Industrial Music and Politics

  1. 0_9cfa8_eb9a1a3f_orig“The members of Throbbing Gristle were dedicated performance artists who vigorously challenged social order through deviant acts not only on stage, but in their imagery as well” (Woods 39). What kind of social order was prevailing at the time of Throbbing Gristle’s beginnings, and what were they hoping to change or bring to the public’s attention with their performances?

During the late 1960’s many countries were seeing the dissolution of the middle class and the stratification of socioeconomic classes. Britains’ government (where the Throbbing Gristle originated) and the United States’ government where shifting towards more conservative leadership. The Vietnam war was going on, Britain was experiencing a financial crisis, and the civil rights movement were causing widespread rejection of the government. Industrial music reflected this frustration with government,  “‘The rebels rejected most institutions, political leaders, and political parties.’ It was in this sense of rebellion that industrial music thrived: Nations were dividing to either extreme of right and left. Rebels, such as they were, created politically charged imagery and satire to communicate their message.” (Wood, 35) I think these groups weren’t trying to push any agenda but they wanted to bring attention to the power and corruptness in politics. This message resonated with a lot of cultures because no matter what each government was doing people were ready to question their decisions. Groups like Throbbing Gristle wanted people to look at their society and think about questioning the norm rather than just accepting it. For example, groups like throbbing gristle used Nazi regalia to get people to question the institution. It wasn’t the long after WW2 and the nazi movement was a really powerful sample of corrupt governing brain washing its citizens.



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):

Throbbing Gristle Blog Post

Throbbing Gristle

Throbbing Gristle was trying to break free from the social order surrounding industrialization including large business and government. From their interviews, it seemed that they were dissatisfied with the fact that the large industrial corporations had abandoned common people as the factories were closing and the government was not stepping in to help. This left them with the factory they practiced in, which was abandoned and now housed various small industrial workers. The sounds that arose from the work, such as saws, trains, and hammering, informed the sound of their new form of music. I think this setting inspired them a great deal as they sought to inform the public, or sympathize with the public, about the bad position many working class people were in after being abandoned by industrialized businesses. I found it interesting that the style of Throbbing Gristle found its way to the United States when a similar phenomenon happened here in regards to industrial businesses shutting down. Particularly, it is interesting to note that most of the industrial bands and their audiences were white and working class and their music dealing with outrage towards society was very different than the music of African Americans dealing with outrage against society at the same time. It appears to me that this music is much more visceral and violent than the gangster rap we studied earlier on, and it makes me wonder what it is about the racial difference that made the music with similar subject matter so different in sound.



“Nine Inch Nails and The Industrial Uprising.” Chrome Dreams Media, 2009.


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Group 1: NIN and the Industrial Music Scene

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Group 1: Woods described electronic music and experimentation as the two elemental influencing aspects which comprised the identity of industrial music (38). By comparing Nine Inch Nails’ earlier work with their later albums, how do you see these influences manifest throughout their musical career? Do you think that NIN can be categorized as industrial, considering their use of catchy hooks and the mainstream fame they achieved over time?

Industrial music has a very unique following from fans outside of the mainstream as most artists and those who listen to this genre form a subculture outside the popular hits of the day.  it is not in the popular mainstream and according to Woods, “Industrial music exists in a nebulous realm to those who concern themselves with thinking about it. As a genre of music that has never pervaded the charts of popular music, industrial is often overlooked by scholars and casual listeners alike” (Woods, 1).  Nine Inch Nails started in this niche realm and became respected as industrial artists within the industrial scene.

In their earlier albums, listeners can expect to see certain techniques and styles can be found throughout Nine Inch Nails’ catalog.  The Nine Inch Nails songs such as “Wish”, and “The Day the World Went Away” exhibit terraced dynamics, which is a characteristic of electronic industrial music (Woods, 39).  The lead singer, Trent Reznor’s singing follows a similar pattern, frequently moving from whispers to screams.  He also has used software to alter his voice in several songs which is common in the industrial music scene.   Therefore, when experiencing their albums, listeners can see this change from older to more recent songs by noticing the use of more traditional instruments to electronic/synthesizer sounds common in various aspects of industrial music experimentation.

Although Nine Inch Nails grew in mainstream popular culture, I believe they should still be considered industrial music due to their roots and influences as a band, despite evolving/changing their sound.  Woods discusses how electronic music and experimentalism are major aspects of industrial music which Nine Inch Nails still continue to do despite their use of catchy hooks and mainstream framing (Woods, 24).  This shows that even through the evolution of their music, they still have various major aspects of industrial music stemming from their work, which I believe qualifies them to still be in the scene, even with their growing popularity throughout the 2000s.


Article: Woods, Bret, Industrial Music for Industrial People. The History and Development of an Underground Genre. (Florida State University Library, 2007).

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Kraftwerk: electronic vs. industrial


Buenos Aires bans electronic music festivals and any concerts using synthesizers and samplers – Kraftwerk’s show gets canceled (2016)

In Woods’ thesis Industrial Music for Industrial People: The History and Development of an Underground Genre, he states that industrial music can be classified as a stand-alone genre due to “the use of synthesizers and anti-music, and extra-musical elements” (41). He continues to define these elements as…

  1. synthesizers- “center of the industrial sound”
  2. anti-music- “against the contemporary trends of what is aesthetically acceptable in music acts” (i.e. silence)
  3. extra-musical elements- “benchmark of industrial sound and style” (i.e. spoken word, machinery)


The German band Kraftwerk and considered one of the heads of the electronic music genre. Their sound is best described as robotic. Some may argue that they should be considered a part of the industrial music genre, and though they largely influenced and embraced industrial music, their music is electronic at heart.



Nine Inch Nails, one of the most prominent American industrial bands, exemplify the difference between electronic music and industrial music. Their song (and music video) “Closer” is very different from the style of Kraftwerk’s “Roboter.” Though you can hear electronic tones in this Nine Inch Nails song, the execution and performance is outside of the boundaries of electronic music. For example, the sound is more harsh and the imagery is much more disturbing than the visual displays of electronic music. The anti-music and extra-musical elements are more apparent in this Nine Inch Nails song and are far less developed (and possibly nonexistent) in Kraftwerk’s music.

Poor Economic Outlook & Aggressive Sound


In The Industrial Uprising it is clear that economic outlook for youth throughout the late 1980’s and early 90’s impacted the sound and overall aesthetic of bands such as the Nine Inch Nails. Whether it was their aggressive sound or physical violence during live shows, it was clear that a general feeling of frustration was central to their approach. I see Trent’s personal struggles with his record company and the shift in the band’s music following that conflict as a great representation of the general feeling of the youth during this time. I think his incorporation of more hard core punk and heavy metal sounds into “Broken” reflects the anger he felt as he faced a negative outlook in his own personal economy. Finding himself in a situation with little opportunity to earn money (while creating the art he wanted to) beyond playing ball with record executives, he outwardly expresses his frustration through making his music even more aggressive. This general feeling was present in the band, and their shows, as they gained popularity, but I find this personal struggle and narrative by Trent to be particularly interesting because it came after some of his initial success.

In the 80’s and 90’s, the feelings of economic angst among the youth were displayed through bands such as the Nine Inch Nails – bands that incorporated the sounds of the economy with elements of rage and punk. Today, as I read research journals and articles that forecast that our generation will actually be the first to face a worse economic outlook than our parents, I wonder what music genre will begin to evolve their sound to reflect Millennial and Generation Z feelings of anxiety or frustration around this uncertainty. Or, perhaps this has already been done (I’m thinking aggressive dubstep). What sounds reflect the economy of today? And how does that translate into music?

Group 1:

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Group 1. Langston Hughes declared that Harlem was in vogue and the Negro was in vogue (Lawrence, 3) after viewing the popular spectacles of the balls being enjoyed by both blacks and whites in the 1920s. After watching Paris is Burning (1990) does his observation resonate with you? What particular part of the spectacle was fascinating/shocking/exciting to you? Additionally, do you see this as “popular culture” from a 21st-century context? Utilize Lawrence’s Queering of the Dance Floor to support your answer.

After viewing the Paris is Burning Documentary and reading the course documents on this subject, it was clear that the ballroom spectacles were very popular in this group.  I agree with Langston Hughes quote because so many of the black men and women involved in these events were influencing and influenced by popular culture.  The balls featured expensive, custom, and flashy clothes which allowed the individuals performing to express their individuality and showcase their style.  Hughes elaborates on this being popular and many individuals coming from outside the culture to marvel/wonder what was all going on.   People look past race and were able to celebrate in harmony and include people of all types.

While watching the interesting documentary “Paris is Burning” (1990), I was amazed has to how into the competition people got.  Individuals performing were staying up long hours to practice moves and make their elaborate costumes to perform well in various categories.  I thought the categories were interesting because some of them were kind of shocking, such as the “realness” one were they tried to look as straight as possible.  It was impressive how many of these men were very entertaining and took the competition to a new level.

I see this has having elements of pop-culture, but it was a very exclusive subculture that only a minority of individuals were apart of.  However, in the book, “Queering of the Dance Floor” it is shown that many of these balls took elements from the mainstream and made it their own (Lawrence 220).  Also, the mainstream still did not like these occurrences much as they were often looked down upon by society, and even New York State Law prohibiting male on male dancing (Lawrence 232).


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Article:  Paris is Burning (1990), Queering of the Dance Floor