Parental advisory warning labels steeped in controversy
Staff Writer

A fan of the radio hits "Let’s Go Crazy" and "When Doves Cry," Tipper Gore purchased Prince’s 1984 blockbuster album, "Purple Rain," for her then 12-year-old daughter. To Gore’s surprise, the rest of the album was not as squeaky clean as the hits she had heard on the radio. She was particularly outraged by the song "Darling Nikki," in which Prince sings some racy lyrics.

Feeling misled as a consumer, Gore felt the time had come to promote awareness of inappropriate lyrics to parents.

In May 1985, the Parent’s Music Resource Center, a non-profit, tax-exempt organization, was born. Composed of several wives of senators, congressmen, cabinet officials and notable businessman, the PMRC had support from 700 Club minister Pat Robertson and television host Sheila Walsh.

Sharing unofficial PMRC spokesperson duties alongside Gore was Susan Baker, wife of Secretary of Treasury, James A. Baker III. Baker, who overheard her 7-year-old daughter singing along to Madonna’s "Like A Virgin," was eager to lend a hand to the up-and-coming organization.

Although the PMRC’s goal was to "educate and inform," the group found itself fighting off accusations of promoting censorship.

"Pornography sold to children is illegal," said Baker. "Enforcing that is not censorship. It is simply the act of a responsible society that recognizes that some material made for adults is not appropriate for children."

In the 1957 case Roth vs. United States, obscenity was defined as "a speech that is utterly without redeeming social importance." The 1973 case Miller vs. California modified the definition of obscenity to material "lacking serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value."

These definitions were the grounds in which the PMRC used to define "obscene" music.

According to music journalist Eric Nuzum, the controversy surrounding lyrical content of music started long before the PMRC. Giusseppe Verdi’s 19th-century opera, "La Traviata," was banned across Europe for the lyric, "He took the desired prize in the arms of love."

At the turn of the century, the presence of music censorship increased with jazz and blues growing in popularity. Count Basie and Duke Ellington were early jazz pioneers whose music was referred to as "jungle" and "devil’s music." The attacks were in full swing after white audiences – particularly white youth – became attracted to "black music."

In the early 50s, Billie Holiday’s "Love For Sale" was banned from radio stations across the country for its prostitution theme. Billboard and Variety trade magazines launched efforts to ban lyrics in rhythm and blues songs. Members of the North Alabama White Citizens Council collectively agreed rock ’n’ roll was part of a plot by the NAACP to mongrelize America.

In the 60s, Texas radio stations banned Bob Dylan, citing that it was too difficult to understand his lyrics. Station management feared his songs may have contained offensive messages. However, radio stations continued to play records of other artists covering Dylan’s material.

The Curtis Knight single "How Would You Feel" featuring Jimi Hendrix was also given little airplay at the time because of the song’s message of injustice against blacks in America.

During the 70s, music underwent drastic changes, and attempts to censor music continued to thrive. The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s PUSH organization launched a campaign against disco music, insisting the music promoted promiscuity and drug use. Unable to build the momentum and attain the media attention he needed, however, Jackson abandoned his effort.

In the early 80s, Mercury Records refused to release Frank Zappa’s "I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted" for fear it would create a backlash against selective service.

Zappa, John Denver and Dee Snider of the group Twisted Sister were all in attendance at the 1985 Senate hearing to investigate the lyrical content of popular music. Also in attendance were representatives from the Recording Industry Association of America.

Organized under the pressures of the PMRC, the hearing became a media field day. Sens. Trible, Hollings and Gore all discussed ways to protect children from "outrageous filth," as Sen. Hollings stated.

Reciting the First Amendment, Zappa took the stand to represent musicians. He referred to the requests of the PMRC as "treating dandruff by decapitation," and stated that the PMRC’s ideas were "whipped like an instant pudding by the wives of Big Brother."

Originally, the PMRC proposed that record companies rate records "V" for violence, "X" for sex, "D/A" for drugs and alcohol and "O" for occult. However, by the time of the hearing, Tipper Gore testified that the PMRC was no longer interested in a rating system but wanted record companies to voluntarily label offensive albums.

Complying with the PMRC, all of the major label record companies embraced the new labeling system.

Out of 7,500 albums released between 1986 and 1989, 49 displayed some type of warning message. By 1990, the black-and-white "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics" label had become the industry standard.

2 Live Crew’s "Nasty As They Wanna Be" was one of the first albums to bear the warning sticker. Best known for its hit "Me So Horny," 2 Live Crew’s "Nasty" also became the first album to be declared legally obscene. Artists ranging from Sinead O’Connor to Motley Crue spoke in defense of the rappers and their right to free speech.

In 1991, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest music retailer, announced it would not carry CDs with the PMRC-approved "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics" label. As a result, the record industry panicked and quickly issued edited versions of CDs to Wal-Mart stores nationwide.

Rap artists were affected most by Wal-Mart’s decision. Instead of hearing profanity on a rap album, the listener would instead hear brief moments of silence in which the record company had voluntarily edited the songs.

According to Nuzum, attacks against black music today are similar to the ones of decades ago,

"The music industry’s self-regulation of lyrics through the parental-advisory warning label is drawing a not-so-fine line between black and white," he said. "Most of today’s CDs that carry the parental-advisory label are from African-American and hip-hop artists.

"It’s never been proven that music causes people to do bad things. Outside of people who already had problems to begin with, there are no examples of a cause-and-effect relationship."

Since the PMRC and the RIAA’s agreement to label explicit CDs, a wide array of artists including Madonna, Lil’ Kim, Tupac, Prince, TLC and Marilyn Manson have had the sticker appear on the cover of their CDs.

The most controversial and arguably most successful artist to emerge within the 21st century is Eminem. A Detroit native and the music industry’s first critically acclaimed white rapper, Eminem has brought his unique style to an audience who might have otherwise never listened to rap music. Consequently, according to, Eminem’s CD "The Marshall Mathers LP" has become the best-selling rap CD of all time.

Despite a warning label on Eminem’s CD cover, teen-age consumers make up Eminem’s core audience. Since most retail stores pay little attention to the label it, has become increasingly easy for anyone of any age to purchase offensive CDs.

In 2003, the controversial rapper shares the same warning label as pop artists Janet Jackson, TLC and Ashanti. This raises the question: If artists’ lyrical content is completely different, why do all "offensive" CDs share the same label?

If the RIAA has no say in what record stores sell to minors, the next step is to evaluate the sticker itself. Now that the PMRC’s glory days are over, the RIAA should develop different types of warning labels to better assist parents in determining what is appropriate for their children. For example, a Janet Jackson album should be labeled as sexually explicit. A Marilyn Manson CD should be noted as having references to suicide and violence.

In retrospect, the PMRC was a classic example of people coming together for a common cause but with different agendas. Without the input of the 700 Club and other religious-based groups, the PMRC’s mission of a censorship-free campaign to protect children could have been effective. But, nowadays, 10-year-olds purchase Eminem CDs without hassle, making the PMRC’s efforts during the 1980s a waste of time.