“Parental Advisory: Explicit Content.” It’s a phrase that has embedded itself deep down in the consciousness of modern music audiences, loudly asserting itself in that black-and-white rectangle of moralism on the bottom right-hand corner of all your favorite albums. These days, that little box garners about as much attention as the signature at the bottom of a painting, but its early years sparked a fair share of heated debate regarding freedom of expression, the role of censorship in art and good ol’ family values.
Our story begins in 1985, when one Mary “Tipper” Gore purchased Prince’s Purple Rain for her 11 year-old daughter, only to be taken aback by explicit references to sex and female masturbation on the song “Darling Nikki” (“I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine”). Bewildered by her failure to protect young Karenna from the Purple One’s ode to consensual S&M, Gore (married, at the time, to future Vice President Al Gore) took it upon herself to co-found the Parents Music Resource Center, which aimed to lobby for industry regulations that would increase parents’ control over their children’s access to music.
Founded almost entirely by women, the 22-person group became known colloquially and in the media as the “Washington wives” — a reference to the fact that their spouses included 10 U.S. Senators, 6 U.S. Representatives and a Cabinet Secretary. Sexist nicknames aside, this undeniable clout brought instant attention to the cause, resulting in a Senate hearing for the PMRC just five months after its formation. In the months building up to that, the group released its hit-list of the top fifteen pop songs they found most offensive — with “Darling Nikki” perched right at the top.
Determined not to accept any of the compromises extended to them by the Recording Industry Association of America, the PMRC demanded that retailers hold albums with vulgar content behind sales counters, and that record companies print explicit lyrics visibly on album sleeves and “reassess” their contracts with musicians whose live shows hint at violence or sex. Above all, the PMRC wanted to establish a ratings system (similar to that used by the Motion Pictures Association of America) based on their own criteria.
Bizarre moments populated the ensuing five-hour hearing, as the most significant opposing testimony came from the unlikely team of John Denver, Frank Zappa and Dee Snider (of Twisted Sister fame). In an impassioned speech on freedom of expression, Denver referred to his own experience with censorship, recalling radio stations that refused to play “Rocky Mountain High” because they misinterpreted it as drug-related (which, if we’re honest, it is). Ever the outdoorsman, Denver testified: “This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains and also had never experienced the elation, celebration of life, or the joy in living that one feels when he observes something as wondrous as the Perseides meteor shower.”
Zappa, meanwhile, took the opportunity to chastise the PMRC for employing sensationalist “protect the kids” rhetoric, claiming that the group’s methods would result in “the reduction of all American music… to the intellectual level of a Saturday morning cartoon show.” This reactionary moralism, he argued, would do little to benefit the kids and would prove impractical in implementation.
That last bit proved the nail in the PMRC proposal’s coffin, as the sheer magnitude of a complex rating system would prove nearly impossible to administer. In the end, the RIAA agreed of their own accord to develop a “Parental Advisory” label, leaving it up to record companies and their artists to determine whether or not an album warrants it. Walmart seized the opportunity to prove its status as a “family-friendly” retailer, and refuse even now to stock their shelves with any records bearing Satan’s black-and-white rectangle. Musicians ranging from the Ramones to Ice T, on the other hand, decided to wear the label as a badge of pride — an affirmation of their music’s revolutionary capacity.
Today, PAL marks can be found on everything from folk to rap albums, and have little impact on record sales or distribution. Still, the debate that started it all remains a relevant one, with its most obvious modern analogue being the MPAA. Hollywood’s self-administered ratings system purports to tell audiences which films are appropriate for different age groups, yet the divide between PG-13 and R has long delineated a troubling passivity to violence and a close-minded reproach toward anything sexual – particularly when it’s not between a man and a woman. In other words, we’re overdue for a cultural dialogue when Hollywood promotes high-body count movies like Suicide Squad to kids while labeling 2010’s Blue Valentine as “pornographic” and unfit for wider audiences because it briefly depicts a woman receiving oral sex.
Perhaps more controversially, this history of censorship debates could help to explain a generational disconnect on the topic of trigger warnings in the college classroom. Even the older guard of New York Times readers (many of whom consider themselves proponents of social change) seems baffled by anything resembling a content label, as evidenced by the recent rash of articles concerning campus culture. In one of the more nuanced pieces on the topic, the New Yorker’s Nathan Heller conducted a series of interviews at Oberlin College, speaking with both students and faculty alike.
At one point, an English professor mentions that she and her colleagues had protested Tipper Gore’s PMRC initiatives back in the day. As a teacher, she strongly promotes the use of trigger warnings – but also stresses the need for discourse on the topic. “My students want warning labels on class content, and I feel—I don’t even know how to articulate it,” she said. “Part of me feels that my leftist students are doing the right wing’s job for it.” While that may or may not be true, there’s clearly some nuance here that’ll remain unresolved without a little discourse.
Chris Stanton is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Really Terrible! And Such Small Portions appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.