Who’s to Blame for the Parental Advisory Stickers on Albums?
In this era of ubiquitous digital media, the idea of being unable to purchase our favourite music at a store that sells music sounds kind of ridiculous. But that was the unfortunate reality for millions of teenagers in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s wanting to listen to the coolest albums, all thanks to the introduction of the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” warning label. While the Parental Advisory Label, or PAL, still exists today and can be found on new albums, few people take notice of it, which is a far cry from the reality of a couple decades ago when it sufficiently scared some retailers enough to make them not stock CDs marked with that scarlet letter at all. So who do we have to blame for this clumsy, ham-fisted attempt at censorship of one of our oldest forms of expression? In a word, Prince. In more words than that, Prince and Al Gore’s wife.
To explain, the genesis of the Parental Advisory sticker can be traced back to a single Prince song titled, Darling Nikki. For anyone who doesn’t have The Purple One’s discography memorised as you should, the song contains the lyrics: “I knew a girl named Nikki. I guess you could say she was a sex fiend. I met her in a hotel lobby. Masturbating with a magazine.”
An explicit line sure, but by no means the most offensive thing ever recorded, even by Prince, and millions of people listened to the song without giving the faintest whiff of a crap that they should be offended. One person who was taken aback by the line, though, was Mary “Tipper” Gore, the wife of then senator, Al Gore. According to Tipper, she was listening to the 1984 album Purple Rain with her 11 year old daughter when she heard the offending lyric. Stating: “The vulgar lyrics embarrassed both of us. At first, I was stunned — then I got mad! Millions of Americans were buying Purple Rain with no idea what to expect!”
Somehow not being named Karen, Tipper was shocked that a musician famed for his flamboyant, sexually charged performances would release a song referencing sex. Thus, she formed a group called the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in 1985 with the ultimate goal of censoring all music referencing anything the group deemed offensive. Like Tipper, the other members of the PMRC were mostly wives of notable, high-ranking politicians, leading to the coining of the nickname “The Washington Wives” by the press, with all the wives similarly shocked by lyrics in the pop songs of the era. Notably, one member, Susan Baker, the wife of then Treasury Secretary James Baker, joined after her 7-year-old daughter listened to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and innocently asked her what a virgin was… We’re just grateful both of them got out of that situation alive.
While these stories make for amusing anecdotes today, in the 1985 they were used as fuel for the fire the PMRC wanted to light under the butts of the RIAA. The stated goals of the PMRC were to limit access of music they deemed unacceptable to minors. A noble goal admittedly, but one they wanted to tackle in an awkward and heavy-handed way. For example, the PMRC wanted to not only label music containing explicit lyrics (or lyrics referencing anything they deemed objectionable like sex, drugs, or alcohol), but also limit their sales in big stores, as well as have their covers censored and ban them from being played on the radio. Which, in an era before Napster and later streaming, would be a surefire way to kill album sales.
To this end, the PMRC released a list dubbed “The Filthy 15”, basically a list of the songs of the day containing what they felt contained the most unacceptable lyrics and themes. A list that today actually reads like a pretty kick-ass mixtape, featuring artists like, AC/DC, Cyndi Lauper, Black Sabbath, Prince, Judas Priest and Def Leppard, amongst others.
In an attempt to appease the PMRC, the RIAA agreed to self-censor some releases by including a small sticker reading “WARNING: tone of this record unsuitable for minors” and later a more firm sticker reading “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics”. A move that was widely criticised by musicians of the era and provoked the ire of the PMRC further. Naturally, the group felt that the move wasn’t enough, so took the issue to the Senate, hoping to push for a mandatory rating system similar to the one employed for movies by the MPAA.
In the ensuing hearing that began on September 19th, 1985, the PMRC argued that, and we are going to quote them here because the inaccuracy of the latter half of their statement offends our sensibilities, their goal was “to educate and inform parents of this alarming new trend towards lyrics that are sexually explicit”.
Yes… A “new” trend concerning sexually explicit lyrics… From a group of women who mostly grew up in the 1950s and 1960s… I mean, the 1958 hit Lollipop is literally about a girl noting her man tastes sweet, she loves when he shakes his hips at her, and otherwise continually references him being her own personal lollipop… That’s not to mention, you know, a large percentage of the rest of songs since humans have been humaning. Like, don’t even get us started on songs like the 1971 international hit “Brown Sugar”, by the Rolling Stones, which includes such extremely family friendly lyrics like discussing slave woman rape:
“Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.
Brown sugar, how come you taste so good? Uh huh
Brown sugar, just like a black girl should, uh huh, oh (Woo)”
In any event, going back to Tipper and friends, they once again cited the Filthy 15, as well as the music videos for Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” and the album cover of Def Leppard’s Pyromania to illustrate this “new” disturbing trend in music.
The PMRC additionally called on the testimony of a music professor who argued that heavy metal was fundamentally dangerous because it centred around “the element of hatred”, as opposed to rock and roll, which was derived from church music…
Now, it’s at this point we are going to do a brief aside to discuss the origin of the moniker “rock and roll” because it’s literally, and very explicitly in its origin, about sex.
The word “roll” has been used since the Middle Ages to refer to, among other things, having sex: “Let’s go for a roll in the hay”; “Rolling under the sheets”; etc. The word “rock”, again among other things, has been used since at least the 17th century as a term meaning “shake or disturb”. A couple hundred years later, this had also spread to black gospel singers using “rock” to refer to being shaken in a spiritual sense, as in spiritual rapture (rocked).
By the early 20th century “rock” had morphed somewhat to being used as a slang term by black Americans referring to dancing to music with a strong beat, principally rhythm and blues- at the time called “race music” or “race records”. The specific 1922 slang definition of “rock” was something to the effect of “to cause to move with musical rhythm”; it also had strong sexual overtones when used in this way.
Around this same time, these two terms, “rock” and “roll”, had naturally merged together, forming a double entendre, typically referring to very suggestive or scandalous dancing as well as simply having sex, depending on how you looked at it. One example of this is the 1922 song “My Man Rocks Me, with One Steady Roll”.
Another early reference to the term “rock and roll” was a 1935 J. Russel Robinson lyric from Henry “Red” Allen’s Get Rhythm in Your Feet and Music in Your Soul,
If Satan starts to hound you, commence to rock and roll. Get rhythm in your feet and music in your soul…
At this point, the phrase “rock and roll” was relatively well known among black Americans. This particular tune was also later covered by quite a few popular white musicians, such as Benny Goodman, which may have helped spread this phrase somewhat.
The term got its biggest global boost through a Cleveland, Ohio disk jockey named Alan Freed. Freed played early forms of rock and roll (mix of rhythm and blues and country music, primarily) on his radio show and called the mix “rock and roll”, a term he was previously familiar with from race records and songs such as “Rock and Rolling Mama” (1939) and “Rock and Roll” (there were three songs named this in the late 1940s).
Freed was encouraged to call this mix of music “rock and roll” by his sponsor, record store owner Leo Mintz, who was trying to boost sales on race records by getting white shoppers to buy them. Race records weren’t very popular at the time among white people, but by re-branding the music “rock and roll”, the music quickly became extremely popular among teenagers of all ethnicities, largely thanks to this and Freed’s radio show, The Moondog Rock & Roll House Party. (Incidentally, classic style “race records” were in the process of being re-branded around this same time to “Rhythm and Blues”, thanks to famed music journalist and producer Jerry Wexler.)
In any event, Freed’s show was also the primary reason why Cleveland was chosen for the location of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the 1980s. When deciding between cities, the selection board chose Cleveland owing to Freed having played a significant role in popularizing rock and roll music and the branding the style of music “rock and roll”, though he obviously didn’t coin the term itself, as noted previously.
In any event, once again going back to the then very obviously extremely “new” trend of songs referencing sex that occurred in the 1980s, which had at no point before in history ever been a thing, testifying on behalf of not censoring what would eventually become some of the fondest remembered artists and music of the 1980’s was none other than Frank Zappa, as well as country musician John Denver and Twisted Sister frontman, Dee Snider. All three men delivered withering take downs of the proposed censorship, passionately arguing for the right to express themselves creatively, with Snider in particular taking the opportunity to take a pot shot at Tipper for misconstruing and using the lyrics for Under the Blade as promoting “sadomasochism, bondage, and rape” in an attack article about him the previous year. All things he took exception to as a practising christian and family man who also just so happened to front a heavy metal band. In his official statement to the Senate, Snider educated the media and Tipper on the real meaning of the song, stating: “The lyrics [Gore] quoted have absolutely nothing to do with these topics. On the contrary, the words in question are about surgery and the fear that it instills in people.”
He then added, “That [Gore] could misquote me is curious, since we make it a point to print all our lyrics on the inner sleeve of every album. As the creator of “Under the Blade,” I can say categorically that the only sadomasochism, bondage, and rape in this song is in the mind of Ms. Gore.”
Snider was unable to sway Gore and the Senate and the RIAA feeling mounting pressure from the public agreed to self-censor all new releases from November 1st of that year, before the hearing had even reached a conclusion. As part of this compromise, the RIAA agreed to place large, standarised warning labels on any album containing overt references to sex, drugs and alcohol and to also audibly censor said references for the radio. This was acceptable for the PMRC who, by the way, originally wanted the offending lyrics to be clearly written on a much bigger sticker on the front of the album. For some reason, the PMRC never saw the irony in trying to stop children hearing swear words by writing them in massive letters on the front of a CD.
Curiously, although the censoring of songs for the radio is compulsory to comply with obscenity laws and ensure a record can be played at times when kids may be listening, putting a PAL sticker on an album is entirely optional. As the President of the RIAA, Cary Sherman has himself explained:
“Artists have a first amendment right to express themselves, and consumers have a right to hear what those artists say. Consumers also should be warned when they might find some of the content objectionable. By asking the artist and the label to make that determination, we avoid any appearance of censorship by a ‘board’ or some music nanny. Instead, it’s the artist and label who are advising listeners that they should be aware that some of the content may be objectionable”
As a result, artists are under no obligation to put PAL stickers on the albums if they don’t personally feel there is any objectionable content contained in it. This said, their record company might simply do this to avoid controversy. Similarly, back when they existed en masse, record stores could label any objectionable content themselves to warn parents, something that notably occurred with Frank Zappa’s, Jazz from Hell. It should be noted here that the album is entirely instrumental and contains no lyrics despite receiving a “Parental Warning: Explicit Lyrics” sticker. Thus, it is often used as an example of censorship gone mad, with some going as far as to suggest the censorship was a spiteful response from the PMRC due to Zappa’s comments during the 1985 Senate hearing. However, the truth is that while the record did receive an explicit lyrics warning, it wasn’t from the PMRC or even Zappa’s record company, but rather a regional chain of the Fred Meyer department store who took exception to the name of the song- G-Spot Tornado. Fred Meyer execs, who were presumably unaware that the album had no lyrics, stuck a generic warning label on it because of this song name and released it as usual.
One store who took the warning labels more seriously still was Wal-Mart, who famously refused to stock any album with a parental warning, along with magazines discussing rock and heavy metal. Even today, the chain will only sell “clean” versions of albums with profanity edited out, a choice that saw them refuse to stock the Green Day album, 21st Century Breakdown, when the punk rockers refused to back down to the retail giant in providing an edited version.
All of this said, it should be noted that even back when physical media reined supreme, musicians noticed that the warning label did little stop sales and, in some cases, actually seemed to help improve them. Nowhere was this effect greater than the first album ever slapped with the standardized warning label- 2 Live Crew’s Banned in the U.S.A. The album was declared obscene and one Florida district went so far as making it illegal to purchase (a record store owner was actually arrested for selling a copy to an undercover cop). Eventually these charges were quashed, but not before the band had their name splashed in newspapers across the country, resulting in millions of potential fans hearing about this album that was too spicy for their ears. Members of 2 Live Crew eventually recognised the controversy as a positive boon to the album’s sales, the exact opposite intention of PMRC.
Since then, some of the best reviewed and selling albums of all time have carried the same warning, from Dr Dre’s The Chronic to Blink 182’s Take off Pants and Jacket. The lesson to parents being, if you want to stop kids listening to music you think is inappropriate, first, please for the love of all that is holy remember that the music you listened to as a kid was just as spicy. And, also, maybe don’t ask record labels to put a massive sticker on the front of every album telegraphing to kids that it has something they totally want to hear more about in it.
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