These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.
Trent Reznor didn’t expect to make hits. In fact, he outright rejected the notion that his band Nine Inch Nail might strive for music with popular appeal, leading to a unrepairable rift with TVT Records, the label that signed him and released Pretty Hate Machine, the band’s debut album. The dispute didn’t exactly slow down Reznor’s creative process, but it did lead to a fair long wait before a second full-length studio effort was forthcoming.
Nine Inch Nails was basically swapped over to Interscope Records. After a couple EPs basically proved that the new corporate overlords were more amenable to Reznor’s caustic musical instincts, he and his collaborators began earnestly working on the material that would comprise the sophomore release. Around five years after the band’s debut, a follow-up, The Downward Spiral, finally arrived, in 1994. It was a major commercial success, getting all the way up to the runner-up spot on the Billboard album chart. To date, it’s sold over four million copies in the U.S.
Even with album sales popping, Nine Inch Nails was a fairly hard sell on commercial pop radio, which was still the main driver for the singles charts. Lead single “March of the Pigs” made it onto the Hot 100, but it could only go so high. For the second single, Reznor and the label went with a fairly unorthodox choice, given the need for some heavy duty editing to make it suitable for airplay.
“Closer” is raw, thudding, angry, and profane. In the waning days of MTV’s interest in playing music videos, the assemblage of nightmare footage promoting the single, directed by Mark Romanek, became a staple. Many songs were bigger that year (Boyz II Men had the top of the Billboard singles chart almost all to themselves for the second half of 1994), but few felt as a doggedly inescapable as “Closer.” Even so, it didn’t have the oomph to make it into the Top 40. Still undoubtedly the most famous Nine Inch Nails song, “Closer” was later out-charted by both “The Day the World Went Away,” in 1999, and “The Hand That Feeds,” in 2005.
Realistically, it’s impressive that a song highly reliant on the repeated phrase “I want to fuck you like an animal” even made it as high as #41.
Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.