"Happiness in Slavery" is a standout from Nine Inch Nails' early output not for its confrontational nature, but as a showcase for Trent Reznor's acumen as a musician and a producer.
“Slave screams!” As with “Last”, the fifth (officially listed) track on Broken goes straight for the jugular. A dense cacophony of earth-shuddering rhythms, scything guitar and keyboards, and savage screams, “Happiness in Slavery” is tied with “Wish” for the title of the EP’s standout song, and is probably its most recognizable.
Of all the tracks from Broken, “Happiness in Slavery” is the one most directly descended from the first Nine Inch Nails album, Pretty Hate Machine. Discount the aggro guitars (harsher and turned up way louder than they ever would have been on Pretty Hate Machine) and this sadomasochist industrial dance number would fit comfortably against like-minded peers from that record, “Terrible Lie” and “Sin”. Yet comparing those cuts makes it clear how much NIN's Trent Reznor had evolved as a musician between 1989 and 1992. As great as those tracks are, they sound like warm-ups in comparison to the fully-realized vision of this number, where the ante has been upped considerably.
For those who want to place Nine Inch Nails in the lurid lineage of shock-rock (the act certainly never shied from pushing the buttons of America’s stodgier sectors, not to mention the direct link that can be made from NIN to Marilyn Manson), “Happiness in Slavery” makes the case all on its own. Yet whether they are titillating or off-putting to listeners, the song’s overbearing attack and taboo-tweaking lyrical matter (and even its danceable nature) are not why the track warrants attention. Rather, it is deserving of praise and recognition because it is the summation of Trent Reznor’s capabilities as a producer up to that point. While co-producer Flood pitches in on the EP’s other proper songs, “Happiness in Slavery” is Reznor’s showcase alone. Reznor gathers up all the tricks he has amassed in his career so far -- transgressive first-wave industrial confrontationalism, second-wave industrial dancefloor inclinations and insistent riffs, cutting-edge musical textures, self-loathing lyrics, a knack for hooks -- and arranges them meticulously in order to assemble his mechanical monster of a song.
The main rhythm of “Happiness in Slavery” is enough to shock the system. The hits of the drum pattern backbeat are akin to contained explosions, with nuances in texture separating them into the roles normally assigned to the bass drum and snare on a drum kit. Reznor’s alternating cries of “Slave screams!” and his static-shrouded callback lines blend in with the rhythm to form an impregnable gestalt of noise. Come the pre-chorsues, a snarling bass pattern intrudes. The bassline acts as a way to balance our and subvert (pervert, even) the honeyed melodicism with which Reznor sings “Don’t open your eyes / You won’t like what you see / The devils of truth steal the souls of the free”. A similar contrast occurs in the choruses, where mega-heavy guitars churn alongside a whiny synth melody and Reznor’s half-exhausted/half-relieved utterances of the song’s title. The second verse isn’t a mere reprise of the first; rather, spiraling guitar riffs coupled with his increasingly desperate screams convey the sensation that Reznor has cranked up the power on his musical torture machine to an alarming level.
The song’s extended bridge section acts as a demonstration of various percussive textures. Keyboards, drum patterns, even Reznor’s voice -- they all become pumping pistons tasked with crushing all resistance. Whether intentional or not, a precedent is audible in the metal-clanging bridge to Depeche Mode’s “Master and Servant”, a song which shares similar lyrical fascinations. Following the briefest of relieving pauses, that gnarly bassline and mocking feedback snap the song back to attention for a wordless final pre-chorus. By this late stage, the song essentially succumbs to its chorus, which it wallows in for over a minute until bit by bit individual elements are removed, leaving an isolated and dehumanized Reznor to whisper “It controls you”.
Though Broken hit the Billboard Top 10, radio wasn’t quite ready for “Happiness in Slavery”. Music television certainly wasn’t -- MTV understandably banned the song’s graphic video, which depicts a man being dismembered by a torture machine. Said unavailable video was included in the 1993 Broken companion film -- also never officially released due to graphic content (though Reznor is totally cool with it if you want to pirate it). It’s perverse then that the band’s performance of the song at its legendary mud-soaked Woodstock ’94 set was what earned it its second Grammy Award in 1995. At that point The Downward Spiral had cemented Reznor as a marquee-level rock star, and the similarly seedy (albeit less confrontational and more easily censored) “Closer” had dented radio and MTV, so while “Happiness in Slavery” was not (and will never be) everyone’s idea of a pleasant listen, the barriers to entry had been made a little less daunting. Still, all those middle-aged hippies at Woodstock ’94 must’ve wondered if the festival planners were playing some cruel joke on them as that song blared out from the stage.