In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: the first “cool” songs we ever liked.

Nine Inch Nails, “Wish” (1992)

Growing up with two older siblings, both possessing wildly different musical tastes, meant that knowing what “cool” was constituted essentially an impossible task for a young kid. One week, my brother would play Rush’s Power Windows in its entirety for me, talking about how cool it was. The next, my sister would drop a needle onto her vinyl copy of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising, informing that, regardless of what my other sibling may have told me, this was the music that was incredibly cool. Beyond the fact that De La Soul’s goofy between-song skits made it much more appealing to a naive youth than Neil Peart’s lyrics about the existential ennui of humankind—an equation that would quickly invert itself, come puberty—I had no means to evaluate who was right. My awareness of what kids in my class found cool was mostly limited to what I’d see on their shirts, meaning various athletes and Looney Tunes characters were maybe cool? Did Bo know cool? Because I certainly did not.

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Ultimately, it turned out that “cool” may be subjective (though something tells me millions of YouTube commenters disagree), but it’s also something that can hit you like a ton of leather-clad bricks. Watching MTV one day, I was busy scanning for examples of the “alternative” music someone at school had scornfully told me I needed to learn about. I liked Nirvana, and Screaming Trees, and Genesis—those bands are all alternative, right? Each time a video would come on, I would evaluate it for whatever the elements of this mysterious subgenre possessed, which in my young mind was a list that looked something like this:

  1. Long hair
  2. Baggy clothes
  3. But wait, Michael Stipe doesn’t have either of those
  4. SYSTEM FAIL

Suffice to say, I wasn’t always the most adept at picking up social cues, outside of, “Hey, those bullies are walking toward me in a determined man—OH SHIT RUN.” Still, I liked what I liked, and in the comfort of my own living room I didn’t have to give much thought to whether the music I liked was cool. So MTV was an educational tool, a means of trying to enlighten myself on what could be considered hip. (The word “hip” was almost certainly a negation of itself.)

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And then Nine Inch Nails happened. The video for “Wish,” the single off the group’s Broken EP, started playing, and suddenly the ambiguity of coolness was resolved. Much like pornography, I couldn’t define it, but now I knew “cool” when I saw it. Because, whatever its other merits, the music video for “Wish” was unassailably cool. Trent Reznor, dressed in the black leather of female BDSM gear, fronts a band surrounded on all sides by a metal cage, with shrieking, animalistic people clamoring to get in. The music sounds like the epitome of the hardest, heaviest thing I could imagine being played by instruments. Reznor’s barked vocals, darting out between the assaultive riffs, sounded like the last gasps of a furious beast. Plus, they muted a word three different times, which was my introduction to the existence of artists yelling “fuck” on TV. It was transcendent.

From that moment, I realized that music could be heavier, harder, and angrier than mainstream commercial radio suggested. It didn’t have to possess the shiny polish that beset almost all the heavy metal I’d heard. From there, it was a short trip to “Jesus Built My Hot Rod,” to early Melvins records, to deranged greatness like The Cows. The grunge era may have soon scrambled conventional notions of cool, uncool, and reshaped commercial culture, but Nine Inch Nails was the first time I felt like I was seeing something dangerous in a mainstream forum. Watching it today, it still looks like the ultimate in over-the-top excess; the video literally ends with the band en route to being ripped to pieces by a frothing crowd. It may be histrionic, but God help me, it still gives me goosebumps. And now I can yell “fuck” along with Trent. (Sorry, office coworkers at this moment.)

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