Last week, Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor was in the news for some rather unexpected pop crossover action.
In the much-anticipated Miley Cyrus-starring episode of Black Mirror, her pop star alter-ego Ashley O sings a hit song called “On a Roll” that just so happens to be a reworked, pop-fortified take on NIN’s 1989 breakthrough single “Head Like a Hole.” Like the surreal recent backstage photo of a grinning Taylor Swift alongside gloom merchant Marilyn Manson, the Black Mirror collaboration is a fascinating collision between ’90s industrial and ’10s pop gloss.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Reznor has been having many of these mainstream pop moments as of late. First and foremost is his first appearance on a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1, courtesy of a somewhat accidental cameo on “Old Town Road”: Then-teenage rapper Lil Nas X bought a beat from producer YoungKio — without realizing it sampled elements from Nine Inch Nails’ atmospheric 2008 cut “34 Ghosts IV” — and after the song blew up, Reznor and co-writer Atticus Ross received songwriting credits. (Incidentally, Lil Nas X wasn’t the first rapper to mine Ghosts I-IV for source material: The late XXXTENTACION sampled “13 Ghosts II” on his 2016 song “Snow.”)
A few weeks ago, boy band 5 Seconds of Summer released a moody electro-pop single, “Easier,” with sinewy beats they told Rolling Stone were specifically “derivative of the driving drum groove” on NIN’s 1994 hit “Closer.” During her Las Vegas residency in late December, Lady Gaga did a faithful, snarling rendition of “I’m Afraid of Americans,” a 1997 David Bowie song Reznor remixed for its single version, also appearing in its video. And while performing in Reznor’s one-time home base of Cleveland back in March, Mumford & Sons did a bang-up job on a cover of NIN’s eternal power ballad “Hurt.”
It might be tempting to consider Reznor’s pop omnipresence a fleeting phenomenon — simply a fluke of timing (the Mumford cover came a day after the 25th anniversary of The Downward Spiral) or circumstances (YoungKio randomly coming across the NIN song via YouTube). After all, Nine Inch Nails — a band that’s built a career on flouting conventional music and attitudes, and hasn’t had a top 40 hit since 2005’s “The Hand That Feeds” — isn’t exactly the most obvious mainstream inspiration, especially since its aggressive metallic sheen wasn’t for everyone, even at their commercial peak. However, very quietly, the band’s influence has been seeping into pop music for much of the last few years.
When Billie Eilish released “Bury a Friend” back in January, the parallels between her song — its slamming-brakes production effects, ominous electronic beats, and gothic vibe — and Reznor’s work were obvious. (The video’s macabre, horror movie imagery was also redolent of NIN’s innovative ’90s videos.) Grimes’ jagged 2018 single “We Appreciate Power” is heavily indebted to ’90s industrial rock, while Sky Ferreira’s funereal “Downhill Lullaby” and its spidery orchestral flourishes and resemble Reznor’s soundtrack work. Even Halsey’s awesomely confrontational new single “Nightmare” owes at least a slight nod to the crushing dynamics employed by Reznor and NIN.
The ’90s have already been a prominent influence on rock and hip-hop for a few years; Lil Uzi Vert is a massive Marilyn Manson fan, while the late Lil Peep drew frequent comparisons to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. In fact, the default emotional mode of SoundCloud rap is the kind of ’90s angst that used to dominate alternative radio during NIN’s heyday. Perhaps Reznor’s pop moment is simply the genre finally catching up to the current cycle of sonic nostalgia: After all, the chipper empowerment pop that dominated the charts for several years has slowly retreated, replaced by music with darker vibes and weightier themes.
From this perspective, Nine Inch Nails is the perfect touchstone for this movement. The band’s stormy aesthetic embodies the bubbling anger of social rebellion, something percolating ever louder amidst a contentious global political climate. Nine Inch Nails’ anguished music also mirrors the generalized anxiety permeating modern society and, by extension, the Top 40. In fact, Reznor’s older music feels very resonant today: The landmark 1994 effort The Downward Spiral reflected post-grunge angst and frustration, but also explored topics such as depression, anxiety and self-loathing with uncompromising honesty, while the dystopian vibe of 2007’s government-condemning Year Zero hits very close to home in 2019.
Of course, Reznor’s music and personality have evolved far beyond lonely nihilism. His movie score collaborations with Atticus Ross have elevated his profile; in fact, he’s won an Academy Award and Grammy Award for his soundtrack work, and he continues to juggle Hollywood projects and Nine Inch Nails. Sometimes these two worlds even collide: Earlier this year, Nine Inch Nails and Marvel released a joint commemorative shirt, after Brie Larson rocked NIN shirts in Captain Marvel. (Appropriately, the band is also doing a Black Mirror collaborative tee to recognize the recent crossover.)
In an odd twist, Nine Inch Nails’ back catalog itself also feels less like pop repellent these days. Reznor’s love of new wave and synth-pop comes through far more prominently on 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine in hindsight, while a recent mashup of various NIN songs with Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” works shockingly well. From a studio standpoint, the ways Reznor and collaborators embrace cutting-edge technology and song construction also feel contemporary; “Closer,” for example, uses a distorted sample from Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing,” and “Ringfinger” nicks a bit from Prince’s “Alphabet St.” Today, Nine Inch Nails’ ever-present quest for digital innovation and love of sound sculpting are very much aligned with how modern pop and hip-hop music is constructed.
The latter speaks to one reason why the Black Mirror reworkings by Cyrus work so well, with the song “On a Roll” hilariously playing off “Head Like a Hole”: “I’m stoked on ambition and verve/I’m going to get what I deserve.” (Of course, the original “Head Like a Hole” chorus lyric, “I’d rather die than give you control,” also dovetails neatly with both the episode and certain strains of modern pop, too.) Reznor himself saw the twisted humor in the Black Mirror tweaks, and both green-lit and appreciated the re-dos. “I think the most exciting part was when the music tracks came back,” he told GQ. “You can’t listen to it without a smile. I put it on in the car with my wife, and she was like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ It’s just so well done in that style.”
Oddly enough, that Reznor has a sense of humor about having his songs becoming fodder for a fictionalized pop star also informs Nine Inch Nails’ pop moment. Thirty-plus years into his career, Reznor is the quintessential example of a musician who found success by maintaining his integrity and carving out his own individual path. This is what every aspiring musician wants for their own creative life, and so it makes sense his repertoire would be an object of study and fascination.
But in addition to being aspirational and iconoclastic, Reznor is also relatable, as he’s always remained a music fan who turned his passion into a career. Back in March, when he inducted the Cure into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he did so with a widely shared, surprisingly sentimental speech. As Rezor talked about being a small-town kid who found comfort and belonging in music, specifically when he heard the Cure’s album The Head on the Door, his backstory didn’t feel that far removed from any young modern pop fan finding solace while listening to Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, or even Ashley O.