Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“Head Like A Hole” captured the dangerous allure of Nine Inch Nails

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs we felt we had to hide from others.

Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like A Hole” (1989)

“The guy told me they’re satanists!” my mom said. I don’t remember how Nine Inch Nails came up, but apparently my mom was investigating the word on the street about this upstart industrial band from Cleveland. And by “the street,” I mean “a record store,” where some jackass hipped my mom—a fervent Catholic—to the Lucifer-loving ways of Trent Reznor. She was unmoved by my June 1990 issue of Thrasher magazine, where I highlighted Reznor discussing his band’s debut, Pretty Hate Machine: “I didn’t want to come across as an industrial, snarling, Satan-singing entity. That’s not what Nine Inch Nails is.”


Within a year or two, my mom would give up her crusade, realizing the folly in stymying her son’s intense interest in the burgeoning genre known as “alternative music.” When I asked for a bunch of CDs for my 15th birthday, I proactively recorded videos by the bands from 120 Minutes and showed them to her, so she could understand she had nothing to fear. (When I showed her Lush, she presumed the name came from slang for a drunk, not, you know, the obvious definition.)

Twenty-five years later, I understand her concern. At the time, I was under the spell of the industrial scene, then hitting its peak, and even I was scared of it. It exuded an undeniable menace: I was convinced I’d get my ass kicked by skinheads if I showed my face at a Ministry show; the pummeling abrasiveness of Skinny Puppy couldn’t be more unsettling. What’s funny is that, compared to the group’s peers, Nine Inch Nails was practically a dance band. It would take a dour, aggressive turn on 1992’s Broken EP, but Pretty Hate Machine is tame in retrospect. “Ringfinger” is basically a new-wave song.

120 Minutes gave “Head Like A Hole” a lot of play, and the video—shot at what I’d later learn was the original location of one of my go-to late-night bars in Chicago, Exit—perfectly blended the scary-yet-alluring sensibility of industrial at the time. The ominous lyrics, particularly “Bow down before the one you serve / You’re going to get what you deserve,” hit the religious themes that would’ve set off my mom’s alarms, and the cathartic chorus (“Head like a hole / Black as your soul / I’d rather die / Than give you control.”) was a fastball over the plate for an angsty adolescent like myself. “That’s right, jocks! You’ll never control me!”

I had a copy of Pretty Hate Machine on tape, and rather than spell out the band’s name on the spine, I drew the NIN (with the second N backward) logo so it wouldn’t trip my mom’s alarm. That kind of subterfuge was common during the early days of my musical awakening. When my aunt gave me a quizzical look after I bought Ministry’s The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, I just chuckled and said it was a joke. Little did I know, Al Jourgensen’s predilection for bad puns would only worsen as the years wore on.


Eventually I owned Pretty Hate Machine on CD, and my mom never protested. I didn’t descend into drug-addled Satan-worshipping, and she probably figured she had nothing to worry about. When my bedroom was repainted a couple years later, she’d be at a different record store, asking the staff if they had the new Skinny Puppy subway poster for me. I’d turned her. For the rest of her life, she’d attentively listen when I talked about my favorite bands, hilariously dropping knowledge on unsuspecting youngsters when familiar names came up. Though I think she always had her suspicions about Nine Inch Nails.


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