The life and death of a genre
Through the 80s, industrial became a fully-fledged genre with its own subgenres running the full spectrum from a colder, darker synth-pop through to electronic rock, but by now the music contained actual songs with catchy hooks and choruses. The one connecting theme was that – true to its name – it always sounded like it had been recorded in an old warehouse of grey concrete despair. If punk was a roar of rage, industrial music was a scream of terror. Skinny Puppy articulated the death-cries of animals undergoing vivisection or prisoners being tortured, and pretty much everyone else was shouting about either political anxiety or the love-hate relationship with technology, as hundreds of thousands found themselves “replaced by computers” at work. The music was bleak, but not without a certain gallows humour. Acts like Laibach played with totalitarian imagery, not out of admiration, but from the same spirit as the Hitler/Downfall meme: destroy it through ridicule. Whatever the bands were saying, they were saying it because they had something to say. Industrial was art rock made for its own sake by people who had something to express.
Then, in 1989, Nine Inch Nails released Pretty Hate Machine. It’s easy to forget just how popular NIN were. By the time The Downward Spiral came out in 1994, they had sold about 15 million records (their career tally is 30 million). Yes, Ministry and Front 242 got pretty big, but NIN not only popularised industrial music but completely changed how it looked and sounded.
Sure, the sound was appropriated from Skinny Puppy and Ministry (not to mention David Bowie, Queen and Prince), but the lyrics were Pink Floyd-style personal angst. A good-looking, sensitive soul in gothic fetishwear, Trent Reznor became a poster-boy for lonely teenage girls, widening the target demographic from the mostly-male audience to which industrial music had previously appealed.