By Trent Reznor’s estimation, “Head Like a Hole” was a “throwaway.” He had labored intensely on Nine Inch Nails’ debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, with all its complex, shadowy textures and abject confessions, revising each song until it was perfect. But he wrote “Head Like a Hole” in about 15 minutes in his bedroom, tacked it on as the album’s lead track, and released it as the album’s second single. Then it blew up.
“The fact that it produced this huge reaction really pissed me off because I hadn’t agonized over it,” Reznor told Kerrang! of the song in 2005. “[When I wrote it] I was still back in Cleveland, and I had a job working at a studio where I’d spend time at night learning how to record and engineer things, and I tried to work out how my voice sounded. I was playing everything myself, but I had no confidence in playing guitar. I was convinced that if any real players heard it, they’d laugh. Now I know that’s bullshit, but at the time I was very insecure.”
Pretty Hate Machine came out on October 20th, 1989, and it was the release of “Head Like a Hole” as a single in early 1990 that kickstarted the Industrial Revolution for the mainstream. Although Rolling Stone audaciously described the track as “disco-metal,” it resonated more because of how it felt than how it sounded. It was the Eighties’ last great shock-rock anthem — the line, “I’d rather die than give you control” is the worst nightmare of every dictator, politician, and parent — and its combination of change-rattling drum-machine patterns, soul-crushing guitar, and Reznor’s screams foreshadowed grunge, emo, nu-metal, and trap hip-hop all at once. Even though Reznor swore he was apolitical as an artist at the time of its release, the song turned out to be the perfect protest to Desert Storm rhetoric later that year, and three decades later, it’s still the ideal anthem of resistance in the Trump era. The song even took on a new positive meaning this year thanks to Miley Cryus’ hysterically enthusiastic interpretation of it for British sci-fi series Black Mirror.
Part of the song’s power is how each line reads like poetry. It opens with “God Money, I’ll do anything for you,” which is so gloriously ambiguous you want to dissect it — Is he talking to God? Is money itself God? Is he lampooning televangelist leeches? — but you also want to accept it without questioning it. On one of Reznor’s thousand-odd remixes of the song called the “Opal” remix, he sings the line “God of money,” which makes more sense (he has also often sung it that way live, including during the mud-caked Woodstock ’94 performance) but it’s also disappointing in the same way as hearing Johnny Rotten sing “Words of wisdom” before the iconic opening line of “Right now” on the Spunk demo of “Anarchy in the U.K.” Rotten once said he scrapped the phrase because it would have “sounded like anarchy came with an instruction manual,” and here, “God Money” does not need definition.
Then there is the song’s scathing three-movement chorus: “No, you can’t take that away from me,” which goes into “Head like a hole, black as your soul/I’d rather die than give you control,” a refrain that Reznor somehow topped with “Bow down before the one you serve/You’re going to get what you deserve.” The lyrics suggest the sort of morality play that members of the shock-rock pantheon Alice Cooper and Dee Snider blueprinted years earlier — yet it’s scarier than “I’m Eighteen” or “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” since Reznor really sounds like he means it. The music is full of gut-rattling rhythms and a distorted sample of Kenyan warriors chanting, and Reznor plays the guitar with fury, sort of the inverse of his six-string hero Robert Smith. At the end of the “Opal” cut of the song, he closes it by menacingly singing, “You know who you are.”
In 2011, NPR’s Terry Gross asked Reznor what he meant by writing the “You’re going to get what you deserve” line, a question that uncharacteristically threw the artist for a loop. “I don’t regularly spend a lot of time thinking about the darkest period in my life because when I do it tends to throw my day off a little bit here,” he told her. “So what was I thinking in 1989 when I wrote that song? I can’t tell you off the top of my head.”
Although Reznor never ran away from the song — it’s still a floor-rattling staple at Nine Inch Nails concerts — by that point he had run far away from that period in his life. Pretty Hate Machine was essentially his diary, which he thought he was publishing as a stapled zine to be seen by just a few people, only for it to become a bestseller. The rest of the album is shockingly demure compared to “Head Like a Hole,” as he parses the devolution of a relationship with the woman who taught him how to kiss [dramatic pause] her, over Depeche Mode–style synthesizer lines — on “That’s What I Get” — and, on “Down In It,” with corny rap verses.
“[Pretty Hate Machine] turned into being a very introspective, small-scale, personal type of record,” Reznor said in 1990. “And I just wrote about what was bothering me and what was in my head. The ‘I’ in the songs is me.”
On “Kinda I Want To,” one of the few songs on the album with prominent guitar, thanks to a very Brian May–like riff, he sings about how there’s a devil sleeping in his bed. On “The Only Time,” the devil wants to fuck him in the back of his car. On album closer “Ringfinger,” he sighs, “If I was twice the man I could be/I’d still be half of what you need.” He also sings “about a cocaine pipe,” as he told Spin, on the funky, U2-like “Sanctified,” and if you didn’t know that, you’d probably think it was about a woman, so maybe he was just a mess of a man all around at the time. By the time he wrote “Head Like a Hole,” he was exasperated by everything he had gone through, and the song was a primal expression of rage. As a whole the album is dark, glorious and New Wave–y; it’s both emo wound-licking and the portrait of a man hopelessly searching for his self-confidence.
“It’s a personal thing,” Reznor told Spin of his inspirations at the time. “I see a lot of people overanalyzing, asking me if I’ve had a really tormented sex life, personal life … I haven’t, not incredibly. I guess I’ve not always been the happiest person. The last few years have been a little darker than the rest. … Not that I’m Mr. Gloom or that I never smile. There’s just a side of me that’s come out recently, or that I’ve accepted, that was the main inspiration for these songs. It’s what I’ve found I could express the best.”
After the album became a hit, it wasn’t his ex-lover but his record label, TVT, challenging his dignity, when they demanded a prompt follow-up to the surprise hit record. A power struggle ensued, and Reznor, who would prefer death to losing control, aligned himself with Interscope Records and took out his frustration on his guitar, issuing the Broken EP and Downward Spiral albums at the peak of aggressive-rock-as-pop, solidifying his superstar status. He discovered Marilyn Manson, struggled with drugs and, with some encouragement from David Bowie, kicked his habits and became a new man in the 2000s.
So by the time Gross was needling him about the period surrounding “Head Like a Hole,” he felt as though he’d been reborn. He was no longer the scrawny kid from Cleveland with the unfortunate haircut. He had beefed up his biceps and started a family — and later that year he became an Oscar winner for his work on The Social Network soundtrack.
With time, the song became something else, too. What was once a loner anthem, two middle fingers pointed at the world, was now a sing-along. So many grimly clad music fans have related to its message of alienation that it has somehow become a black flag waving for unity. One of Reznor’s idols, Gary Numan, has even called the song perfect.
Reznor has been touched by the way the song has resonated with people. “The best compliment I’ve gotten was, ‘I heard “Head Like a Hole” and man, I really know what you’re talking about,’” he once said. “Even if it’s the wrong thing, I mean, many people tell me asinine things — ‘You’re talking about taking acid, man.’ I’m not gonna say, ‘No, that is not what I was thinking.’ If I’m really bummed out, I’ll put something on that’s possibly sadder than I am, which makes me feel better because at least I’m not as far out as that. I’m not the only one that feels shitty, upset.”
“Head Like a Hole” was on a list of songs that the radio company Clear Channel banned after 9/11 for being too dark, but that couldn’t stop its trajectory. Over the years, a strange and wide array of artists have covered the song, including AFI, Dee Snider, and Reznor’s industrial peer Pig. When he covered it, Josh Todd, the singer of the “I love the cocaine” band Buckcherry, has said he feels it sounds like a Buckcherry song. And Reznor singled out Devo’s take on it as one of the worst covers. “Imagine my thrill when they were covering ‘Head Like a Hole,’” he told Rolling Stone. “That thrill lasted right up to hearing the second bar! But they’re still awesome.” It was even interpreted as a lullaby for the Rockabye Baby series.
But nobody could have predicted the song’s most recent iteration. On an episode of the anthology series Black Mirror, Miley Cyrus played the pop star Ashley O, whose biggest hit was “On a Roll,” a hilariously upbeat redux of “Head Like a Hole.” “I’m on a roll,” she sings over sleek pop production. “Riding so high/Achieving my goals.” Instead of “Bow down before the one you serve,” Cyrus sings, “I’m stoked on ambition and verve.” It’s such a magnificently perverse interpretation of the song that even Reznor approved of it, tweeting out “Feels like I’ve been here before” and even offering NIN–Ashley O crossover merch for sale.
But even with an upbeat spin, the song fits right in with the cultural landscape 30 years after it was written. Reznor has since become more political; his recent trilogy of EPs was a reaction to what he sees as the degradation of society. And he has returned to playing gnarled guitar, which he had rejected in the past as an act of nostalgia. “We preach positive hate,” Reznor said in 1990. “Hate your neighbor, but it get it out of your system at our show and listen to our record loud. Hate life, but it get it out of your system, and I think that’s why I did it in the first place.” The one constant over the years has been “Head Like a Hole,” which still sounds as vital as ever. It’s a cry for resistance, a modern folk song that remains as important now as it was when it came out. Bow down.