The Downward Spiral (Album)

The following is a (lengthy) interpretation of the album The Downward Spiral. I like how the authors make all the pieces fit together- this is a true effort at interpreting Trent's meanings in this album:

A dissertation on The Downward Spiral.
Written by James Salvatore & Brian Cancellieri.
Original dissertation concept by Brian Cancellieri, Charles Pierce, & James Salvatore.

"One hundred and fifty years of metaphysical rebellion and of nihilism have witnessed the persistent reappearance, under different guises, of the same ravaged countenance: the face of human protest. All of them, decrying the human condition and its creator, have affirmed the solitude of man and the nonexistence of any kind of morality. But, at the same time, they have all tried to construct a purely terrestrial kingdom where their chosen principles will hold sway. As rivals of the Creator, they have inescapably been led to the point of reconstructing creation according to their own concepts. Those who rejected, for the sake of the world they had just created, all other principles but desire and power, have rushed to suicide or madness and have proclaimed the apocalypse. As for the rest, who wanted to create their own principles, they have chosen pomp and ceremony, the world of appearances, or banality, or again murder and destruction."
-- Albert Camus, The Rebel

1994 was a breakthrough year for nine inch nails. The band's (i.e. Trent Reznor's) third album, the downward spiral, caught both fans and critics off guard not only with its artistic maturity, but with its prodigious commercial success as well. Never before had such a harsh and unforgivingly aggressive album made it so high in the echelons of popular culture.

With this release, the group's popularity -- which had been steadily rising since the release of Reznor's first album, pretty hate machine, in 1989 -- skyrocketed at an unbelievable rate. (Much of this success was due to the unlikely hit single, "closer", with its memorably audacious chorus, "i want to fuck you like an animal" -- not to mention the band's mud-drenched Woodstock appearance.) Reznor's face graced the cover of every major music magazine, and it was no longer unusual to see people, on a regular basis, walking down the street with the NIN logo on their chest.

However, somewhere in all this newfound fame and notoriety, the album responsible for it all was lost. The focus of interviews and discussions shifted from the art to the artist, a media-proclaimed "dark god."

The tragedy of this shift is that the forgotten album holds some serious implications about the world and the time in which we live. Stripped down and reduced to its basic framework, the downward spiral is the state of modern man living in a world of absolute ideologies that have escaped his grasp and now betray him rather than serve him. It is man in a world that shackles him with the freedom it promises, and draws him to either stagnation, abuse, or self destruction.

Now it's time to shift the focus back to where it belongs and to conduct a serious inquiry into the meanings of the downward spiral in the hope that understanding it will shed some light on our own situation, and on the moral and spiritual dilemmas of our time.

The downward spiral is Reznor's most mature album to date and marks the culmination of the themes explored in the prior nine inch nails releases. Like the albums of many '70s art-rock bands, it is a concept work with a definite and perceivable story and development of ideas. Because of this, each song can only be fully realized within the body of the whole. Any given track, taken out of context, is incomplete.

The album opens with "mr. self destruct," a song that hints at the themes of the album, and foreshadows the events that are to come. The song starts with the sounds of a man being tortured, whether by himself or another is unclear. (This theme of slavery and torture is not new to Reznor's work. On his broken EP, there is a message in the liner notes that states, "the slave thinks he is released from bondage only to find a stronger set of chains.") The lyrics begin, "i am the voice inside your head, and i control you," and proceeds to list the ways in which self-destructive control and manipulation can be established -- from hatred and sex, to the "denial guilt and fear" of religion, to drug addiction, and finally to the fury of negation.

However, among these indictments lies something even darker and more dangerous: the deepest essence of what mr. self destruct is. "i take you where you want to go, i give you all you need to know, i drag you down i use you up, mr. self destruct." The implications are that self-destruction lies in what you desire the most, because it is that which holds the true power over you. However, this is only a partial truth. In order to understand the real significance of these lines we must skip forward to the main character's desires as stated at the end of "i do not want this."

"i want to know everything, i want to be everywhere...." Note the stressed words (author's emphasis). The desires to "know" and "be" alone don't lead to one's downfall, but the absoluteness of these desires will. Man, unable to accept the limited and finite state of his humanity desires the attributes of a god. The disguised voice of mr. self destruct promises the fulfillment of these desires, promises to be an exit, and thus places the character on the path of ruin. The character accepts this path with the same blindness and naivete that he attributes to the followers of religion (done most explicitly in "ruiner"). His fate is a result of his own self deception; it is his fault; somewhere along the line he consented. "you let me do this to you," the voice of self-destruction whispers to him.

The cacophony of noise at the end of "mr. self destruct" is an introduction of the sonic structure of the album. The album constantly skirts the line between noise and melody in much the same way the character will struggle between humanity and nihilism (or detached machinery).

"hey pig, yeah you
hey pig pig piggy pig pig pig
all of my fears came true
black and blue and broken bones
you left me here i'm all alone
my little piggy needed something new
nothing can stop me now i don't care any more
nothing can stop me now i just don't care."

"mr. self destruct" served as an introduction. The actual story begins with "piggy." The meaning of this song is wrapped up within the questions of who the piggy is and what the main character's relationship with it was or is.

Although it is not directly specified within the song, piggy refers to an ex-lover who no longer needed the character (as the last lines of the printed lyrics state, "nothing can stop me now, you don't need me anymore"). The deduction that the piggy was a lover rather than some other kind of acquaintance is based on later songs, such as "closer," where sexual power is shown to be the form of control -- and identity -- that the man experiences most strongly. For the piggy to have had any real effect, it had to dwell in that realm. When the main character is rejected, his control is shattered and he's left impotent. The piggy's ability to escape his grasp injures him to the core and leaves him chanting pathetically the mantra that will remanifest itself later on, "nothing can stop me now."

This weak protest happens in spite of a pounding crescendo of drums, as if his world is collapsing around him. It must be noted that the man's troubles did not begin in "piggy." His need for control existed prior to the song, which only acts to establish this in regard to another character, and more importantly it establishes a starting point for what will be the start of the man's undoing: His metaphysical rebellion against God and the kingdom of God.

"Metaphysical rebellion is the movement by which man protests against his condition and against the whole of creation.... the metaphysical rebel protests against the condition in which he finds himself as a man." 1 This rebellion first occurred within the music of nine inch nails when Trent dared to ask, "hey God, why are you doing this to me?" in the song "terrible lie" on pretty hate machine. Two albums later in the song "heresy", this stage of rebellion is far surpassed. Man is tired of waiting for a response that, in his eyes, is never going to arrive, he will now drag God from the heavens (he does so by establishing man as the creator of God: "he dreamed a god up and called it Christianity") and kill Him in the name of mankind.

Nietzsche once announced to the world that "God is dead," and it is that cry which is taken up in "heresy." The character attributes his own suffering to God (the connection is set up in "closer," "ruiner," and "i do not want this"), but he doesn't stop there. In order to justify the murder of God, the character holds the deity responsible for the suffering of all mankind, from the AIDS virus ("he made a virus that would kill off all the swine") to the "atrocities done in his name." His hatred of God is such that he would rather risk burning in hell than submit and show devotion towards his perceived victimizer.

When the character dethrones God in a fit of indignation, he does more than just kill the deity. When the kingdom of God falls all that was tied to it falls as well, including any sense of meaning or moral order. Although he does not yet realize it, this act that promised absolute freedom ensures that the character will be enslaved. What he is enslaved to will become clear when we discover the nature of his god and what is born in the lack of meaning.

Before we do that we must deal with the next song, "march of the pigs," which deals with the man's relationship toward society. In "piggy," we saw how the character dealt with a single person, and in "march of the pigs" we will see how he deals with (or more accurately, his inability to deal with) society as a whole. The song is a clear denunciation of a greedy, cannibalistic world whose members thrive on watching the downfall of others. That is their entertainment. In the society he sees, anyone who is perceived to be a threat to the established order, anyone who can reveal the uncomfortable world beyond the lies, or anyone who offends the permitted sensibilities, is discredited before the world and becomes a social exile. The character's hatred of this world makes him desire it to suffer the same fate to which it condemns its victims (as he says, "i want to break it up i want to smash it up i want to fuck it up i want to watch it come down").

The world he sees himself up against is not a world of humans, but God's kingdom of pigs made in His image. The man cannot connect with this world, cannot come to terms with its uncaring disposition. He is unable to see others as human, unable to love or trust another. He can't be a part of the world so it must pay.

His desire to "burn" is stated, but the pigs still triumph. "now doesn't that make you feel better? the pigs have won tonight, now they can all sleep soundly, and everything is all right."

The next song, "closer," takes place before the man's actual metaphysical rebellion. Combined with the following song, "ruiner," (which takes place up until, through, and directly after the rebellion) we see how and why he was able to overthrow God.

When examining "piggy," we stated that his relationship was wound up in the idea of control and identity through sex. The complex nature of this relationship is described in "closer."

"you let me violate you," he begins this confession of the nature of his lusts. "you let me desecrate you, you let me penetrate you, you let me complicate you, help me i broke apart my insides, help me i've got no soul to sell, help me the only thing that works for me, help me get away from myself, i want to fuck you like an animal, i want to feel you from the inside, i want to fuck you like an animal, my whole existence is flawed, you get me closer to god." The complete submission of his partner to all his abuses empowers him in the most complete way. And through this empowerment he is able to escape his life as a helpless victim and feel what he perceives to be the control of God.

The character knows that, on some level, his control is illusionary, but he accepts it anyway. In fact, one of the paradoxes of his life, at this point, is that he is ready to surrender himself completely for control of another. "You can have my isolation, you can have the hate that it brings, you can have my absence of faith, you can have my everything." He loses control in order to gain it. His whole existence is based on controlling another, at any cost. His whole identity and will to live rests on another. "you are the reason i stay alive."

When the piggy no longer submits to his will he is stripped of the identity that he had constructed to protect himself. It is then, confused with nowhere else to turn, that the man directs his ire towards God who he equates with ultimate control (the establishment of this begins in closer, "you get me closer to god," but is most clearly illustrated in the next song, "ruiner"). The listener comes into the man's life at this point, when he is finally ready to stand up to his degradation. His false connection of sexual power and control with God is further evidenced in the music to "closer". The chord structure of the song, as well as the closing notes are the same as those in "the downward spiral" (the song in which later, the tragic outcome of his false perceptions is fully realized).

"Ruiner" is the most explicit condemnation of not only God, as the ultimate abuser and deceiver, but as well as of any faith in God. "the ruiner's got a lot to prove he's got nothing to lose and now he made you believe, the ruiner's your only friend well he's the living end to the cattle he deceives, the raping of the innocent you know the ruiner ruins everything he sees, now the only pure thing left in my fucking world is wearing your disease."

Everything of his flawed existence is attributed to God. As in "heresy," where God was made responsible for AIDS, He is now labeled an "infector" and is responsible for the man's "disease." The disease he is referring to is not literal, as is the one in "heresy" -- the word is used as a metaphor for his unforgiving need to control others (in a broader scope, it is a metaphor for any kind of suffering that man cannot find a way to overcome).

The man's perception of his relationship with God is one of control and abuse. It is the same as the relationship he had with the piggy and with society, only the roles are reversed. (Notice that the piggy overthrows him and directly after that he overthrows God -- a connection illustrated musically by the sameness of the end notes of "piggy" played on an acoustic guitar and the aggressive keyboard track that opens "heresy.") Since his control is rooted in sex, his images of God and His abuses are portrayed with sexual imagery. "how did you get so big? how did you get so strong? how did you get so hard? how did it get so long?"

The phallic imagery of those lines is quite clear, but what is even more revealing is the tone in which they are delivered. Keyboards rise and echo tumultuously, signifying the man's potency as he confronts God in a accusatory tone, with a hint of rising jealousy. Man is finding the power within himself to overthrow God; it is only a matter of time. God will pay for creating the blueprint of control that has been projected upon his life. God will pay even though the blueprint was really conceived by man.

During the second chorus the following is added to the accusation: "what you gave to me, my perfect ring of scars, you know i can see what you really are." The character, convinced he has found the root of his problem, claims to see through the lies of God (though this is only an act of self deception, hinted at in "mr. self destruct," "i am the lie that you believe, and i control you"), and will now embark to overthrow Him.

The song breaks down into a guitar solo and we are now directly after "heresy." God is dead and the freed man triumphantly proclaims, "you didn't hurt me nothing can hurt me, nothing can stop me now." Once again the intensity of the rising keyboards proclaim the man's potency. He is at the height of his power, and the mantra of "nothing can stop me now" is no longer weak and pathetic as it was in "piggy."

Then he is cut short in mid-sentence: "nothing can stop...." Apparently something can and will stop him, something that has been working against him all along, something with more power to hurt him than God: the source of his deception, himself. When he decided to cast down God and discover complete freedom he not only consented to his own enslavement, but to his own self-destruction as well. He begins to realize what kind of path he is truly on in "the becoming."

The deceptive triumph of "ruiner" is completely gone as this next song opens up. It's replaced by mechanical clatter and muffled screaming -- something new has been allowed to creep out of his darkest recesses. Just as he obtained his goal, it revealed its bitter catch. The suffering man who once rebelled against the cruel nature of his situation now finds inside himself something crueler -- the nihilistic voice of indifference.

After God is eliminated, the focus on the album is on a new struggle, an internal one. The humanity of the man finds itself up against its mechanical counterpart (a metaphor for the world of modern man where the mystery of Being is replaced by the hollow answers of Science). As "the becoming" opens up, it is the human voice, unprepared for this new situation, that it is being silenced ("i am the silencing machine, and i control you").

"all pain disappears it's the nature of my circuitry, drowns out all i hear there's no escape from this my new consciousness, the me that you know used to have feelings, but the blood has stopped pumping and he's left to decay, the me that you know is made up of wires, and even when i'm right with you i'm so far away." Deeper than his conflict with God, this conflict threatens to take his humanity from him and replace it with a mechanical world of social and moral stagnation.

This is able to occur because meaning was allowed to fall with the kingdom of God. No longer are there moral laws to restrain man; he can do as he pleases. He can do as he pleases, but there is no longer any reason to do or not to do anything. No reason to act or not to act, no reason to care or not to care, no reason to live or die -- this is what the mechanical voice is telling him.

At this point the man knows what he has done, knows that he has betrayed himself, but doesn't know what to do about it. "i can try to get away but i've strapped myself in, i can try to scratch away the sound in my ears, i can see it killing away all my bad parts (i.e. his emotions), i don't want to listen but it's all too clear."

Just then, as the mechanical side's victory seem imminent, the song cuts into the rhythmic, natural sounding, strumming of an acoustic guitar with a human voice humming in the background. Something within the man cannot accept what is happening, and is trying to resist, but can't find the strength to do anything but to hide passively. It knows it can't remain hidden forever, but it cannot act. "hiding backwards inside of me i feel so unafraid, annie, hold a little tighter i might just slip away." 2 The part of him that's not yet mechanical can feel the wires beneath the skin draining away all feelings, but can't even feel afraid of what is ahead. He calmly waits to be totally submerged.

As suddenly as the human section appeared, it is buried in a brutal sonic assault 3 of machinery. Backed into a corner, the human voice finally discovers the strength to protest, moving from passive to active resistance, with a tortured scream, "it won't give up it wants me dead goddamn this noise inside my head." The human section now reappears (though without vocals, other than the humming) and slowly fades into, and is covered by, the repeating fuzz at the opening of "i do not want this."

Time is running out for the character's human side. "i'm losing ground, you know how this world can beat you down, i'm made of clay, i fear i'm the only one who thinks this way," the human voice says, revealing the desperateness of its position. Then, another voice, whispering without any sense of emotion: "i'm always falling down the same hill, bamboo puncturing this skin, and nothing comes out of me just like a waterfall i'm drowning in, 2 feet below the surface i can still make out your wavy face, and if i could just reach you maybe i could leave this place." This speech is delivered in a chillingly cold fashion that conflicts with what is being said. The mechanical voice mocks the human voice, dangling the option of another's help in front of it, knowing that it will never accept the care of another. The human voice re-emerges to protest piteously, "i do not want this," and promptly lashes out at the mechanical voice along with its mocking offers: "don't you tell me how i feel, you don't know just how i feel."

At first this series of interactions between the voices may seem a bit odd or unlikely, but let's consider the idea a little more closely and discover why it is not. The first statement of the human voice is clear enough, it's losing ground to the mechanical voice and will soon be completely overcome. Now concerning the next part of the dialogue, think back to the character's relationship to the piggy (and society). As seen in "closer," the character had to give away part of himself in order to establish his control over another. This relationship caused him pain because he was dependent upon another. Never again will he submit to another's control. He cannot accept another's help or sympathy. The mechanical voice knows this and mocks him with the offer, illustrating the man's impotence. As predicted, the human voice rejects the offer harshly, displaying its defiant hatred for the other half.

The interplay of voice continues with the same implications:

human voice:

i stay inside my bed
i have lived so many lives all in my head
don't tell me that you care
there really isn't anything, is there?


you would know, wouldn't you?
you extend your hand to those who suffer
to those who know what it really feels like
to those who've had a taste
like that means something
and oh so sick i am
and maybe i don't have a choice
and maybe that is all i have
and maybe this is a cry for help

(or maybe it's not...note the increasing boldness of the mechanical voice as it moves in for the kill)

human voice:

i do not want this
(angrily) don't you tell me how i feel
don't you tell me how i feel
don't you tell me how i feel
you don't know just how i feel

At this point something changes the music becomes more chaotic and piercing; as the human voice is once again ready to be subdued, another option is discovered. The next phase of the metaphysical rebellion becomes clear in the midst of the noise.

"When the throne of God is overturned, the rebel realizes that it is now his own responsibility to create the justice, order, and unity that he sought in vain within his own condition, and in this way justify the fall of God." 4

The mechanical voice was able to arise out of the absence of meaning, so perhaps the character can escape it by establishing a new moral order. He reaches for the unoccupied throne. "i want to know everything, i want to be everywhere, i want to fuck everyone in the world, i want to do something that matters."

His voice is dripping with desire as he utters those words laced with sexual potency. Finally, he tells himself, I will have absolute power. I will be totally free. I will be untouched by the limits of humanity. Finally he rises up and does something that matters (for something to matter it implies that there is meaning, a complete moral universe which he will create). He reaches out for the throne; it is his time of apotheosis. Now he will be God. (And what does it mean to be God in his eyes?) Now he will have control. (What did he see as the relationship between God and man?) Now he will be free. (Isn't that, after all, what this is all about, freedom?) Now he will become the ruiner.

"Then begins the desperate effort to create, at the price of crime and murder if necessary, the dominion of man." 5

"big man with a gun"

The song opens with a throbbing drumbeat and multiple distorted voices, moaning in what may be either ecstasy or suffering...probably a bit of both.

"i am a big man
(yes i am)
and i have a big gun
got me a big old dick and i
i like to have fun
held against your forehead
i'll make you suck it
maybe i'll put a hole in your head
you know, just for the fuck of it
i can reduce you if i want
i can devour
i'm hard as fucking steel, and i've got the power
i'm every inch a man, and i'll show you somehow
me and my fucking gun
nothing can stop me now
shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot
i'm going to come all over you
me and my fucking gun
me and my fucking gun"

So this is the kingdom of man? A kingdom of the same arbitrary, control-inspired violence that was attributed to the kingdom of God. Just as the ruiner terrorized him, he will terrorize others. Of course, given all we know, how could we have expected it to turn out any different? His whole conception of God was of one who controlled and abused -- not because the nature of God is such, but because his nature is such. The man's tragic flaw is that he is unable to connect with the world around him, to see others as humans rather than pigs, and because of this he can only be a ruiner.

This kingdom of man is loud, violent, frantic, and anything but stable. As the man screams, "nothing can stop me now," his world is once again collapsing around him. Try as he might, man cannot take the place of God; it is not within his power. So the character's attempt to assume the role fails, throwing him back to the fate that had already almost conquered him: his mechanical side.

The album's next track, "a warm place," is as sad as it is beautiful. Following the failing fury of "big man with a gun," this instrumental is hauntingly tranquil. The song represents a major turning point in the story; it is a tragic moment of profound realization. All that he has done has finally been made clear, his shift from ruined to ruiner, and his role at the center of it all. He realizes that his entire life has been a continuing cycle of inflicting pain upon others in order to escape his own pain, and the humanity still intact within him is horrified. He sees the violence he is, and will be, responsible for. A new option is opened up for him, a new way to escape the mechanical voice that has retreated but is not yet conquered: death. No longer will he seek to escape himself through others, he tells himself. He is willing to accept the pain of his life and break the cycle in the only way he sees possible. Notice the way the music to "a warm place" is an inverted variation on the music in "closer" and "the downward spiral".

Eraser" is basically a vocalization of the revelations made in "a warm place." "need you, dream you, find you, taste you, fuck you, use you, scar you, break you," he first proclaims -- stating the nature of his relationships with others -- and then, "lose me, hate me, smash me, erase me, kill me." The violence he directs towards himself is desperate, he needs someone to end his life. He's not yet willing to do this himself, to take that final step in which he will reject, in the only way possible to him at this point, the unacceptable nature on which his life was based.

The final step taken on the road to "the downward spiral" occurs at this stage where he has accepted death but still cannot pull the trigger. Indecision causes him to once again look for another way out. It seems as if the character went to a prostitute, or a woman with the same degree of indifference as one, in order to find some alternative kind of control; one that requires him to give nothing, and yet harms nobody. However, what he finds within her and within himself only serves to utterly disgust him. His description of her in "reptile" is cold and unflattering, to say the least.

"she spreads herself wide open to let the insects in
she leaves a trail of honey to show me where she's been
she has the blood of reptile just underneath her skin
seeds from a thousand others drip down from within...
oh my precious whore"

In the reptile he finds the icy indifference he is fleeing from within himself. She is a liar who will submit to his desires and say what he wants to hear, but means none of it. She is incapable of feeling anything towards him and supplies him with sex as freely as she did for the man before him and will for the man after.

When he says, "my disease my infection, i am so impure," he realizes that he is once again being driven by his disease and impurity (his need to control others) and accepts the fact that he has lost all his options. In the midst of the song there is a cut back to the music of "a warm place," once again signifying realization.

"angels bleed from the tainted touch of my caress,
need to contaminate to alleviate this
loneliness, i now know the depths i reach are limitless."

"the downward spiral" begins with static followed by an acoustic guitar striking the end notes of "closer," establishing the link we demonstrated earlier between the two songs, illustrating the way in which his falsenotions about God, sex and control led him to the events described in "the downward spiral."

"he couldn't believe how easy it was
he put the gun into his face
(so much blood for such a tiny little hole)..."

The mechanical side of the character observes the suicide in a detached manner, as if it isn't affected; watches as the gun is now aimed at its wielder just as it was once aimed at another in "big man with a gun". The recurring imagery of the gun (a phallic symbol which represented his idea of godlike control through sex) being pointed to someone's head shows that the violent nature of the ruiner he had become is now completely focused upon himself, actually becoming the agent of his demise.

"problems have solutions
a lifetime of fucking things up fixed in one determined flash..."

All is still the same, detached...

"everything's blue
in this world
the deepest shade of mushroom blue
all fuzzy
spilling out of my head"

But now something has changed. There has been a shift, from "he couldn't believe how easy it was," to "spilling out of my head." The man is doing more than escaping the mechanical voice through suicide -- more importantly, he is killing it along with him. The man knew that, due to his inability to relinquish his need for control, he had no chance to escape indifference, so he sacrificed his life rather than letting it overcome him, thus unknowingly affirming a solid value, a meaning: Human feeling over nihilistic indifference. The tragedy is that he could only make this affirmation through an act that is essentially nihilistic.

As the mechanical voice describes the scene, the human voice screams out, releasing all the suffering and agony that plagued his existence.

"i hurt myself today
to see if i still feel
i focus on the pain
the only thing that's real"

So begins the final song of the album, "hurt," the most solitary manifestation of the human voice. In theory this is a triumph, a victory for humanity, but in reality it was too costly. Even though the human side of the character is what somehow survives beyond death, it is still scarred, unfamiliar with anything other than pain.

"the needle tears a hole,
the old familiar sting,
try to kill it all away,
but i remember everything."

The drug reference is used as a metaphor for any form of self-destructive behavior that one pursues in hope of escape while somewhere knowing the consequences, and even welcoming them. There is no peace because he knows that it was all his fault -- he knows what he has done.

"what have i become?
my sweetest friend
everyone i know
goes away in the end
you could have it all
my empire of dirt
i will let you down
i will make you hurt"

Addressing some friend that never existed within his life, he finally surrenders his control completely. He no longer has the strength to do otherwise. His inability to deal with anything but extremes is once again noted. When he lets go, he lets go completely ("you could have it all").

This notion of his obsession with extremes is one of the most important themes of the album -- from "closer," where he says "you can have my everything," to his desires as outlined in "i do not want this," where he declares that he wants to know everything, be everywhere, and fuck everyone. His desire for control eventually leads to his loss of it.

The purity and unity that he sought in life still hasn't been found.

"i wear my crown of shit
on my liar's chair
full of broken thoughts
i cannot repair
beneath the stain of time
the feeling disappears
you are someone else
i am still right here"

Here he makes an allusion to the throne of God, which he tried to claim as his own -- and remembers with regret his violence, which he can never forget. And finally we come to the last lines of the album, which express the man's desire to keep himself, a desire that only can be fulfilled and affirmed if he allows others to do the same.

"if i could start again
a million miles away
i would keep myself
i would find a way"

This final "verse" is proof of the character's growth. Tragically, it is after his death that he reaches this point. He boldly affirms his desire to keep his humanity as a value and a meaning that human beings can realize.

These final words are swept away in an electric chord that shatters the quiet and fades into a mechanical drone that in turn fades away, signifying an end -- or perhaps a new beginning.

In the dark heat of the arena, before thousands of people, the climax of "eraser" -- the desperate plea for death -- comes to a close. The projection screen, which had shown a setting desert sun, goes black. A muffled but steady wind from another rusty and barren landscape is heard faintly.

Trent Reznor, backlit so that he is visible through the screen, begins to sing, as the first few notes of the song arise from an acoustic guitar: "i hurt myself today."

As the essay opened, we discussed the prospect of shifting the focus back onto the downward spiral in order to find some insight into our times. To some, the connection may already be all too clear; they see similar trends in both themselves and the world. However, to most the connection may still seem too vague to make sense of; the world of indifference and nihilism described by Reznor is still too far away. That is why we are going to end this with an examination of the live version of "hurt

In the context of the album, "hurt" is the purest statement of the man's feelings, the most personal song Reznor claims to have written. Now, open before thousands of others, he begins to sing it.

But whereas the song was personal on the album, it now reaches beyond that level and addresses all of humanity. The screen shows us black-and-white images -- images of decay, of nuclear holocaust, and horrifying images of a war-torn land where woman and children stand in front of their devastated homes; the corpses of young soldiers lie out in the open, uncared for; and concentration camp victims are heaped into piles devoid of any humanity. A child trapped in the bloody kingdom of man stares out at the audience accusingly as if asking "why?" "what have i become?" now seems to be "what have we become?"

The lyrics to "hurt" now become an indictment of all of modern society and its "empire of dirt." "we hurt ourselves, to see if we still feel...try to kill the memory of it all away, but we remember everything."
"Just cast a glance at the history of mankind; well, what do you see? Is it majestic?" 6

Self-destructive control doesn't just belong to the character of the album; it is a whole society's desire. The goal of the modern world has been to replace the kingdom of God with the kingdom of man. The so-called "Age of Reason," which promised humanity control over the world through science and technology, has given rise to the same terror and destruction of previous ages, and more of it. We gain the power to do more and more at the price of becoming estranged from life.

Our absolute ideologies have betrayed us. Our desires have betrayed us. In short, we have betrayed us. So now what? Are we condemned to continue our desperate cycle until the end. Have we, like the character, gone to far. No. Even in the bleakest situations there is some hope. It is time to bring the modern age to an end; it is time to accept responsibility for what we've done. As human beings, we must learn to live as human beings and to do without the absolutes we can never obtain. It is time to forget about the absolute freedom that can only be obtained at the expense of others (whether in the guise of Marxist utopia or Libertarian Capitalism). In order to experience freedom, real human freedom, we must let others be free, allow them to have what we want for ourselves. Only then can our lives as humans affirm any real value, only then will relationships, whether personal or societal, stop being tyrannical and be based on free and mutual giving as well as receiving. We must find ourselves; learn once again how to care for others as well as ourselves, and then, only then, can we escape nihilism and violence.

Now how many albums that have been on Billboard's Hot 100 chart can you say that about?

1 The Rebel, Albert Camus
2 the "annie, hold a little tighter i might just slip away" line of this section may be a reference to the book Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, which is about a man's downward spiral into indifference and nihilism.
4 The Rebel
5 The Rebel
6 Notes From The Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Nine Inch Nails Interpretations

(Pre 5-12-98)
This interpretation really spoke to me. It is the best one I have heard yet and I have heard a lot of them. It showed me that everyone goes through the same eternal struggle. We all have that voice inside our head that tells us things to do. We all want that voice to go away. It drives us all insane and eventually when we do die, the voice dies with us. This was beautiful. Thank you.


Nine Inch Nails Interpretations

(Pre 5-12-98)
The shade of blue, mushroom blue.
I love this cd!
It shows reality, fear, and all that other stuff.
It is a rebellion of everything.
My favorite song is "A warm place."
It reminds me of all of my pain and struggle I go through just go away and burn to hell as I float in peace for the couple of minutes that the song lasts.
Please Trent, make a longer version of the song! I love it!!!!!


Nine Inch Nails Interpretations

(Pre 5-12-98)
This was so deep and powerful. It makes so much sense. I don't personally agree with all of Trent's views about God and religon, but he is right about people. Human nature causes us to be terrible people, and to do terrible things. Society has jaded and dissoluusioned us so much. The interpretation of "Hurt" was probably the my favorite part. After all the accusations of pain and suffering, and all of the violent and destructive behoviors, the character finally realizes that he was wrong. Unfortunately, this occured after his own death. I think maybe people should figure this out before they have to end their own lives. There is some good in the world left, and there could be alot more, but people need to stop being "mr self destruct" and see what the world could be. Great paper.


Nine Inch Nails Interpretations

(Pre 5-12-98)
I believe the album to be a story about a person, more specifically a man, who is going through a very unstable part of his life which leads to depression and finally suicidal thoughts (possible action). This theme is strongly supported by the title itself, The Downward Sprial, which is very similar to depression which most often gets worse. The album goes through the different attitudes which the man experiences, in unquestionalbe order.
The first song "Mr. Selfdestruct" portrays the human tendency to feel tyrannical and want power. Many people experience this feeling, or want, in early stages of depression as well as when they are angry. Control gives an artificial feeling of importance. This ties in with the next song "piggy" were the man has the attitude "nothing can stop me now, I just don't care anymore" due to his feeling of importance through control. It's like saying "A bullet can't stop me because I don't care if I die."
The album ties all of the songs together with gradual, accelerating change. "Heresy" the next song, blends with the "control", due to the man feeling he can look down upon religion, and the "I don't care" which coincides with "God is dead and no one cares." "Hersey" is the dissection of religion which many people do when finding themselves, and the anger that people feel against God all to often. But it is also a realization that continuing on that way will lead to damnation, "If there is a hell, I'll see you there."
"March of the Pigs" amplifies the growing hatred and anger of the man while showing that while depressed, violence can many times bring confort, hence the fast pace and hateful lyrics followed by "Now doesn't it make you feel better ... and everything is all right."
"Closer" elevates that anger by showing the raw violence in the man, "...fuck you like an animal ... feel you from the inside" while at the same time telling another person or perhaps the world that it puts up with the man's violation, penetration, etc. The man tells the other how he wishes he could give everything over to it, to end "The hate that it brings", perhaps a foreshadowing to suicide. The reference to God shows how telling this to the other helps the man realize his flaws and maybe face them more appropriately which leads to a healthier, "closer to God", lifestyle.
"Ruiner" has to do with the man's remembrance of sexual abuse as a child which makes him face his past, become somewhat at ease with it, and once again come back to the feeling "you didn't hurt me", because now I can face the problem and "nothing can stop me now." This may seem like a positive but going through life thinking that nothing can stop you leaves you in the open and unprotected.
"The Becoming" is an explanation to the man's realization of his presence in the downward spiral of life. The man asks for help in calm desperation "Annie hold a little tighter, I might just slip away" followed by the voice of depression and the feeling of helplessness, both which get progressively violent, in "it won't give in it wants me dead, and goddamn this vioce inside my head". This also comes back to the blaming of God. Notice the spiral pattern which continues in a bad direction, in other words the downward spiral.
"I Do Not Want This" is a continuation of the man's realization but in a more explanatory manner, as if speaking to a psychiatrist or the Annie from the previous song. The sudden violence of "don't you tell me how I feel" supports the psychiatrist idea because you get angry when others try to explain your depression and feelings. It is a large plea for help (continued from "The Becoming"), which leads to helplessness spawned anger in "I want to know everything ... I want to do something that matters". Consequently returning to the dominant power of the "know everything", "be everywhere", "fuck everyone", "do something that matters" which is present in the open songs, rather than jsut wanting to get out of the sprial in a calm passive manner.
"Big Man With a Gun" is a further expression of dominant power with a larger arrogrance and an unhidden sexual drive. The phallic violence of the depicted force ties with the sexual abuse in "The Ruiner", the man is so angry and confused that he resorts to using the abuse he received to try and gain more power and control. The changes in feeling are now happening much faster and the feelings are becoming more extreme.
"A Warm Place" is exactly that, there are times in depression often after extreme acts or anger where one feels a warm place inside and then sit and relax. Sitting and relaxing always leads to thought.
In "Eraser" the man is pondering nothing in particualr for a while and then thinks to his life (as soon as the lyrics begin) with a person he cares or cared for (possibly the Annie) and how the relationship or possibly presence in the spiral started. The person is represented by the word "you". The man needed someone, he dreamt about them, he found the person, the man got a taste for the person, he fucked the person (whether literal or not), eventually used the person, causing the scarring, and the breaking of the relationship's strength. The man is getting worked up about his flaws and expresses what he thinks should be done to him, "lose me", "hate me", "smash me", "erase me" from your memory and finally (not in the lyrics but in the song) "kill me", referemce pmce again to the man's suicidal thoughts.
In "Reptile" the man is explaining his mind and soul, referring to it as "she", much like a common American who refers to his house, car, garage, etc. as "she". The man is telling how his mind or his soul is a "precious whore" and a "beautiful liar" (both the "precious" and "beautiful" are said in sarcasm) as well as the things his soul has done and continues to do and the truth of what his soul has become, "she has the blood of reptile, just underneath the skin".
"The Downward Spiral" song is in my opinion the climax of this story, getting right down to death. The man faces suicide closer than we have seen previously and is specific as to how the man is thinking about doing it. The man, however, does not kill himself (explained below). This can be supported by the explanation of the word "...blood.." being bracketed as if separated from the reality of the songs. After suicidal thoughts or attempts one thinks about life and what suicide would have meant, "problems do have solutions you know, a life time of fucking things I've fixed (the man's attempts at rebuilding his life) up in one determined flash", the flash would have been the gun going off driven by suicidal determination. the man is thinking of what a waste suicide would have been. he continues to think about his life.
"Hurt" is yet more of this thoughts about life after suicidal thoughts. It explains them to himself and those around him.
Now, the reason I think that man in this story didn't commit suicide is because:
a) the song "the downward spiral" was originally just a poem Trent wrote one night when feeling suicidal, Trent is not dead and the poem only portrays the feelings and thoughts of his suicidal contemplation. Eventually Trent felt that it would fit into the album so he put it in.
b) if the man had killed himself the song should have ended and "hurt" should not have followed. "so much blood for such a tiny little wound" should have been the last lyric (and not bracketed) had the man killed himself.
c) the follow up album "further down the spiral" is a more chaotic, more violent, and more confusing sequel to "the downward spiral" which portrays the still living mans perpetually negative situation.

-created and compiled by Teo adams

Return to Ninterpretations