Nine Inch Nails has to be one of the modern-day recording industry's more unlikely multiplatinum success stories.
Nine Inch Nails isn't really a band at all; it's really just a vehicle for the abrasive musical genius of Trent Reznor, who writes all NIN material and typically performs all instrumentation on NIN tracks. (For live shows, obviously, Reznor has to bring along some other musicians since he can't play everything at once.)
So, why should it be so surprising that NIN has sold more than 20 million records worldwide since its 1989 debut? Well, for one, when it all started, Reznor was working as a janitor in a Cleveland recording studio, stealing unused studio time to lay down his musical vision while no paying customers were using the equipment. And that musical vision itself isn't quite what you'd usually expect for a bestselling pop artist; Reznor's music is deliberately challenging, if not even unpleasant, to listen to.
And finally, Reznor hates the recording industry itself and has spent much of the last two decades feuding with his own record labels. Not exactly the usual recipe for selling tens of millions of albums, perhaps, but hey, somehow it worked.
And it really started working with "Head Like a Hole," the second single off NIN's debut album, Pretty Hate Machine (1989). The song wasn't dissimilar from the album's first single, "Down In It" (which was also the first song Reznor ever wrote). Both songs combined a drum-machine dance beat with raw vocals, layered sampling, and a generally dark mood. But "Head Like a Hole" was probably the more successful piece, more fully realizing Reznor's dark vision.
The song remains a fan favorite staple of NIN live sets today, decades after its first release. Some have even called it an anthem, the industrial-dance equivalent of Nirvana's groundbreaking grunge staple "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which emerged about the same time and plumbed similar themes of alienation and sexualized angst.
Thrasher magazine captured well Reznor's genius in describing Pretty Hate Machine as "the clammy warmth of psychosexual angst set against the detached cold of coarse rhythmic aggression. NIN is an entrancing juxtaposition of imagery and energy built on a foundation of intermingled repulsion and desire." (Source)
Songs like "Head Like a Hole" offer an intoxicating blend of attraction and repulsion, heat and cold, passion and detachment, agony and alienation. "Head Like a Hole" is, like "Teen Spirit," a song for the disillusioned. With its lyrical tirade against those greedy ones who lust after wealth as if it were "God Money," becoming sucked into its seductive wickedness, this song is told from a non-mainstream American point of view. This is a song that people who'd reject the dominant socio-economic ideologies of the age of Reagan. At the same time, it's also a song of more carnal and perhaps even deviant passions; suggestive lines like "nail me up against the wall" were carnal enough to help turn Trent Reznor into a sexual icon of the goth world in the '90s.
The binaries established in the lyrics are echoed in the way the music plays against itself. Trent Reznor himself insightfully described Pretty Hate Machine as an album "about juxtaposing human imperfections against very rigid, sterile, cold arrangements. You can't just have icy vocals over icy music. If the music is very precise, make a vocal tape that's less perfect, so you've got this meshing of man versus machine." (Source)
Clearly, we've got an artist who knows what he's doing here. How does "man versus machine" work in context of the meaning of the song, its attractiveness as an "anthem," with regard to the music itself?
You don't have to be a musicologist to make some observations about the music and the vocals. The music is, as Reznor said, very precise. With most instruments synthesized electronically, this is machine-cut precision, if you will, like a finely crafted watch. Then there's the looping of various samples, which also feels precise and mechanical. The vocals, however, are very much the opposite. Reznor said that they were imperfect, and as a result, he sounds very emotional and honest.
The opposition of cold music and hot vocals echoes the lyrical theme of opposition between righteous "us" versus the greedy "thems." The bloated, distorted, robotic, yet sexual grind of the music contributes to the sense of what God Money is all about, while Reznor's single-take vocals ring out as a lone voice in angry opposition. (This could almost be the soundtrack to Ridley Scott's famous "Big Brother" Apple TV commercial.)
Indeed, Reznor sings as if he were one of the bruised upon whose backs God Money and his hedonistic followers carelessly dance. And there's power in that; Reznor's anger and imperfection translates into a charged, energetic honesty that is, frankly, inspiring.