Last year in the middle of lockdown – depressed, alone, and bored – I fell headfirst into a deep Nine Inch Nails rabbit hole. I consumed as much NIN content as possible – interviews, bootlegs, concerts, remixes, and music videos. Their videos are unapologetic and fearless. They push boundaries, challenging viewers with images that range from quiet and thought-provoking to disgusting and violent. You never know what you’re going to get from a Nine Inch Nails video, but it’s guaranteed to be unlike anything you’ve seen before. Unlike other artists I’ve covered in this series, Nine Inch Nails’ videography is really solid. It’s hard to pinpoint a particular video that’s outright bad. Still, there are certain clips I like more than others. So, let’s kick things off by counting down early Nine Inch Nails videos from best to worst.
It’s not a surprise that this is the best Nine Inch Nails video and my favorite video of theirs. Hell, it’s one of the greatest music videos of all time. It’s a timeless clip that’s weird, creepy, sexy, and mysterious.
Directed by Mark Romanek, it’s now so iconic it’s hard to hear the song without picturing the video. Set in what appears to be a 19th-century mad scientist lab, the video features Reznor performing the song along with unnerving images of religion, nudity, and sexuality. At first glance, it seems like a montage of strange images for the sake of shock. But the images are actually inspired by the works of Joel-Peter Witkin, Man Ray, and the Brothers Quay’s animated short film, Street of Crocodiles.
Images of Reznor spinning in the air, the monkey on the cross, and the out-of-body beating heart are so surreal they’re forever burned into your memory. The video is grotesque, yet alluring, much like the song itself. It’s unique not only for its shocking images but for its overall aesthetic. Romanek went through painstaking detail to make the video look like an old film reel. This look also played a huge role in the censored version, which replaced “obscene” images with “Scene Missing” stills. It’s a beautiful, yet disturbing video that showed Reznor to be uncompromising in his artistic vision. He didn’t care about MTV airplay. He did what he felt was right for the song and the decision paid off.
“Closer” is the epitome of the type of art I appreciate the most; the type that leaves an impression on me. It’s so bizarre and unnerving it gets under the skin. Part of why I like it is because it freaked me out when I first saw it. It was disturbing, yet I couldn’t stop watching. Unlike most music videos it gave me a visceral reaction. A feeling of uneasiness that’s hard to shake. It’s a feeling I still get 27 years later. That’s impressive.
“Happiness In Slavery” (1992)
This is Nine Inch Nails’ most extreme video. It’s gross and uncomfortable, yet it’s hard to look away. Inspired by the book The Torture Garden, the black and white clip stars performance artist Bob Flanagan sacrificing himself to this machine. What starts out as unimaginable pleasure quickly turns into unbelievable pain as the machine begins mutilating him, spilling his guts, castrating him, and ripping apart his body. When the ritual is finished, the guts are used to fertilize a garden below. It ends with Reznor entering the room ready to start his own sacrifice.
The video pulls no punches. It doesn’t give you any breaks. Nothing is suggested. There are no cutaways, no censoring, no careful placement to shield you from what’s happening. You see it all whether you want to or not. Even as an avid horror movie fan, this video makes me squirm. I love it for how daring, unique, and unapologetic it is. At the same time, I hate it for how disgusting it is. As expected, the video was universally banned upon release but was included in the infamous Broken movie, which is next level fucked up. This is another video that helped cement Reznor’s representation as an uncompromising artist and someone willing to push boundaries for his art.
“March of the Pigs” (1994)
Directed by Peter Christopherson, this video shows off Nine Inch Nails’ raw live energy. It’s just the band playing the song in front of a white backdrop, but what makes it memorable is their intense performance. Reznor stumbles around, tosses the microphone, and moshes as if possessed. He’s a spectacle who’s impossible to look away from. It captures the insanity, destruction, and ridiculous nature of their early live shows. What adds to the performance is how pissed off they seem. They played the song about a dozen times and picked the best take. At this point, they seem tired and frustrated, which makes the performance more chaotic. It’s a simple concept that’s beautifully executed. Originally, the band planned a different version that was later scrapped. Partially shot before it was abandoned, this version features them performing in a red cave-like setting while a pig-humanoid creature runs around. Judging from the snippets that have been released, we got the better video of the two.
This Peter Christopherson-directed video is Nine Inch Nails meets Mad Max. Set in a dark, grimy arena, the band performs in a cage while an unruly mob surrounds them desperate to get inside. As the band plays, the crowd gets more violent and eventually captures the band members one by one. It ends with Reznor meeting a similar fate as the rowdy crowd finally breaks into the cage. Though there’s no bloodshed, MTV felt the ending was too violent and wound up altering the footage.
It’s a classic Nine Inch Nails video that highlights the chaos, aggression, and violence of the song. It’s also an eerie foreshadowing of Reznor’s fame. As Nine Inch Nails continued to rise, everyone wanted a piece of him, literally and figuratively. Think back to live performances where he gets close to the crowd and people pull at him, rub his hair, grab him – anything to get near him, something he wasn’t prepared for. Of course, this isn’t what the video is about, but in retrospect, it’s easy to make those connections with Reznor’s rise to fame.
“Pinon” isn’t gory, obscene, or bloody, yet it’s still a disturbing video. It opens in a bathroom where we see dark matter, perhaps blood, flushed down a toilet. The camera snakes around a maze of pipes leaving us in anticipation, wondering where they lead. Turns out they lead straight into the mouth of someone strapped down in a full-body gimp suit. Like most Nine Inch Nails videos, this one was considered too much for MTV, but parts of it would be used for the opening sequence of Alternative Nation.
The way the body shudders as the dirty liquid gushes into their mouth is so eerie. It could be seen as extreme pleasure, but I’ve always seen it as someone being tortured. It’s a short clip that shows a vicious cycle with seemingly no end. Little did we know, this was merely a taste of the disturbing clips Reznor had in mind for Broken.
“Head Like a Hole” (1990)
With frequent MTV airplay, “Head Like a Hole” helped introduce Nine Inch Nails to a wider audience. Directed by Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes, the video is a collage of weird, yet intriguing images, which is part of its allure. We’re bombarded with footage of spinning mechanical heads, Reznor doing some sort of ritual, black and white clips of people spinning baseball bats, and the band performing at Chicago’s Exit nightclub. The most memorable image is Reznor being hoisted up by cords at his feet and hanging from the ceiling. The extended version featuring the Copper remix is primarily the same but incorporates more performance footage.
There’s something about the video that makes it hard to look away even though you don’t know what the fuck you’re looking at. Rather than tell a story, it’s a barrage of images that match the chaos and fury of the song. There’s this throw everything at the wall and see what sticks mentality to it. Because of that, it stood out from other videos at the time. It didn’t look or feel like anything on MTV. It wasn’t polished, it didn’t feature models, and you could barely make out the band members. It was gritty, chaotic, and loud just like Nine Inch Nails themselves. While this isn’t their best video, it’s a classic that I never get tired of watching. And one that established the sound and look of the band.
Directed by Hank Corwin and Reznor, “Burn” portrays the American dream juxtaposed with its harsh reality. We see images representing the ideal life of love, peace, and happiness alongside images of death, destruction, abuse, and violence. A mixture of stock footage, Reznor performing in front of a projector, and clips from Natural Born Killers, it mimics the style of the movie. The video is hectic and intense, like the song itself. It also has a lot of disturbing implications. None of the footage is explicit or gory but implied situations of sexual abuse, child abuse, and murder give it an unsettling vibe. While it’s not my favorite video, I appreciate it for the way it represents the themes of the song and movie. It’s an inner portrait of someone fucked over by society who is ready to take the matter into their own hands.
“Help Me I’m In Hell” (1992)
Whereas Nine Inch Nails’ first videos were a barrage of flashing images and effects you could barely make out, the Broken videos go between subtle and extreme instances of horror. This video represents the quiet terror the band excels at. It shows a man eating dinner oblivious to the flies that engulf him and the same man dressed up in BDSM gear. It appears the scenes where the man is eating, looking strait-laced and “normal,” is hell while the images of him in the S&M gear is the freedom he longs for. Though it isn’t explicit, the way the twitching flies cover his body and how he eats them is unnerving. It matches the unsettling mood of the song that feels like a soundtrack for impending doom. In some ways, that’s exactly what it is.
“Gave Up” (1992)
There are two versions of “Gave Up” that are wildly different from each other. One is the conclusion to the Broken movie directed by Peter Christopherson and there is absolutely nothing pleasant about it. It’s stomach-churning and uncomfortable. It’s still hard for me to sit through. We see the killer from the wrap-around segments hacking his victim to pieces, reveling in the blood, and fucking the corpse. Nearby cops find his hideout and are disgusted by the severed heads and bodies in the freezer. The act itself is disturbing, but what makes it worse is the lack of cutaways. There is no implied violence. You’re forced to watch every dirty, gruesome act, blood and all. Even Reznor looks horrified during the few moments we see him on a nearby TV. And with how it’s shot, it blurs the lines between fiction and reality. Meant to look like a snuff film, the footage is grainy, choppy, and low quality. Though we know it’s fake, it’s the found footage feel that makes you question whether what’s happening on screen is real. It never gets easier to watch no matter how many times you see it. Definitely not for the faint of heart.
The second version (and the one I like better) is a performance video directed by Jon Reiss shot at the Sharon Tate house, where Reznor was living at the time. It’s a straightforward performance clip, but Reznor’s delivery is what makes it. He’s so intense it looks like he’s about to explode, while everyone else around him looks kind of bored. He seethes and shakes with anger until he can’t take it and bats away the mic stand, a foreshadowing of his Self Destruct Tour antics. The video is also notable for a cameo appearance from a young, virtually unknown Marilyn Manson pretending to play guitar. It’s not the best Nine Inch Nails video, but if you can’t take the guts and gore of the Broken version, it’s best to watch this one.
“Down In It” (1989)
Nine Inch Nails’ video debut is a visual assault. Also directed by Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes, the video features Reznor running through Chicago’s warehouse district looking to escape two guys on his tail. When they finally catch up to him it’s too late. The video ends with them hovering over Reznor’s lifeless body after he’s jumped from the building. There’s also a long version with extended footage featuring the “Shred” mix. It’s not their most impressive video but considering when it came out it’s easy to see why it was so popular. The frantic jump cuts, weird visual effects, and strobe lighting made it stand out from other videos at the time. Zimmerman and Stokes’ videos capture the gritty, DIY nature of Pretty Hate Machine, a vibe that’s missing from later Nine Inch Nails videos. Oddly enough, what happened after the video is more memorable than the clip itself.
To get the overhead shots, the crew attached Super 8 cameras to weather balloons. One of the balloons escaped and ended up in a field in Michigan. A farmer found it, saw the footage of Reznor playing dead, and turned the tape over to the Chicago Police. They then turned it over to the FBI who were convinced a cold-blooded murder had been committed. Eventually, it was discovered that Reznor was very much alive and we were rewarded with one of the strangest segments of Hard Copy. Seriously, it’s worth a watch, especially if you want to see Reznor rocking a septum piercing.
The image of Reznor blindfolded and cuffed in “Closer” shook the masses, but that’s tame compared to the “Sin” video. The highly NSFW Brett Turnbull-directed clip highlights sexual situations considered too taboo for mainstream audiences: two gay lovers who like to get rough, two women dancing suggestively with one another, and close-ups of pierced genitalia. We also see Reznor strapped to a rotary harness spun by a dominatrix for the rest of the video. Because of its explicit nature, it was banned from MTV and was never officially released. It was later partially released on Closure, while the full version would eventually be uploaded to TVT’s website.
It’s one of Nine Inch Nails’ stranger videos. It fits the dark sexual themes of the song, but when you first watch it, it feels like something a fan put together using footage from softcore porn movies until you see Reznor on the wheel. It’s far from their best video, but it does show how Reznor sticks with his vision. He knew the video would be banned, which he referenced in an early interview, yet he went for it anyway. He refused to back down and censor the video or make an alternative version just to get airplay. While I don’t think it’s bad, I don’t like it as much as their other videos. It’s okay even though some of the scenes can be uncomfortable. After seeing it a few times, there’s very little about it that makes me want to watch it again.