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Nine Inch Nails’ “Gave Up” took self-loathing to new lows

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In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Now that we’re a few weeks into our new year’s resolutions, we’re featuring songs about giving up.

Nine Inch Nails, “Gave Up” (1992)

Nine Inch Nails’ first three releases—1989’s Pretty Hate Machine, 1992’s Broken EP, and 1994’s The Downward Spiral—are a logical sonic progression from industrial-tinted synthpop to razor-burned hard rock and noise. Thematically, they also function as a trilogy of sorts, as creative force Trent Reznor told Spin in 1996:

The three records have different focal points, or viewpoints: Broken’s central theme is self loathing; on Downward Spiral I’m searching for some kind of self-awareness; and on Pretty Hate Machine I’m depressed by everything around me, but I still like myself. On Broken, I’ve lost myself; nothing’s better, and I want to die.”


That theme is laid out in stark detail on the Flood-produced “Gave Up,” which appears on Broken. The protagonist wakes up from a pleasant dream to find his life in shambles, ostensibly by his own doing. However, the breaking point appears to be the influence of another person—a vague “you”—who has helped the self-immolating center of “Gave Up” realize that he is an empty shell of a person. In keeping with the self-loathing theme, the protagonist doesn’t blame the other person for his woes: He directs his anger inward.

Scrambled keyboard zaps, ominous racing beats, and the occasional outburst of abrasive electric guitars—not to mention Reznor’s throat-searing vocals—further illustrate the personal agony and not-so-micro-aggressions addressed within the song. Nine Inch Nails would explore the premise of “Gave Up” in more fragmented, nihilistic detail on The Downward Spiral, but the sonic and thematic blueprint was already set.

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