Nine Inch Nails are officially pop music’s elder statesmen in 2019

A sample on Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and an interpolation for Miley Cyrus’s Black Mirror pop star have made Trent Reznor’s group pop’s most improbable leaders.

June 13, 2019

A couple of years ago, a video emerged of Nine Inch Nails performing "Down In It," a single from their revolutionary industrial-pop-rap debut Pretty Hate Machine, on a late-80s teeny-bopper program called Dance Party USA. It was a sweet irony to watch Trent Reznor, a man famous for heartwrenching songs about suicide and loss, performing for what could be a crowd of extras on Saved By the Bell. Reznor said they booked the show as a "joke," but in 2019, the music of Nine Inch Nails has been used to create pop hits both record-shattering and satiric. The joke isn't funny anymore.


Today, Netflix released the full version of "On A Roll," a song performed by Miley Cyrus as Ashley O, a character in an episode of the latest season of Black Mirror. The song contains an interpolation of "Head Like A Hole," also from Pretty Hate Machine, which makes me wonder if the Dance Party USA clip wasn't an inspiration for the song.

"On A Roll" is a Lady Gaga-adjacent reimagining of "Head..." and with an actual pop star at the helm, it's convincing enough to actually chart. This being Black Mirror, of course, the satire has an air of superiority. The song choice becomes a meta-criticism of supposed pop vacuity, but lines like "So full of ambition and verve" are too writerly for the genre — the "On A Roll" songwriters, like the Black Mirror scribes for the episodes I've seen, seem more concerned with showcasing their seriousness than achieving emotional resonance.

Then, of course, there's "Old Town Road," Lil Nas X's number one hit which samples a track from the Nine Inch Nails instrumental album Ghosts. While Trent Reznor has embraced an alternate reality of his pop stardom — NIN are currently selling a shirt based on the Black Mirror song — he's been conspicuously silent about the IRL example of his music forming the basis of a novelty rap song that's crossed over to top of the pops.

The existence of "Old Town Road" softens the joke of "On A Roll," as once again, reality has overtaken comedy's capacity to poke fun. Nine Inch Nails may not be lipsyncing their music for dancing children anymore, but Lil Nas X is. From Dance Party USA to "On A Roll," the full circle-ness of it all is overwhelming and would be too on-the-nose if you wrote in a script. Nine Inch Nails have gone from mocking pop conventions to being one of their tentpoles. Bow down before the one you serve.

Nine Inch Nails are officially pop music’s elder statesmen in 2019