Music Matters: Sex, Guns'N'Roses, Nine Inch Nails, and My Misspent Youth

There always comes a point, when someone asks me to write for them, that I decide it’s time to write about sex.

When it comes to a column about music, that’s not as difficult as you might think. Sex is everywhere in pop music—rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop, r&b, they’re full of it. From the moment Elvis shimmied his hips on television, there’s been something not just sexual, but transgressively sexual about music. From the moment there was a youth culture around music, we’ve used it to tell our parents that we were thinking about sex whether they liked it or not.

For me, there’s two bands that I identify above all else with that moment in my own life. There was innocuous pop and my own adoption of my dad’s love for Elvis, there was even some fairly safe rock, but I think I finally allowed myself to own sexual feelings with my crush on Axl Rose.

Yeah, that’s right.

There was a boy that I dated in that way that you date boys when you’re in sixth grade, which mostly consisted of giggling phone calls and maybe some hand-holding. He was sweet and safe, but he liked this MUSIC. That was loud and nasty and talked about SEX. And he’d tease me by blasting “Shotgun Blues” from the Use Your Illusion II record at me over the phone, and I’d pretend to be horrified and slam the phone down, then pick it back up right away and he’d be there, laughing, because you can’t hang up on someone who’s called you until they hang up too. And he knew I didn’t really want to hang up.

Eventually I listened to the album myself, bought it I don’t remember how because I was definitely too young and I can’t see my mother purchasing it for me but maybe she did. It was a long time ago.

Those videos, though, featuring a snaky-hipped Rose and shirtless Slash with his guitar slung low, those were as dangerous as it got for a good suburban girl. And then, a few years later but still in the days when MTV played music and the radio didn’t suck (about 1994), there was this other song.

Even on the radio, we knew “Closer” was dirty. Really, really dirty. It’s not just the bleeped-out words, it’s that lowdown groove, the whisper-in-your-ear softness of Trent Reznor’s voice like his darkest, nastiest thoughts were a secret just for you.

The Downward Spiral was probably the album that sent me off in the black-clad clove-smoking sneaking-fishnets-in-my-backpack-to-change-in-the-bathroom-before-school direction I went in. I mean, “Reptile” was even filthier than “Closer” and yet even more compelling. I played it over and over. I had another crush that summer, on an older boy who worked with me at a big outdoor concert hall and who was there with us when we went to see Nine Inch Nails with David Bowie (oh, I did not appreciate Bowie then, and that is a tragedy), and I was still too shy to touch him so I never did.

There was more Nine Inch Nails with the boy that first really touched me, and maybe that’s why I let them drop after that whole thing blew up in my face. I moved on, on to music darker and creepier still, stuff that had never played on the radio and certainly never would now. Lost my virginity with Skinny Puppy playing in the background.

There’s a lot of not-secret sexism in a lot of the music that I associate with sex, and that’s probably not accidental. Claiming that masculine swagger for myself, dancing to those songs at high school dances or alone in my room, helped me be less scared of it.

Sex was still something that boys wanted and girls had to give, and maybe it was the ability to identify with the howling/whispering desire in that music that let me know it was OK for me to want it too.

I was old enough to critique it, working in a restaurant in New Orleans in my last year of college, when Trent Reznor came in with a small entourage and sat in my section. I was nervous at first, but he seemed even more nervous and sat quietly while his friends chatted, drank, tipped well. And I was nothing so much as disappointed when he left, watching this pale, slightly beefy guy in a New Order T-shirt and sandals walk out, that this idol of my teen years was so unassuming, so…nerdy.

(I’m a little older now as well and I could tell you that the nerdy boys are the sexy ones, but that too is a story for another time.)

And when I think about it, how could the real guy ever compete with this creature of videos and songs that taught me what sexual desire was?

by Sarah Jaffe
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6 Comments Have Been Posted

Trent Reznor

I'm so glad it was you and not me seeing Trent in person. I would probably have lost my mind. NIN saved my life, straight up. The Fragile, I believe, was somehow written for 16 year old me. God. I love Trent Reznor.


"It's not just the bleeped-out words, it's that lowdown groove, the whisper-in-your-ear softness of Trent Reznor's voice like his darkest, nastiest thoughts were a secret just for you."

This is absolutely spot on...I love this song...


I was 17 when The Downward Spiral came out. When I was 17, listening to Closer made me feel rebellious. Here I was listening to a song that was so blatently about sex. And without the rhymes and cockiness of hip hop music either.
I'm 34 now and the song still affects me, although in a much different way. Now when I hear the song I hear the raw passion and the idea of just losing yourself in the act, for the sheer pleasure and no other reason.
Makes me blush just thinking of it.

***btw I'm glad I didn't see him too, it would totally ruin my current fantasies.

Oh, man, that song, that

Oh, man, that song, that video. Sweet Child O' Mine, i discovered it when I was 13 and at that time watching that red-haired man grind his hips like that against the mic stand, listening to that guitar riff being played at a low-slung sexy angle that gave me a deep stirring feeling in my lower gut I couldn't describe but found exciting; I haven't heard this in so long. I used to think there was something so sexy about it- the music and the images, and I'm stll not sure what. Actually, now watching it a bit older after some years they look a little silly to me- like young boys trying to be all rock n roll and tough as opposed to when I first saw it and thought: look at those sexy tough guys, and what have you.
As for Nine Inch Nails I never heard that song until just now, and, I don't know, it didn't do anything for me. Some animal-like cravings, the raw sexual power, his voice can send shivers down your spine, surely. But there's something about hearing "i want to fuck you like an animal" while looking at a monkey on a crucifix that just doesn't appeal to me.
Now David Bowie, this is the man of impeccable sexiness, lasting through generations. i love his androgyny, I love Ziggy Stardust, I love his voice, heck, I swooned when i saw him dressed up as a fucking Elf king or whatever he was in Labrynth, i mean, seriously, how many guys can pull THAT off?!
This was a nice blog to read, contemplating on the different emotions music can leave you with, which a lot of people forget, can certainly include lust

Sweet Child O' Mine

When I saw the video posted on the page, I thought that you were going to bash the video or something. It still gives me chills everytime I see the video on TV. One of my faves.

What about Suede?

Did anyone ever see the video for "Animal Nitrate" by Suede? Brett Anderson is such an underrated frontman/girl:D That was definitely the sexiest music vidya I ever saw.

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