"Closer": The Strange Story of Nine Inch Nails' Enduring Strip Club Anthem | Revolver

"Closer": The Strange Story of Nine Inch Nails' Enduring Strip Club Anthem

A personal look at the 'Downward Spiral' hit's improbable 25 years as an unkillable club staple
ninfeaturejpg.jpg, Ellen Stagg
photograph by Ellen Stagg

One of the first songs I ever stripped to was Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." This was in 1994, soon after the song's release. At the time, I'd just come back from a road trip to an experimental-music festival featuring Faust, Tony Conrad, Jim O'Rourke and Keiji Haino. I was an 18-year-old with a generationally appropriate disdain for popular music and hair metal, so when the club DJ asked me what kind of music I wanted to dance to before my first stage set, I probably told him Pavement and Sonic Youth and Mudhoney in an effort to give him some accessible choices. What he decided to play for me was the Revolting Cocks' cover of "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" followed by "Closer." I didn't think too much on it being a sexy song at the time, and soon enough, I'd heard it so many times that it blended into the rest of the work soundtrack. I do remember that the chorus really did stand out, but it seemed to be in the same vein as Soundgarden's "Big Dumb Sex" to me — proclaiming the desire to fuck, you know, ironically.

Strip clubs already had songs from Pretty Hate Machine in the rotation, but "Closer" is an unusual song, particularly for Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. At the beginning of the "making of" mini-doc for its music video, director Mark Romanek says something about his initial reaction to the single that can only be understood in the context of the anti-major-label- and-MTV attitudes of the time. "It's a really actually unusual piece of music for Trent. It actually reminded me of a Prince song, which is not meant to be in any way a criticism. It's meant to be a compliment."

It's fair to characterize the world of alternative music in the 1990s as a place so white and unsexy that one would have to clarify that a Prince comparison wasn't a criticism. Reznor recognized that his audience might have reacted negatively in a 1997 Rolling Stone interview: "... 'Closer' is a song with a simple disco beat and a Prince kind of harmony vocal line. That, I thought, would open me up to a lot more criticism from the safe company of alternative people I'm supposed to be catering to."

He turned out to be catering to many more people, and one of "Closer"'s most enduring audiences of all are the people who work in and patronize strip clubs. He couldn't have hit the target more perfectly if he'd tried, and obviously Prince would be exactly who an artist looking to create a strip club classic would emulate, from his funky beats to his explicit sexual language. In the spring of 1994, that bizarre video and profane chorus made for a track decidedly hostile to — and yet destined for — massive commercial success and decades as an unkillable strip club staple just as beloved as "Girls, Girls, Girls" and "Make It Rain."

Over the years, "Closer" has gone from a brand new, shockingly explicit alt hit to a classic tune from an artist who's been around for 30 years, but aside from its age, its meaning and use in the club have remained stable. Because I heard it pretty much every time I worked, it never got around to feeling dated for me, in contrast to other massive Nineties hits. But I never asked to dance to it myself, maybe because I knew it would inevitably get played. (If you're curious, my personal favorite NIN songs to dance to onstage are "Sin" and the cover of "Dead Souls.") It took its showcase use in Magic Mike XXL for me to realize how much meaning it had taken on for me — all and only because of the strip club. When that beat abruptly kicked in as Joe Manganiello (who'd asked for the song) picked up a woman and threw her into a sex swing, I squealed out loud in the theater. All of a sudden I realized I did have an opinion about "Closer," and that opinion was that after two decades in the strip club, it was the one song that never got old, that always signified it was time to pay attention, and that was, anguished lyrics and all, actually incredibly sexy.

In the club, its opening beat, a manipulated rip of the drums on Iggy Pop's "Nightclubbing," is perfect for a dramatic stage entrance. The audience recognizes the song immediately, so it's great for grabbing their attention. It's slow and seductive enough for a quiet shift, but loud and rhythmic enough for a busy weekend night. No matter your style of stage dancing, if you're committed to crawling around on the floor, bouncing your ass or performing pole acrobatics, there's parts of the song that allow you to time out your signature moves. Undulate to the watery bass synth. Twerk doggy style to the chorus. Do a suicide split down the pole right on the "Help Me!"

nin_closer_3.jpg, Ellen Stagg
photograph by Ellen Stagg

The dancers not onstage while it's playing might be giving private dances to the song. I always found it an easy sell, because it's the rare customer who can resist an "oooh, this song is so sexy! I really want to dance for you!" pitch. That rare customer is probably a hardcore NIN fan who, having paid attention to the lyrics, finds it less sexy and more nihilistic, though even they can't deny it's a great beat. But strip club goers are, with few exceptions, not paying much attention to the lyrical and thematic subtleties of the music that's playing. With "Closer," they may not know the name of the song, but that doesn't stop them from asking for it. DJ Dick Hennessy, a Portland, Oregon-based DJ and the producer of the Vagina Beauty Pageant, says it's one of the top five songs most requested by customers. "And I'd say one out of every 30 times it's requested, it's requested as 'Closer.' Every single time it's like, 'Yeah, I want "Fuck You Like an Animal." Can you play the "Fuck You Like an Animal" song?'"

Hennessy confirms that it's a very attention-grabbing track. "That particular song, for some reason when it comes on, it forces everyone in the club to look at the stage," he says. "It's almost like a snake charmer in a way. Like a hypnotic thing."

Every stripper memoir worth its salt mentions Nine Inch Nails. Sheila McClear, in The Last of the Live Nude Girls, describes watching a dancer onstage at Sassy's in Portland, Oregon, slink around to "Closer." Lily Burana wrote in Strip City that she kept Pretty Hate Machine as one of her five work essentials (before MP3s and streaming were ubiquitous, dancers would bring actual CDs to work with them if they wanted to dance to something the club might not have in its collection).

Dancers' pre-existing affection for Nine Inch Nails is just one reason why it endures, but it's a pretty significant one. My friend Josephine, a Detroit dancer and one of the editors of Tits and Sass, was a huge fan as a teen. "Think about it, he was a boy band model, but ... industrial music," she says. She had NIN cutouts all over a wall of her teen bedroom. Reznor was spectacularly successful at taking the Wax Trax! style of the times and translating it for a younger and cuter audience. Ministry's Al Jourgensen and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult's Groovie Mann recorded songs that you would hear in strip clubs, but they were not pinup material for the adolescent girls who would grow up to work in them.

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Writer Alana Massey tells me that she was a Nine Inch Nails fan at a young age. "Like, too young," she says. In her essay collection All the Lives I Want, she describes her experience with hearing "Closer" in the club as pretty much the opposite of mine: She was a fan of the band and liked the song, but hated hearing it at work. That was partly because of its outsized impact on customers, she said.

"I felt like it was just too obvious," Massey says. "It kind of plants this seed for, like, the explicit desire to have sex in a way that other suggestive songs don't." Customers would start singing back the song's exceedingly obvious chorus. "Yeah, I've heard the song, I know what it's about, thanks," she says. "It's like working at Banana Republic and they have the soundtrack, it's like, I've heard this song 37 times today. It has lost any sexual meaning at this point for me."

Massey raises the obvious point that dancers (and pretty much every woman working for tips) would like customers to forget, which is that behind that performance of sexual availability is someone thinking about how to maximize their income off of the guy staring at her. But it's not like the audience is any better. They're not invested in her as a person. Much like Reznor in the song, their focus is above all on how she makes them feel and what she can do to meet their needs. Honestly, it's easier to deal with a guy whose pressing need is to have a naked woman on his lap than one who wants to get to the divine via intercourse.

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Dancers Charie and Rio at Pumps Exotic Dancing, Brooklyn, New York, 2019
photograph by Ellen Stagg

"The thing that I think has sort of returned to being compelling and odd about that song are the contradictory ideas that are in it," she says. "'My whole existence is flawed/You get me closer to God' is not fucking like an animal. It's fucking on a higher plane of being a human connected to another human." Massey compares the song to George Michael's "I Want Your Sex," which, when it was released, was seen as just as shocking a statement as "I want to fuck you like an animal," yet which, according to its author, was supposed to be a statement of intimate feeling, not one of indiscriminate horniness.

Massey says she's wondered how Reznor felt about the song being a strip club anthem. It seems like he was both resigned and rankled, though no more than he was by other signifiers of mainstream success. He joked about calling the next album "Music for Strip Clubs" in a 1994 Guitar World interview and refined the joke into "I think my next album is going to be called 'Music for Titty Bars'" in Details a year later. One song he didn't want to hear in the club was "Hurt." Reznor told Jonathan Gold in a 1994 Rolling Stone interview how appalled he was to hear the intensely personal song played one night when he was taken to a strip club. I was appalled, too, the couple of times I've heard it. It's in there with Nirvana's "Rape Me" and anything by Elliott Smith as the most inappropriate stripper songs I've seen dancers perform to. Those songs run the risk of seriously ruining not just the customers' night but also those of your coworkers.

nincloser_credit_ellenstagg.jpg, Ellen Stagg
photograph by Ellen Stagg

For what it's worth, Mötley Crüe's Tommy Lee (who has a credit on The Downward Spiral's "Big Man With a Gun") didn't think that "Closer"'s strip club popularity was any accident. He told Blender in 2002, "Come on, dude: 'I wanna fuck you like an animal'? That's the all-time fuck song. Those are pure fuck beats — Trent Reznor knew what he was doing. You can fuck to it, you can dance to it and you can break shit to it."

Reznor may never admit he "knew what he was doing," but "Closer" persists as a strip club anthem, largely because it's managed to never sound dated. It can be played back to back with any genre — metal, electronic, rock, hip-hop — without clashing. In the pantheon of club classics, it stands alone. "There's certain iconic strip club songs that seem to be part of the fabric of strip club society. Some examples would be, 'Girls, Girls, Girls,' 'Crazy Bitch' by Buckcherry, and then, you know, 'Closer,'" says Dick Hennessy. "And the difference to me is, 'Closer,' I could legitimately see that being played in strip clubs in the year 2300. Not to say these other songs that have always been in the strip club classics universe aren't still going to be getting played then, but I think that 'Closer' will still be relevant that many years into the future."

nin_closer_6.jpg, Ellen Stagg
photograph by Ellen Stagg

The Rolling Stones' 1969 song "Honky Tonk Women" is still played in strip clubs 50 years later, a mark that "Closer" is halfway to matching. I most recently heard the song at a strip club in early January. The place was down the access road from a truck stop, resembling no strip club I'd been in elsewhere so much as the fictional venue the Bang Bang Bar where Nine Inch Nails performed in Twin Peaks: The Return. The dancer onstage was born several years after "Closer" was released. The song will still be played long after she's given her last dance.