My Parents and the Tipper Sticker

Or, the time they took my Nine Inch Nails album away from me

Image: John Haro

I was 13 years old and I’d just bought my first CD player, so I needed some CDs. I asked my parents if I could join one of those 10-CDs-for-$1 clubs, and they said sure, under one condition: I could not buy any CD with the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” warning label on it. You know, this one:

So, of course, the first one I ordered was The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails. My plan was, when it came in the mail, to quickly haul the cardboard package up to my room and use scissors to snip off the label. Parents couldn’t legally open your mail, I’d heard. What I didn’t expect was that the box itself would have a plastic window so that anyone — the mailman, the neighbors, my parents — knew that it contained a CD deemed Explicit! My parents discovered this and set out to teach me a lesson. What followed was an event that is now burned into some permanent fold of my brain.

My mom and dad — lovely, lovely people — sat me down at our dining room table in Oak Forest, Illinois, opened the CD, and tried to see what this Nine Inch Nails was all about by reading to me, aloud, lyrics from some of the songs. Like, say, “Big Man With A Gun” (“Shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot / I am gonna come all over you”) and “Closer” (“I want to fuck you like an animal / I want to feel you from the inside”). They confiscated the CD and forced me to sell it to a used record store the next day.

The event made an impression, but my parents and I never really talked about it. So, after 22 years, I finally interviewed them about the incident. This interview has been condensed.

Do you remember when I brought home a bad CD?

Mom: A little bit. [pause] Was it Nine Inch Nails? I read the lyrics out loud to you?

Yeah. Some of them are a bit risqué.

Mom: I wanted to embarrass you. We didn’t want you to turn out to be a potty mouth like you are. [laughs] That didn’t work.

I was young, so I wasn’t paying too much attention about it, but it seemed like there was a lot in the news telling parents “you have to watch out for these bad things.”

Mom: I think it was the more violent lyrics.

Dad: Violence… but I know there was something in there that was very sexist, and I know your mom didn’t like that. I remember talking to you about that, saying it’s not appropriate.

But did you know to look out for it because of the Parental Discretion sticker, and that Tipper Gore campaign? Did that affect you?

Mom: No. I don’t think it was the Tipper Gore thing.

Dad: No.

Mom: We were pretty liberal. We’d let you see R-rated movies. But we just didn’t like the words they were saying.

Dad: I think there was something that was very, oh, I don’t know, sadomasochistic kind of thing in there as I recall. At least one of the lyrics. We didn’t think that was appropriate.

Mom: Want me to read them to you again?

No! I don’t need you to! It’s scarred in my brain!

Mom: And how did that make you feel? Weren’t you embarrassed when I read it to you?

Oh yeah. I was super embarrassed.

Mom: That’s how I felt, that my son would be listening to that stuff. I was embarrassed.

I still think it’s good, and it has artistic merit, that it’s more than just lyrics.

Dad: There are a lot of songs like that, though. I’ll really like the music and the song, and then when I found out what they’re actually saying, it’s like, oh my goodness.

That seemed like an era where you guys, as parents, had to deal with stuff other parents before didn’t have to.

Mom: When we were little, the biggest things we had were like… a gun. [laughs] For cowboys and indians. That was it. And I really never had violent toys. We had never dealt with that stuff. And we didn’t think it was good for your brain to even open up that window at that point.

I was in eighth grade, though.

Mom: Yeah, that was too young.

What wouldn’t be too young?

Mom: Like, 18. [laughs] Eighteen.

Do you know how the Nine Inch Nails CD story ends?

Mom: No, what?

I remember you wanted me to sell it back to Discount Records the next day, so there was a full day I still had access to the CD.

Mom: [laughs]

After school the next day, I rushed home because I knew I had an hour before dad came home, and so I had enough time to make a copy of the CD on a cassette tape.

Mom: [laughs] You’re a bad boy.

Dad: We’re gonna have to ground you. Go sit in the corner for awhile.

Mom: And you just wanted to listen to it because we told you not to?

I wanted to listen to it just to listen to it, that’s why I got the album. But it being a “dangerous thing” probably added to me wanting to listen to it more.

Mom: Well, I don’t want you to listen to it anymore.

That’s okay. I’ve listened to it enough. As far as a lesson goes, are you happy with the lesson you gave me?

Mom: You know, the thing was this. As parents, you’re in charge of shaping a human being into a good person in this world, you know? And we wanted to only give you a positive environment all the way around. Even if dad said the F-word every so often…

Dad: Once.

Mom: …our job, our responsibility, was raising you as we saw the best way to do it. And it wasn’t listening to Nine Inch Nails.

Dad: Yeah. There’s no manual for that. Nobody knows what the right thing to do in a situation like that. There are a dozen different ways you can go with it. But you choose one way you think will work. It obviously didn’t, but… [laughs]

I don’t think it necessarily didn’t.

Dad: Who knows? Maybe if we chose a different way, you’d be an axe murderer.

It seems like Nine Inch Nails and Mortal Kombat were some of those early cases of what parents have to deal with now, with so much material out there.

Dad: Oh yeah. I don’t know if you knew, when Elvis first appeared on TV, they wouldn’t show below the waist when he’d wiggle his hips. So, there was some control at some other level.

Okay. That’s all the questions I have.

Mom: I do remember I was really, really mad. You know why?

It’s because I went against the rule.

Mom: You broke our trust. And you know what I always said, once you break it, it takes a long time to build it up again.

Dad: Fifty or sixty years. [laughs]

Have I regained it?

Mom: Oh, yeah. It just takes awhile to build it back up when you hurt someone like that. It was a privilege to order those CDs. We said, “okay you can do it, with these stipulations,” and then you didn’t follow it. That was disappointing.

I know. I’m… sorry?

Mom: [laughs] Are you feeling guilty now?

Yeah. You’re making me feel guilty. This was 20 years ago!

Mom: Good.

I felt guilty then though, too! It still didn’t stop me!

Dad: [laughs]

Mom: Was it that Catholic guilt?

That was probably part of it. All that happens is you feel bad, but it doesn’t stop you. You just end up feeling bad when you do it.

Mom: I think you just feel bad because you didn’t respect our rules.

No, I felt bad because you guys were upset. It wasn’t about respecting rules. I didn’t think the rule was good. I thought it was a bad rule.

Mom: You were 13 years old, of course you’d think it was a bad rule.

There were rules that I felt were good rules. I came home for curfews. But the Parental Advisory rule, I felt, wasn’t a good one.

Mom: I should’ve just played the Sound of Music songs for you all the time.

I’m sure I’d turn out to be a very normal person after that.

Mom: I remember being so, so mad. I should’ve whipped you.

You should’ve whipped me?

Mom: I want you to throw out anything you have that’s Nine Inch Nails. Right now. (to my dad) No, Rocky! Don’t!

What’s he doing?

Dad: I was trying to play some Nine Inch Nails for her.

Rick Paulas’ parents are great people he’s very lucky to have in his life, and entirely responsible for any “good” things he’s done, and exempt from the “bad” ones.