Thirty years ago, no one would have expected that Nine Inch Nails’ foreboding industrial dance rock would be at the nexus of Top 40 pop conversations. Yet, in 2019, Trent Reznor is everywhere he may have never wanted to be: you can hear the 2008 instrumental track “34 Ghosts IV” at the base of country-rap phenomenon “Old Town Road,” while reformed pop-punk boy band 5 Seconds of Summer cite NIN’s biggest hit “Closer” as an influence on gothic new single “Easier.” Now NIN’s breakthrough hit “Head Like a Hole” has been repurposed and rewritten for an episode of Black Mirror, where the new versions are sung by none other than Disney rebel Miley Cyrus.
In the episode “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” which premiered earlier this month, Cyrus plays Ashley O, a pink-haired pop icon known for her feel-good lyrics and for being the face of a “smart speaker” named Ashley Too. Like any good fictionalized pop star story, this one is incomplete without the appropriate music. The glimpse at Ashley O’s empower-pop in this episode comes in the form of “On a Roll,” a slinky, corny celebration of goal-achievement that brightens the melody of “Head Like a Hole” while also flipping the anti-establishment lyrics. The final product is the aural equivalent of a mall’s Sanrio store: bright explosions of Hello Kitty cuteness and lightness that would even be too much for Cyrus’ former pop star counterpart, Hannah Montana.
“I’m stoked on ambition and verve/I’m gonna get what I deserve,” Cyrus sings, flipping every syllable of the original lyrics. That daring twinge of familiarity and de-punking of an important moment within the alternative rock canon with tongue firmly in cheek is certainly Cyrus’ most effective attempt to unsettle her listeners.
“On a Roll” would never exist in the real Miley Cyrus universe; even her pivot back to country-pop on Younger Now felt too optimistic for the same artist who staked her claim on adulthood with a cover of Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” The underlying darkness and the disconnect of knowing that a cutesy, capitalistic take on a Nine Inch Nails classic shouldn’t work but inexplicably does feels like more danger than she’s been able to extract before.
Even Reznor has gotten in on the fun of song’s ridiculousness, selling “On a Roll”-themed merchandise (though he should show that same energy for the actually big “Old Town Road”). He may admittedly not listen to much pop, but pop has started listening to him at exactly the right time.