When I was 12, my friend Chris and I started writing lyrics together. We never had a game plan or anything (neither of us played any instruments at the time) — these were just melodies we would sing in private to make each other feel cool. As far as the music itself went, it was 1996, so we pretty much got into whatever was on mainstream rock radio, which meant a lot of Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, and, of course, Nine Inch Nails. I don’t think either of us owned The Downward Spiral, as “Closer” was ubiquitously controversial enough that our parents knew better than to let us purchase it. But we did own two separate copies of Pretty Hate Machine, and we were drawn to a track that had the potential to be equally controversial had it ever gotten any airplay.
The song was called “The Only Time”, and in addition to the sleazy porno bass line, it had the lyrics “Lay my hands on Heaven and the sun and the moon and the stars/ While the Devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car.” As 12-year-old boys, we naturally thought this shit was the coolest. So when we began penning our own words, we went straight for the jugular, coming up with things that we just knew would get us in trouble should our parents ever stumble across them. Sample lyric of Chris’: “I’m just like gasoline/ I’m always fuckin’ mean.” Edgy, right?
Well, our parents did stumble across them. I was the only one with a computer, and my Dad found a scroll of continuous stationary filled with our toilet poetry. At the top was a NIN ripoff of mine called “Lapdog”, which pretty much involved me aping Trent Reznor’s dark imagery without any of his eloquence, creativity, or genuine emotion. The lyric that really caught my Dad’s eye was “Little Bo Peep got fucked by her sheep.” Of course, when he asked me who wrote it, I immediately sold out Chris. After further interrogation, I said that Chris and I wrote it together. (I was and still am a terrible liar.)
After even more grilling from my father, I admitted it was all me. He proceeded to my bedroom with an empty kitchen garbage bag and began throwing away my scant CD collection. Dirt, Short Bus, Superunknown, and Pretty Hate Machine: it all disappeared into the noisy maw of black plastic. Through my haze of tears, I didn’t realize that if my Dad really wanted to throw away my records, he would have tossed them straight into the actual garbage along with the dryer lint and food waste. But hey, I was 12. Even though he gave back all my music after my inevitable grounding had ended a couple weeks later, I had every right to believe I’d never see my beloved tunes again.
It’s important to note that I didn’t get in trouble for writing dirty words; I got in trouble for lying. Regardless, both my shitty nursery rhyme riff and my terrible lie (“Terrible liiie!!!”) started with the music of Nine Inch Nails. The image of Little Bo Peep getting fucked by her sheep in a meadow or Trent Reznor getting fucked by the devil in an Aerostar is laughable, yet when you’re in middle school, it feels dangerous, provocative, and so. fucking. cool. Trent, your music has evolved and so have you. But you could still get a lot of kids in trouble with their parents.
Anyways, here are 10 songs my parents hated … and probably yours did, too.
10. “Something I Can Never Have”
If a parent walked into a dark bedroom warped by the sounds of “Something I Can Never Have”, they would probably reach for a Bible. The track’s hazy aura and piano strokes, similar to a down-tempo rendition of the torturous theme from The Twilight Zone, make walls shiver and hearts tremble with its almost-empty foundation. Reznor succeeds in crawling underneath your skin with every minute, especially when the piano stares him down as he painfully croons among the industrial grinds and collisions. He attempts to escape such hell to find happiness, but it can only be found through one thing: possibly a drug, lover, item, or imagined creation. Its voice “echoes just like the ringing in [your] ears,” continuously teasing and torturing your heart — well, if you have one.
Contentious Lyrics: “I still recall the taste your tears, echoing your voice just like the ringing in my ears/ My favorites dreams of you still wash ashore, scraping through my head till I don’t want to sleep anymore”
Days Grounded: One week of sleeping outside
09. “Mr. Self Destruct”
“Mr. Self Destruct” opens The Downward Spiral with a sample from George Lucas’ first film, THX 1138. This audio snippet features totalitarian guards delivering a rousing beatdown upon the head of some poor sap who just couldn’t fit into society’s new order. This stomp session accelerates to a meteoric tempo, like a high that can’t be sustained or a bullet leaving a gun. The song races along with Reznor’s static-washed vocals spewing themes of violence, religion, anger, pain, drugs, and a variety of other touchy subjects that are sure to alienate anyone whose popular music radar stopped working in the mid-70’s. Not feeling disaffected yet? Stick around for the chaotic outro that inspired a thousand noisecore acts.
Contentious Lyrics: “I am the prayers of the naive/ And I control you/ I am the lie that you believe/ And I control you”
Days Grounded: The length of time it takes to listen to Pat Boone’s entire discography. A truly hellish penance.
08. “The Perfect Drug”
Parents wanting to spend quality time with their kids is a good thing. Mine always chose rather inopportune moments, though, like while I was watching the music video for “The Perfect Drug”. Every macabre image ever. Check. Trent Reznor laying on a demonic-looking bearskin rug when he isn’t splashing around in a pool of (dear God let it just be water). Check. And some pale chick inching along a giant severed hand. Check. Anyone wanna guess how this one turned out for me? And, Trent, could you please repeat the phrase “the perfect drug” just one more time. Because 50 times isn’t enough for two conservative parental units living in an upper-class neighborhood but paranoid that girl scouts and the postman might be pushing crack in our cul-de-sac.
Contentious Lyrics: “Turn off the sun/ Pull the stars from the sky/ The more I give to you/ The more I die”
Days Grounded: Six months of random drug testing. I still wonder what my parents did with all that urine. It’s not like they actually had a lab or anything. Pure parental bluff on their part.
07. “Terrible Lie”
“Terrible Lie” is a driving force to encourage the demise of all of those Sundays going to church, making everyone question how God really feels about us. Sure, the church claims that God loves everyone, but Reznor aims to convince otherwise. He defines religious beliefs as an unworldly addiction, making believers beg for mercy when life goes awry and scream “don’t take it away/ I need someone to hold on to.” Whether he used to believe or not, Reznor is pissed that his “dedication” has been ignored, being left without his “ignorance, security, and pride” for the better. This aggression could influence a teenager to stand up in the middle of Sunday school and scream that we live in a fucked-up world. While Reznor would be proud, their family would probably be banned from the church.
Contentious Lyrics: “I’m all alone in a world you must despise/ Hey God, I believed the promises/ Your promises and lies.”
Days Grounded: Fifty hours of community service picking up trash outside of churches.
06. “Somewhat Damaged”
Here’s a bit of advice for you. Always pre-listen to a new record before spinning it in the family SUV, especially when Gram-Gram is along for the ride. Fresh out of its shrink-wrap, I decided to play The Fragile on low volume. Not low enough, apparently. I think the relative subtlety of a line like “Lick around divine debris/ Taste the wealth of hate in me” from opening cut “Somewhat Damaged” may have evaded their censors, but “Too fucked up to care anymore” sure as hell didn’t. My defense? “The singer’s from western Pennsylvania!” (where we’re from). Not sure what my logic was exactly. This guy screaming obscenities at grandma may be corrupting me, but at least he’s from here. Better than some fucker from Cleveland doing it. Maybe the other 5,000,000 or so times my parents punished me were bogus. But, yeah, I had this one coming.
Contentious Lyrics: “Poisoned to my rotten core/ Too fucked up to care anymore”
Days Grounded: Loss of car stereo control until I moved out for college. Consequently, I still know the complete lyrics to every Andrew Lloyd Webber musical ever. Thanks, Mom.
With Broken, the follow up EP to the band’s juggernaut debut, Reznor wanted one thing for the listener: “an ultra-fast chunk of death.” He accomplished that, and much more, in a little under 32 minutes by excavating the dark side of his mental womb, the same icky place that would later deliver The Downward Spiral. Although “Happiness in Slavery”, “Help Me I Am in Hell”, and their cover of Pigface’s “Suck” all sound like fodder for your parents’ nightmares, it was the psychosomatic single “Wish” that everyone indulged repeatedly. Whether you scribbled, “I’m the one without a soul” in your school’s Bible — FYI: Catholic schooling, y’all — or shouted “fist fuck” at your friends in jest, there was probably an angry adult nearby to shake their head at you like a comatose Mr. Wilson. Someone over 30 dug it; after all, it won a Grammy in 1993 for Best Metal Performance. That person rules.
Contentious Lyrics: “No new tale to tell 26 years on my way to hell/ Gotta listen to your big time hard line bad luck fist fuck”
Days Grounded: Bi-weekly meetings with a family therapist; no trip to Burger King afterwards, either.
04. “Starfuckers, Inc.”
If Reznor’s haunted auras aren’t frightening already, imagine adding devil angel Marilyn Manson to the mix. “Starfuckers, Inc.” ridicules the worship of artificial celebrities, Manson serving as Reznor’s primary inspiration. The track’s lyrics play the minds of society down to their knees, where the songwriter illustrates the brainwashed bowing down to their idols assuring that “not a drop will go to waste.” To continue the mockery, Manson prances by Reznor’s side in the music video, surrounded by destroyed images of celebrities and their albums thrown in the toilet. Reznor aims to scare this media-drilled greed out of your blood, making parents shriek during every chorus’ declaration to Starfuckers, Inc. (44, to be exact). The real question: Does the edited “Starsuckers” make the song any easier to digest? I think not.
Contentious Lyrics: “And when I suck you off, not a drop will go to waste/ It’s really not so bad, you know, once you get used to the taste (Ass-kisser).”
Days Grounded: Mom washes mouth out with soap and a week’s worth of listening to K Love on the radio.
The Downward Spiral saw heavy rotation in my bedroom for several months in late 1994. My parents were bound to overhear at some point, and “Hurt” happened to be the track they first stumbled upon. Were they mad? No. Were they worried? You bet. Now that I’m old enough to have tweens of my own, I get it. If I heard my own middle schooler playing “I hurt myself today/ To see if I still feel/ I focus on the pain/ The only thing that’s real,” they’d be in front of a panel of shrinks before this six-minute track had ended. Maybe the irony is that most parents would actually dig this soft and melodic cut if not for those disturbing confessional lyrics, which of course leads us to the ultimate irony. Nearly a decade later, my parents loved when Johnny Cash covered “Hurt”. And that, my friends, is called hypocrisy. Yet another tool of the parental trade that I totally get now. Wow, what have I become, indeed.
Contentious Lyrics: “I hurt myself today/ To see if I still feel/ I focus on the pain/ The only thing that’s real”
Days Grounded: Zero. But they removed my bedroom door from its hinges and denied me any sharp objects to write with.
Friedrich Nietzsche coined the phrase “God is dead” (“Gott ist tot” in his native German, respectively) as a means of deconstructing widely accepted doctrines that get passed down from parent to child, leader to follower, and saint to servant. Too often, people are raised to accept fabled truths on blind faith without stopping to think about the actual implications of these beliefs or the crimes committed by those who make a living by scaring younger generations into unflinching devotion. Reznor’s own mindful nod to this concept is splashed across “Heresy”.
As an artist, he has never shied away from attacking those who flex underserved authority. Further, the Nine Inch Nails frontman built a career by proclaiming his own moral outrage and calling out religious institutions by name. Not the exactly the kind of stuff you want to play while grandma drops you off for Sunday School. But for many kids out there, getting lost in The Downward Spiral was their first act of youthful defiance, especially if they couldn’t afford tickets to the Warped Tour.
Contentious Lyrics: “He dreamed up a god and called it Christianity/ Your god is dead and no one cares/ If there is a Hell, I will see you there”
Days Grounded: Not allowed to leave the house until the second coming.
Standing in the center of a boiling, haunted laboratory filled with nude sex slaves, slimy cockroaches, make-shift crucifixes, rotting animal intestines, and twisted inventions, Reznor reveals his purest state of mind. As Reznor later explained, “The rarest of things occurred, where the song sounded better to me, seeing with the video, and it’s my song.” Parents shivered in fear after hearing Reznor scream, “I want to fuck you like an animal” while parading around animal carcasses, not to mention talking about the dirty deed to such innocent ears. His “absence of faith” and desire to “violate, desecrate, penetrate” seethe through inspiration of disgusting lust, which Reznor couldn’t find to be more beautiful. After parents were warned about this song plaguing the airwaves, there were blocked channels and ear plugs aplenty.
Contentious Lyrics: “I want to fuck you like animal/ I want to feel you on the inside/ I want to fuck you like an animal/ My whole existence is flawed/ You get me closer to God.”
Days Grounded: A chastity belt and possibly two shots of Thorazine.