Friday, April 12, 2013


Nine Inch Nails' Closer is one of the most famously under-appreciated songs i've ever heard, while oddly at the same time one of the band's most successful. It's tempting to liken it to the many examples of musicians metaphorically using sex, religion or anything from a white rabbit to a brand new ding-a-ling to push their own agendas on a completely unrelated topic, but at its most basic, Closer really can be taken at face value. Reznor really was talking about sex. It's one of those delightfully controversial works of art which tend to polarize the audience so quickly and forcefully that little is left at the true center of the analysis. Respectable, educated listeners instantly dismiss the song as frivolous mass-appeal as soon as the first chorus pounds its way across the backalley of their consciousness while the concert-going masses never heard anything but the chorus.

Though i make a habit of pointing out the hidden depths of this song anytime it comes up, this particular post was prompted by a webcomic. I won't talk about Leftover Soup at the moment but the author's comment below that page of the comic reminded me that even those of us who plumb hidden depths vertically can land far from each other horizontally. I won't quote his entire post but the relevant bits are:

"There is a tendency to assume that any song with a lyric like "I wanna fuck you like an animal" must be a cheeky, naughty, hedonistic tune about the animalistic joy of boning.
But the song isn't called "Fuck You Like An Animal". The song is called "Closer".
"Closer" is a song about addiction. It's a song about depression. It's a song about obsession and desperation and resignation and darkness. It's a song about a profoundly unhealthy and unhappy person seeking a temporary oblivion in carnal excess.
It's not a beautiful song, by any stretch of the imagination. It's not a happy song, it's not a love song, and it's certainly not a sex-positive song.
But it's a song that expresses something true, and, as such, I think it's an important song."
First off, i would disagree that it is not a beautiful song. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" and while the behavior portrayed by the song is not necessarily beautiful, the multifaceted understanding displayed in the songwriting is artistic expression at its finest. The human world is ugly. In this new millennium of antidepressants and 'it's just an opinion' we have lost too much of our ability to recognize this truth and appreciate a portrayal of our individual clash with that ugliness as artistic beauty.
I cannot dispute the claim that Closer deals with depression, obsession, desperation, self-destruction. The entire album on which the song is found, The Downward Spiral, was a thorough exploration of self-hatred and hopelessness beautifully arranged from the tone-setting Mr. Self-Destruct to my own favorite song of all time Eraser and the moment of letting go in Hurt. However, Closer still deals with a specific facet of self-destructive behavior not only as a part of the individual's greater downward spiral but as a loss of self in itself.

To be a human male is to be a slave. I don't mean this simply in the general sense that we are all slaves to our emotions or instincts. Females' behavior is certainly by and large governed by nothing more than mechanistic tripping of various instinctive triggers in their own brand of primitive competition for social standing and reproductive success. I also don't mean that males strictly can never say no, that we are absolutely incapable of placing any interest prior to immediate sexual gratification. The pattern need not be absolute in order to define our interactions, especially when reinforced by millennia of societies based on the family unit.
We do have a weakness for women. This was a very useful evolutionary adaptation, our innate desperation to protect and provide for our mates. It kept lots of cave-babies safe and fed. No matter how much Lifetime pushes the image of men as wife-beaters and rapists, it never comes to that with most of us. We never use our superior muscle mass against our mates because evolution has endowed them with a host of behavioral defenses to stop us in our tracks. Overall, we are less aggressive toward women than toward each other. We let them get away with murder. We give them special treatment in return for a nod and a wink. We panic if they start to cry where we would only be disgusted with each other for the same behavior. Worst of all, we assume the utter unassailable moral high ground of women because a few hundred generations of history reinterpreted through our modern feminist prism have cemented the instinctive dynamic of men as the hired muscle of women, dumb violent brutes who are by definition always wrong, whose only moral action is allowing themselves to be tamed and civilized by women.

The difference between the webcartoonist's approach to the song and my own seems tied to the verses we zeroed in on. My interpretation has always centered on the very first words:
"You let me violate you
You let me desecrate you"
You let me. You condescended. You threw me a bone. You sacrificed yourself. You dirtied your pristine, divine female flesh with my disgusting male animal presence. Female is inherently superior to male and the only meaning males can have in their lives is the desperate search for female approval.

Males' instinctive tendency to be cowed by their mates' presence, their willingness to be nagged and shamed and teased and guilted into anything for the promise of sex is exactly what it sounds like: leverage. Yes, Closer is a song about self-destructive behavior but it is not only the desperation for sex that's destructive, but the subservient nature of a sexual relationship, the disparity in instinctive attachment to one another. Other songs on the album like Piggy or Ruiner hit on instinct itself and its internal effect on the individual. Closer and Reptile are valuable for their attack on the glorification of sexual relationships, of the sick control which defines our sex-withholding paradigm of mating rituals.

"Help me get away from myself" - "Help me become somebody else" - a loss of self, the subversion of a male's individual persona in the instinctive scrabble for a mate is not just an expression of addiction but of the sickeningly pervasive, glorified, unquestioned societal hold of that addiction over the male mind.

"You get me closer to god" - "You make me perfect" - the assumption of the innate superiority of that which holds leverage over you, of that which is endowed with the goal of your wants is a reductio ad absurdum of the absurd pedestal on which modern society places the female viewpoint, at once victim and authority, self-defined angelic.

"You can have my everything" - the glorification of the sexual act, the assumption that sex is worth anything and everything else, that the only way for a male to secure reproductive rights is to surrender his material possessions from paying for dinner to alimony payments to working dead-end jobs to be a good provider is a throwback to everything our culture shoves down our throats. It is almost a verbatim regurgitation of the recurring lyric in every bestselling romantic song, the assumption that a male must be utterly, self-effacingly, suicidally devoted to his mate.

"You can have my absence of faith" - "You tear down my reason" - brainwash me, please. Erase me. Destroy me to feed your own instinctive need for control.

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