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):