The first time I heard “Head Like A Hole”, I was blown away. I’d never heard anything like it before. The aggression in Trent Reznor’s voice was something I’d only maybe heard from Chuck D at that point. I knew nothing of metal at this point other than the “hair” variety, and even Axl Rose, as “dangerous” as he seemed at the time, seemed more likely to shoot you up with drugs and give you an STD. Trent Reznor sounded like he wanted to rip your head off (the fact that he still sounds that way after we both have aged thirty years isn’t as cute. There’s something about anger-male anger in particular-that does not age well.)
Even if I knew anything of metal (or industrial music) at the time of “Head Like A Hole”‘s popularity in the early ’90s, Nine Inch Nails was different from most of their acts because Trent’s songs had a pop sensibility. Well, in “Head Like A Hole”‘s case, it had a pop sensibility (clear verse structure, something of a melody, VERY recognizable chorus) and it was danceable. Sure, it was an outlier when it came to the dance music that was popular in the ’80s and early ’90s, but you could at least sorta trace a line from, say, Deee-lite or The KLF (and definitely Depeche Mode, who I was gaga for) to NIN. You could also trace a line from NIN to hip-hop, at least partially on account of Keith LeBlanc’s presence. LeBlanc, who co-produced Pretty Hate Machine, cut his teeth as a member of the Sugar Hill and Tommy Boy house bands in the early ’80s.
Pretty Hate Machine remains my favorite NIN album (and one of only two I can say I enjoy straight through), and “Head Like A Hole” is right up there alongside the significantly more ubiquitous “Closer” as my favorite song of theirs. Um, his.
If the words “bow down before the one you serve/you’re gonna get what you deserve” don’t speak to every disaffected teenager, you’re not really a disaffected teenager.