayday, mayday.” I’m gonna clown

Cause everytime that the pigs have got me
Y’all rub it in with the flying Nazi
Military force, but we don’t want ya
Standin’ on my roof with the rocket launcher”

Cube’s song is not meant to be a rallying source but answers the complaint that white-America tends to have in dealing with the growing attitude of urban youth. The Black Power Era was notorious for using terms like “pigs” toward law enforcement and incurred militant actions from people who already stood above them from a racial standpoint; as a result, groups like the one that involved Tupac Shakur’s mom found the bravery to act militantly as well (Stanford). Ice-Cube uses the word “Nazi” to emphasize the depth of police brutality—police seemed to target only a certain race of people (African Americans) and white-privilege kept them concentrated in areas in which they were to be constantly monitored and harassed (in ghettos). He says “flying Nazi” to explain the watchful discrimination that the police impose upon ghetto communities from a noisy helicopter.

Like Tupac, Ice-Cube brazenly states:

“‘So fly like an eagle.’
But don’t follow us wherever we go
The shit that I’m saying, make sure it’s heard
Motherfuck you and your punk-ass ghetto bird

Ice-Cube expresses the request of the ghetto youth toward the police: Stop following (us) like we’re always doing something wrong. Coupled with a later set of lyrics, Ice Cube further emphasizes the frustration he has with police monitoring him as if he’s a criminal due to the color of his skin and his location.

“Now, my homey’s here to lick on a trick for a Rolex
And let me try the fo’ next
Now the fo’ I was driving was hotter than July
Looked up and didn’t see a ribbon in the sky
Saw a chopper with numbers on the bottom
‘Calling all cars, I think we’ve got em.’”

Here, Ice-Cube shows the scenario in which his friend in a richer neighborhood allowed him to borrow his car for fun, in which police saw him and attempt to arrest him for driving something so nice. With such heavy prejudice and discrimination, it is obvious that Ice-Cube was aiming to provide realistic scenarios in ghetto communities that illustrated the reasons for African-American irritation/attitude toward police. Unlike NWA, he does not just create an “us versus them” argument, but rather an explanation for the rage and anger that minorities have in similar situations.

Lastly, what I found the most interesting about Ice-Cube’s choice to illustrate the life of urban communities, is that this specific song almost mimics that of Tupac’s incident with shooting cops in Atlanta, GA. The helicopter that constantly ruins people’s nights in Ice-Cube’s neighborhood exists because the cops are expecting trouble and are outright searching for it to happen. The drunk cops created that type of trouble, and they chose to take it out on a ghetto neighborhood and on a minority, most likely due to the premonition that the person and location were quite insignificant in comparison to the power they held. Ghetto Bird provides a concise explanation for the anger and annoyance that minority groups have in regard to police activity; it artfully and effectively shows the way police abuse their rank and power, using it to outright oppress and harass ghetto communities and play on the stereotypes of the people who live there.

tupac yuh


Pough D. Gwendolyn, “Seeds and Legacies: Tapping the Potential of Hip-Hop”

Stanford, Karin L. “Keepin’ It Real in Hip Hop Politics: A Political Perspective of Tupac Shakur.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, 2010, pp. 3–22., doi:10.1177/0021934709355122.

Hack 5: N.W.A and Racial Tensions with the Police, Song: “F*** the Police”

Image result for NWAImage result for nwa

“F*** the Police” MP4 Link:

in the song, “F*** the Police”, by N.W.A, they clearly had no problem discussing and rapping about the major racial inequalities and police brutality occurring in the city of Los Angeles during the 1980s/1990s.  Many black individuals were constantly being harassed by the LAPD and thrown in jail during the “War on Drugs” era.  During this rough time, the LAPD had a systemic racist problem, with cops using racial profiling and treating black people harder and with less respect than white people.  N.W.A used their platform to boost the black power movement by clearly going against societal norms and harshly speaking out against these issues of race and police brutality (Pough, 284).  Hip hop and Rap had major political potential for starting civil movements and creating change within this horrific culture of racism, due to the many listeners it reached (Pough, 284).  One example of this in the song is the verse:

F*** the police! Comin’ straight from the underground
A young n**** got it bad ‘cause I’m brown
And not the other color, so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority

Ice Cube is clearly anger that he is brutally mistreated by police just because of his skin color and where he is from.  Stating that just because the police have a the authority to take a life, does not mean they can do so at will, especially with race in mind.  Ice Cube is referencing the racial profiling and discrimination which reached an all time high in the late-80s after the emergence of crack in 1986 (ACLU, 2016).

Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the product
Thinkin’ every n**** is sellin’ narcotics

By Straight Out of Compton’s release in 1988, there were 762,718 yearly arrests for drug possession, nearly twice as many as the 400,000 in 1981 (ACLU, 2016).  This discrimination also manifested itself in 1986’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which made arrests for crack cocaine possession 100x worse than an arrest for powder cocaine, despite the two drugs being identical on a molecular level (ACLU, 2016.  These lyrics express the fact that black individuals were often targeted more so than white individuals for using drugs that are essential very similar.  The rules of the judicial system, which was enforced by the LAPD, were created unfairly against minorities which N.W.A demonstrates by stating cops believe all black people are selling/doing drugs.

Overall, this song expresses an intense anger towards racist cops and the judicial system that drastically disenfranchised black people.  N.W.A’s politically charged lyrics allow for a new platform in Hip Hop that influence many young people in these communities to stand up for social justice issues.


Article:  “Seeds and Legacies: Tapping the Potential in Hip Hop”, Gwendolyn Pough


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Tupac’s Political Activism


Tupac, while being a famous rapper, also made several calls for political reform and social change in his song lyrics.  According to Gwendolyn Pough in her article “Seeds and Legacies: Tapping the Potential of Hip-Hop,” rap is similar to the Black Panther movement and other Black political groups “in the Black rhetorical qualities they share,” which also includes some Black Panther sayings referenced in raps (285).  Tupac, in his song “Panther Power” also makes references to the Black Panther movement, which his mother was involved in.  In this song, he states ” There ain’t no liberty to you and me we all ain’t free yet/Panther power,” revealing his desire for actual freedom from the restraints placed on him and other African Americans.  He goes on to say “lady liberty is a hypocrite she lied to me,” illustrating the illusion of the American dream.  Tupac believes that that dream is not available to many African Americans because of current racism and wealth disparity.  He believes that it’s wrong to tell people that the American dream is available to everyone because that’s simply incorrect.  He thinks it should be attainable for everyone, but society isn’t at that point yet.  Tupac in this song and many others outlines problems in society and shows the urgency of the situation.  He wants his listeners to push for a truly equal and free society where everyone is give the same opportunities.  Tupac’s songs have reached many people and should be noted for their political activism.  While his songs were in fact just songs, they did have significant influence on his listeners and brought many delicate topics about social justice and inequality to the table.


Pough D. Gwendolyn, “Seeds and Legacies: Tapping the Potential of Hip-Hop”

Shakur, Tupac. “Panther Power”