The sound of "Head Like a Hole" is quite characteristic of NIN's general approach to music-making. Though production values and technology have changed, Trent Reznor today remains in a sonic zone close to what he began doing decades ago.
He relies on the combination of seemingly irreconcilable elements: pop format and sonic experimentation. "Head Like a Hole" has a mostly traditional structure, with only the presence of a double-chorus deviating in any way from normal patterns of pop music construction. The double-chorus is exactly what it sounds like, a chorus of two distinct progressions. The first begins with the line "Head like a hole," and the second begins with "Bow down before the one you serve." The song begins with—what else—an intro, an follows the verse-chorus format, repeats itself, proceeds to the bridge, and then repeats the chorus until the song ends.
Reznor demonstrates pop sensibilities on a smaller scale, too. His melodies are traditional in the way that they bounce between lower and higher notes. You might not notice all this conventional stuff, though, since the content of the lyrics tends to be attention-grabbingly different. At the same time, Reznor has always been an experimental musician who embraces computers and technology in his music. Written, sung, played, arranged, and programmed entirely by Reznor, NIN is effectively a one-man band. Reznor requires the aid of technology for rhythm parts, and the sampling and looping that characterizes the album's sound.
He has said that Pretty Hate Machine "was recorded on a old-school Mac, which was about fifteen hundred bucks then, a sequencer program and one sampler that you could buy in the paper for three hundred bucks right now" (source).
Sampling, which is the musical practice of taking the actual audio of something else and using it in your music (like M.I.A. does in "Paper Planes," for example, basing the song off of the Clash's "Straight to Hell") is a huge part of NIN's sound. "Head Like a Hole," for example, begins and ends with samples of tribal African music. Of this Reznor said, "I get tired of listening to 600 African albums to find cool samples. That gets a bit dull." (Source)
Where these particular African ladies singing come from is thus hard to say. Unlike artists like M.I.A. and Kanye West, who sample in part for the novelty of the artist that they're sampling, Reznor has said that he is "more interested in the textures than the novelty of who or what I've appropriated" (source). Reznor has moved away from sampling of human voices in his more recent work, becoming more interested in distorted guitar samples and computerized sounds.
The bridge of "Head Like a Hole" contains some early examples of these kinds of sounds. He said of this, "I'll do a few twenty- or twenty-five-minute sessions of me just playing guitar. Then I'll listen back to it say, 'Around ten minutes in I did something cool.' I'll cut maybe twenty parts out that way and put each one in the right place. It's not so much avoiding having to play the whole song as it is a tool to flesh out an arrangement." (Source)
In the case of "Head Like a Hole," he loops these cool-sounding guitar bits for an entirely different effect. The result of the use of technology in the recording of the song is that the musical side is very icy and precise canvas over which Reznor lays his intentionally imperfect vocals. The complete package then has a certain "man versus machine" quality, as Reznor himself has called it. Left to his own devices, Reznor's use of technology and his inherent pop sensibilities have created a sound that many have attempted to copy but none have quite mastered.
The NIN sound remains, quite distinctly, the NIN sound.
Thematically, the lyrics of "Head Like a Hole" blend the idolatry of money with sexual submission. The false idol, "God Money," is an evil figure, if not a Satanic one. With some of the imagery of the song, you might even go so far as to say that God Money is the Antichrist.
In Reznor's lyrics, the obsession with money, then, becomes physically manifested as a submission to rape and the sacrificing of the soul. Now, admittedly, most of us wouldn't necessarily equate the pursuit of money with S&M and Satanism; that's why there is in the song a sense of struggle against a relationship with a "God" that has gone much too far.
Let's tackle the S&M business first. Reznor sets a sexual tone in the song's first verse, singing "God Money, I'll do anything for you," which becomes sexually charged with the subsequent line "nail me up against the wall." As the speaker begins to resist the demands of God Money, the song deviates from this sexual focus to become more vaguely focused on all forms of control.
Given the first verse, however, the second chorus' lines, "Bow down before the one you serve / You're going to get what you deserve"—which seem to be spoken by a different character (or characters)—definitely imply some sort of sexual mayhem. Since "God Money" has already established a pseudo-religious frame for the song, the lines between sex, the soul, and religion become blurred in a very provocative, if not inflammatory, way.
Religion is a much more obvious theme here than S&M is. The submissiveness of the first verse—"I'll do anything for you," "just tell me what you want me to," and "nail me up against the wall"—evoke religion perhaps just as much as sex; the fact that Reznor doesn't draw any sharp line between where one ends and the other begins is the origin of much of NIN's controversial presence in American pop culture.
It could, in controversial terms, be argued that Reznor is implying that the worship of a God—especially a pleasurable, hedonistic one like Money—is slavery, and equivalent to the slavery of sexual role-playing. That is, your religious master isn't too different from your sexual master.
Needless to say, lots of folks find that kind of thinking deeply offensive to their spiritual worldview. In "Head Like a Hole," God Money is much more than the mere suggestion of the false god Mammon that appears in Matthew 6; here the worship of God Money hedges into outright Satanism. Reznor expresses this in the chorus with the obvious connection between darkness and evil in "Head like a hole / Black as your soul."
The verses tell a more interesting story, with God Money's actions seemingly directly opposed to the actions of the more familiar religious figure of Jesus. You might even call God Money the Antichrist. Where Jesus was the victim of crucifixion, God Money becomes the crucifier in "God Money, nail me up against the wall." Where Jesus was universally referred to as a healer (in all the religious texts in which he appears), God Money is simply "not concerned about the sick among the pure." And where the meek would have inherited the earth, God Money "dancing on the backs of the bruised" presents an opposite image: the meek becoming the earth, trampled on by the evil.
Of course, the name of God Money links this imaginary false idol to our own mass-consumer, capitalist tendencies. As the song closes, with Reznor screaming, "You know who you are," it becomes clear that Reznor might just be aiming his bile at…us.
"Head Like a Hole" attempts to shame our greed by tying it to sexual humiliation and spiritual damnation. Those metaphors are nothing new; when you feel you've been ripped off you might say you "got screwed." Although you're not likely to spend too much time thinking about the ramifications of that metaphor. What makes "Head Like a Hole" so uncomfortable is the stark way that Reznor demands that we really think about exactly that means.