Parental Advisory on music albums is a thing of the past, but it has an amazing history
That black and white label affixed to albums has a black and white story all its own.
I was 9 years old when I bought my first dirty album. It was from a teenage clerk working at Sam Goody in the Colorado Springs mall, her bangs held high with cheap hairspray and a bit of luck. When I plopped the cassette down on the counter — 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be — she looked at me, eyed the bold sticker warning customers of explicit lyrics, and then rang up the sale. I used the change to buy my older brother a Coke.
Holding that album was the first time I felt rebellion. Having just bought explicit music with the controversial “Parental Advisory” sticker was like having your first cigarette. It felt cool. Not historical. But it was.
The purchase was made in early 1991 just a few months after a Florida judge ruled that very album to be legally obscene — “lacking serious artistic, literary, political or scientific merit.” The judge was right. The early-era staccato rap cadence of “Me So Horny” and “The Fuck Shop” doesn’t really offer much by way of scholarly fulfillment. Not unless lyrics like these could ever find their place in dissertations …
“Abraham Lincoln was a good old man / He hopped out the window with his dick in his hand / He said ‘Excuse me lady, I’m doing my duty / So pull down your pants and give me some booty.”
What many didn’t realize then was that Judge Gonzalez was another square pushing an ultra-conservative attack against art, another mouthpiece for a bunch of senator’s wives who began fighting “obscene” language in music some years earlier. The group was called the Parents Music Resource Center, or the PRMC, founded by four women known as the “Washington Wives.”
It was a bipartisan collection rock icon Frank Zappa once called “cultural terrorists.”
Tipper Gore was one of them, the lucky woman married to former Vice President Al Gore from 1970–2010. She grew to hate most popular music of the time because of a Prince album she bought for her daughter, Purple Rain. In one song he sang about masturbation. Eww.
The PRMC began its attack by releasing a list of 15 songs they felt were too offensive for U.S. consumers. The “Filthy Fifteen” as they called it included songs by Prince, Mötley Crüe, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Cyndi Lauper and others. That was in 1985, and a move that led to a Senate hearing over First Amendment rights and censorship. Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister testified. Frank Zappa and John Denver did too.
When all was settled between the two groups, wives and musicians, record labels agreed to affix a warning addressed to listeners about an album’s content. Controversial music didn’t get banned outright like the Wives wanted, but they didn’t mind the labels stepping up, either.
The issue then went quiet, hardly coming back into the conversation until the second wave of hip-hop gained mainstream traction through white suburban boomboxes. They blasted Public Enemy, Ice-T, N.W.A., Geto Boys and 2 Live Crew — a group that holds the distinction of releasing the first album ever to sport the Parental Advisory logo in its current form.
The battle wasn’t solely about a sticker, of course. Throughout the late-‘80s and early ‘90s, rap artists were arrested for public obscenity while performing their hits on stage. Ice-T carried a mark on his back for the song “Cop Killer.” Early Snoop Dogg couldn’t get a radio hit to save his life. No longer were “tame” rockers the point of contention, Gore and her cronies in Congress had new, blacker fish to fry.
Yet in the end, artists won. (Or maybe it was that money won.) The sticker told kids which albums to buy and the record labels knew it. Gangster rap became one of the most lucrative, and important, genres in music history. Songwriters continued to raise the bar and normalize dirty icky words. Those same kids the Washington Wives sought to protect, like me, grew up just fine.
There’s nothing wrong with masturbation!
And to think of how many people sodas have slowly killed over the years. It’s like we should put a warning label on them or something.