Star Wars Themes in Nine Inch Nails

Nine Inch Nails Star Wars coverThose with whom I communicate on a daily basis will no doubt groan when they see the title of this post. That’s because I have joked for years that Nine Inch Nails‘ music is secretly about Star Wars and its characters, specifically Anakin Skywalker. Nevertheless, I am proceeding with this entry as I have never consolidated my thoughts on the subject into a comprehensive summary.

I’d like to preface this article by stating that I do not, in fact, believe that Trent Reznor had Star Wars in mind (at least consciously) when writing his music. But this doesn’t change the fact that many of his lyrical themes allude to the tragic plight of Anakin Skywalker, chief protagonist and eventual antagonist of the Star Wars films. Indeed, certain lyrics appear to refer very specifically to details about Anakin’s experiences. I found very little information regarding Trent’s opinion of Star Wars, but it would seem that he attended the premier of Revenge of the Sith, which indicates at least some level of fandom.

Whether or not Reznor deliberately inserted Star Wars themes into his work is immaterial. Good art takes on a life of its own, independent of its creator’s motives. Beyond that, a good piece of art is one that evokes an emotional or intellectual reaction. Who is to say whether or not that reaction is proper or correct? So without further delay, let us look briefly at a couple NIN songs so that we may discover the Star Wars themes within.

The Day the World Went Away (TDTWWA)

The song, “The Day the World Went Away”, from NIN’s 1999 two-disc album, The Fragile, is lyrically very simple, thus lending itself to a broad range of interpretations:

I’d listen to the words he’d say
but in his voice I heard decay
the plastic face forced to portray
all the insides left cold and gray
there is a place that still remains
it eats the fear it eats the pain
the sweetest price he’ll have to pay
the day the whole world went away

It is not a tremendous leap to suggest that these words are spoken from the point of view of Luke Skywalker, Anakin’s son, who ultimately redeems his father and brings him back to the light side of the Force. “Decay” in the subject’s voice refers to Vader’s synthesized vocalizations, and the “plastic face” is of course the mask which Vader is doomed to wear for his own survival. Vader’s insides are “cold and gray” both literally and figuratively. After suffering devastating wounds in a duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin is forced to don prostheses and cybernetic enhancements in order to survive, rendering him “more machine than man”. His physical transformation is integrally linked with his psychological metamorphosis from hero to villain, from Jedi Knight to Dark Lord of the Sith.

Most importantly, the song even includes a reference to Vader’s redemption. “There is a place that still remains / It eats the fear it eats the pain” could very well be referring to the good that is still within Vader. Fear is a common motif in the story of Darth Vader–Yoda says to a young Anakin, “Much fear I sense in you,” foreshadowing the boy’s eventual fall from grace. The old master goes on to say that “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate”. Pain is also very much a component of Vader’s character–emotional pain from losing his beloved, and physical pain from his injuries and lifelong confinement to a “walking iron lung.” Toward the end of his life, Luke says to Vader, “I can feel the good inside you, let go of your hate!”. The final two lines refer to Vader’s death (“the sweetest price” is his life, and the “world [going] away” is his death.)

A secondary interpretation is that the lyrics are from the point of view of Vader himself, and the subject becomes Emperor Palpatine. The “decayed voice” and “plastic face” could refer to Palpatine’s cackle and frightening, deformed countenance. In this case, the song is not about Vader’s redemption but about his fall to evil. The dark side becomes the thing that “eats the fear”, “the sweetest price” would be the death of his wife, Padme Amidala, and the world going away would be the loss of everything Anakin holds dear.

Superficially, the song’s title and final line could refer to the destruction of Alderaan, a “world” which quite literally “went away” after being destroyed by the Empire.

The Becoming

Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 album, The Downward Spiral, addresses themes of self-destruction, powerlessness and loss of identity, all within the context of technology’s impact on humankind. One almost gets the impression that the album, with its synthesis of computerized noise and traditional instruments, could be telling the story of its own creation. Virtually every individual song on the album, as well as the album as a whole, could be a narrative of different aspects of Anakin Skywalker’s tragic downfall. However, for the purposes of this article I will discuss only one particular song, “The Becoming”:

I beat my machine it’s a part of me it’s inside of me
I’m stuck in this dream it’s changing me I am becoming
The me that you know had some second thoughts
He’s covered with scabs and he is broken and sore
The me that you know doesn’t come around much
That part of me isn’t here anymore
All pain disappears it’s the nature of my circuitry
Drowns out all I hear there’s no escape from this my new consciousness
That 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 now made up of wires
And even when I’m right with you I’m so far away
I can try to get away but Ive 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 don’t want to listen but it’s all too clear
Hiding backwards inside of me I feel so unafraid
Annie, hold a little tighter I might just slip away
It won’t give up it wants me dead
Goddamn this noise inside my head

This song seems to be describing the point of view of Darth Vader shortly after completing his transition to the dark side. “I’m stuck in this dream” could be a reference to the nightmares which plague Anakin and which become a crucial element of his downfall. Dreams about the death of his mother and his wife have a profund impact on him, and some would argue that the dreams themselves are the sole cause of his fear of loss, leading to his journey down the dark path. Many even believe that the dreams were psychically planted by Palpatine in order to sway Anakin.

The song makes several references to “the me that you know”, indicating that the author has two selves–one “that you know”, and presumably the real one. We’re told “That part of me isn’t here anymore”–in other words, Anakin Skywalker no longer exists. In Return of the Jedi, when Luke makes reference to Vader’s former self, the Dark Lord says “That name no longer has any meaning for me.” Earlier in the film, Obi-Wan says to Luke of his father, “He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader.”

In addition, we have several images of Anakin’s physical transformation–“covered with scabs” and “broken and sore” exactly describe Anakin’s condition following the duel with Obi-Wan. “All pain disappears it’s the nature of my circuitry” could either be referring to Vader’s physical pain being relieved by cybernetics, or his emotional pain being suppressed by the dark side. The author tells us he “is now made of wires”, another precise description of Vader’s body.

Like TDTWWA, the song addresses the good that is still within Vader. From line 13 to the end of the song, we hear the anguished voice of Anakin’s spirit as he clings to goodness–“Hiding backwards inside of me I feel so unafraid”. Again fear is revealed as a primary motivator. “Goddamn this noise inside my head” no doubt refers to pull of the dark side–“I must obey my master”, Vader tells his son.

Curiously, the song’s author makes a desperate plea to “Annie” to “hold a little tighter”. Could this be a reference to Anakin Skywalker, nicknamed “Ani” by his friends as a young boy? Doubtful, since the album was released five years before The Phantom Menace hit theatres. Moreover, there is evidence that Reznor was referring to a specific, real-life person (thanks Voidious!). However, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that “Annie” could be “Ani”, considering that Anakin’s name has been known since the release of Empire Strikes Back in 1980. At the very least it’s an interesting coincidence.

Aside from the lyrical content itself, there is nothing whatsoever to support the idea that Trent Reznor’s music is based on Star Wars. As a fan of both Nine Inch Nails and Lucas’ epic saga, I enjoy finding parallels between two, which is possible because both Reznor and Lucas appeal to universal themes in their work. Many of these themes just happen to be similar.

Who knows, perhaps it’s the other way around, and The Downward Spiral inspired Lucas to write the prequels. 🙂

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Star Wars Themes in Nine Inch Nails