Even though I came of age at the height of MTV, I rarely miss music videos. When I did watch MTV with any sort of regularity, most videos never left a lasting impression on me. I can only think of a few that left a mark. However, there are the obvious ones that have become synonomous with the song itself: Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight”, Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”, Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin'”.
Then, there’s Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”. Almost 20 years after its release, it’s almost impossible to hear “Closer” without having the video replaying in your head. While the song is great by itself, the video transforms the dark and twisted lyrics into something entirely depraved. The lyrics may have been explicit, but they were nothing compared to the images of bondage, and religious iconography turned on its head displayed in the video. “Closer” pushed the envelope of what could be considered “good taste” and it was all the more powerful because of that. Whatever you may think of it (it’s still considered one of the most controversial videos ever made) there’s no denying that it has a staying power that most videos can only dream of. A few years ago, Trent Reznor commented on the video’s legacy by saying: “The rarest of things occurred: where the song sounded better to me, seeing it with the video. And it’s my song.”
I can still remember the first time I saw “Closer” on MTV. I had heard the song before on the radio and really liked its industrial stomp and infamous “fuck you like an animal line”. It came on late one night after my parents went to bed. I wasn’t really allowed to watch MTV at the time, so I already nervous I might be caught. What I saw instead was the most disturbing thing my 13 year old eyes had seen. I was not prepared for what my television was showing me. The images of a severed pig’s head, Trent Reznor wearing S&M gear and monkey tied to a cross were intriguing as they were disturbing. As scared as I was, I was also fascinated by the grainy images of a dark underworld I was being introduced to.
Years later, I would start to listen to the Velvet Underground who made an entire career out of the themes explored in “Closer”. Like “Closer”, The Velvet’ “Venus in Furs” pushes the boundaries and exposes a world and a lifestyle that most people do not enter into. Both songs conjure up the sound of that world, adding an eerie atmosphere to the lyrics. Reed demanded that you “taste the whip” and bleed for him. Pretty shocking stuff in 1967, when most bands were at the height of their peace and love philosophies. Even the Rolling Stones – rock’s most outrageous and sexually stimulated band – were singing about girls who were rainbows and only hinted at casual sex with “Let’s Spend the Night Together” that same year.
With “Closer’, Reznor upped the ante on “Venus in Furs” in sound and vision. The song’s most famous line – “I want fuck you like an animal” – is only shocking because of the word “fuck”. The actual act, not as much. Certainly not the same way that “Sister Ray” or “Venus in Furs” were. The most shocking moment of all in “Closer” is Reznor’s declaration that these acts will bring him “closer to God”. For Reznor (at least in this song), taking part in this lifestyle is perfection. Reed may have found sexual stimulation through pain in “Venus in Furs” but it was still on the fringe.
How “Closer” ever got to be a hit, I’ll never know. In a bizarre way though, it makes me slightly happy that something as twisted as this managed to slip through the cracks and become part of the mainstream.