Trent Reznor is no stranger to having his music repurposed by others, often to drastically different effect. The platonic example of this, of course, is the Nine Inch Nails track “Hurt,” which Johnny Cash didn’t so much “cover” in 2002 as “take total possession of,” pressing his stamp so firmly into the song that Reznor openly acknowledged that “Hurt” was no longer his own. That’s not exactly what happened with “34 Ghosts IV”, off the band’s 2008 studio album Ghosts I-IV—sparsely haunting banjo tracks not being nearly as close to the heart as tormented meditations on loss and addiction—but it’s still undeniable that nobody’s ever going to be able to listen to that particular track ever again without going, “Oh fuck, is that ‘Old Town Road’?”
Which, of course it is: Lil Nas X sampled “34 Ghosts IV” extensively for his viral Tik Tok sensation, to the point that you could argue that the song’s winningly melancholy tone—which adds an important contrast to its lyrics about horses, tractors, and bladders—comes directly from Reznor himself.
Who’s totally cool with that: Although he’s mostly kept quiet about it as “Old Town Road” ran its memetic course this summer, Reznor has finally given an interview about the song, revealing that he’s perfectly happy for its success, and instructed his management not to obstruct efforts by Nas and his team to get the sample (retroactively) cleared.
The way it was presented to me originally is I got a call from my management saying, “We got a call from a panicked manager saying they had used the sample of something off Ghosts. They should have cleared it, but it didn’t get cleared. It’s picking up some steam on the viral Spotify charts. What do you think about that?” And I said, “Look, I’m fine with it. I get how stuff goes. They’re not saying they didn’t sample it. Just work it out, but don’t be a roadblock to this.” I hadn’t heard it yet. Then a few weeks later, I was like, “Holy shit.”
That being said, Reznor also resisted the urge to become part of the story. He apparently turned down a cameo in the song’s video, noting that, “Those guys should be the ones the spotlight is on. Having been listed on the credits of the all-time, Number One whatever-the-fuck-it-is wasn’t something…I didn’t see that one coming. But the world is full of weird things that happen like that. It’s flattering. But I don’t feel it’s for me to step in there and pat myself on the back for that.”