The Anatomy of a Song
Updated: Oct 17
I’ll never forget listening to Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament live on Rockline in 1993, passing a bottle of wine and improvising “Bee Girl”, when a caller asked what the Pearl Jam song “Daughter” was about. If memory serves me correctly, there was an awkward pause, and then Vedder stated, in a much more somber and sudden sober tone, “I can’t answer that.”
It was then that this impressionable fourteen-year-old realized that some musicians didn’t want to talk about their lyrics. They were perhaps too personal, or about someone else, and a writer waxing poetic about their muses might impact the way the audience perceived the music.
Their perspective might change our perspective.
I’m about to do that.
Not with anything I’ve personally written, but with my interpretation of a beloved song. I’ve often wondered whether others have felt what I feel when I hear this song. And today, when I listened to it, I realized that I had to write about it. I can’t contain this shit any longer. Because maybe in disclosing the meaning it holds for me, someone else can heal.
I can heal in the process.
Lately, I’ve come to understand that this is why we’re having this human experience:
To share. To connect. It IS the meaning of life.
So, here’s what I want to tell you about the song “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails. If you’re not familiar, I invite you to grab your phones and pull the lyrics up right now.
At face value, or on the surface, this song seems to be about sex. I’m not sure if Trent Reznor, the writer, has ever disclosed the meaning or inspiration, but I can tell you that it wouldn’t matter to me because the song is forever tied to the way I feel about growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness.
And that has nothing to do with sex, not in the way the song implies anyway — and I have a feeling that Reznor also uses these words as a powerful metaphor.
I’ve been listening to “Closer” since its release in 1994, with a little break in between because at one point, when I become older and supposedly wiser, I thought a good Christian had to shun a song that speaks of fucking like an animal.
However, therein lies the paradox.
The religion wants/wanted/did fuck me like an animal. IT wants to feel me from the inside.
And it has. It did. But no more.
One day, while at an assembly — an all day gathering, held two or three times per year consisting of non-stop lectures with a break for lunch — I became particularly disturbed. I can’t even recall the specifics of the “talk”, but I do remember I had to leave the auditorium immediately. I felt like I was suffocating. And not being able to breath was something I’d felt on many occasions throughout my years as a JW.
So, I stepped outside for a little while, and as I sat on the brick planters, shuffling through some guilt or shame … or being happy I could catch a much needed breath of fresh air, a song paraded through my head.
It was then that I finally realized what those lyrics meant to me, some twenty years after their release. Part of the lyrics are included in this article for reference and teaching purposes only.
You let me violate you You let me desecrate you You let me penetrate you You let me complicate you
This is the narrator, in my case, the religion, speaking to me. I am the “you” and everything mentioned is what the religion does to me. Violates me. Complicates me. Penetrates me.
(Help me) I broke apart my insides (Help me) I've got no soul to sell (Help me) the only thing that works for me Help me get away from myself
This is now me speaking to myself after the religion has violated me. I’m begging for help. And I’m even begging the religion itself to save me, the very thing that is fucking with me. The last line of this part is more general, explaining how I’m left to feel afterward — I need to get away from myself too, not just the religion, I’m so devastated.
I want to fuck you like an animal I want to feel you from the inside I want to fuck you like an animal My whole existence is flawed You get me closer to God
The “I” is the religion telling me what it does to its sheep. The last two lines are now me. But those lines are lies. I’m not flawed and I’m already close to God. Lies I believe/believed based on what the religion taught me.
You can have my isolation You can have the hate that it brings You can have my absence of faith You can have my everything
The “you” here is also me but now I’m speaking to the religion. They’ve taken what feels like everything. Now there’s isolation, hate, absence of faith. And they can have it because that’s what they’ve left me with.
(Help me) tear down my reason (Help me) it’s your sex I can smell (Help me) you make me perfect Help me become somebody else
In particular, the second to last line, “you make me perfect”, resonates in a way that is hard to describe unless you were raised in this religion or in one similar, and you understand what it means to be taught that perfection is the ultimate goal — that nothing about this life will ever amount to anything, that the only real hope is to be perfect under Christ’s rule. Then this line, both rips you open and makes you whole.
First, it’s a lie. The religion does not make me perfect or make me want to be perfect but at some point, you believe that it does. Second, this line takes on its true meaning: it empowers the listener. It “perfectly” encapsulates the import of the entire song — that I am already perfect. And then that cry for help, the last line of this part, is answered.
It was answered when I walked out of that building. Only, I didn’t actually have to become someone else, I just got to be who I already was all along.
A.R. Hadley is a former Jehovah’s Witness now writing fiction under the same name. Her books have been published on Amazon, Apple, B & N, and more. It’s taken her a long time to want to speak about some of her experiences as a JW because its adherents label such people as apostates and they are shunned. Seven years after discontinuing her association with the organization, she is finally ready to heal.