The Story Behind Parental Advisory Stickers

Housewives vs. rock ‘n’ roll.

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The Story Behind Parental Advisory Stickers

Rock ‘n’ roll culture has always been music for rebels, shared by different racial and social groups. Since the beginning of the genre, the contrast between parental and youth culture has been a recurring source of concern for older generations, who worried about their kids ‘acting out’ and getting themselves into trouble.

On September 19, 1985, Tipper Gore, the wife of senator and future Vice President Al Gore, started a cultural battle between the concerned housewives and rock ‘n’ roll idols. Tipper’s peace was shuttered after her preteen daughter brought home a copy of the soundtrack album to Prince's Purple Rain (an R-rated movie), and Tipper heard the lyrics to the song ‘Darling Nikki.’

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
She said how'd you like to waste some time
And I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind.
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The noble lady felt deeply offended and decided to lead a crusade against explicit lyrics in rock music. She formed a Parent Music Resource Center (PMRC) together with her Washington housewife friends, Susan Baker (wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker), Pam Howar (wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar), and Sally Nevius (wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius). The "Washington Wives" stated a goal for their organization to increase parental control over the access of children to music deemed to have violent, drug-related or sexual themes via labeling albums with Parental Advisory stickers.

The group sent a letter to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and more than 50 record labels proposing that record companies either cease the production of music with violent and sexually charged lyrics or develop a motion picture-style ratings system for albums. The PMRC made American stores including Wal-Mart, J. C. Penney, Sears and Fred Meyer withdraw rock music and magazines from their sales.

The "Washington Wives" also made a special list of most objectionable songs called the "Filthy Fifteen." Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Def Leppard made the list. Even Cyndi Lauper was too dangerous for young ears according to the PMRC.

Cronos (Venom singer):

I was told about the PMRC during a recording session in the '80s, and I thought someone had hidden cameras, like pulling a prank on me to see my reaction, so I dismissed it as bollocks. Then, when I found out they were real, I couldn’t understand how supposedly intelligent people could be so ignorant. Of course, rock 'n' roll has all of the subject matter they accused it of having. It's rock and roll! It's supposed to be hard-core and edgy. Most of us rockers have families, and we are responsible parents. We don’t need the PMRC doing our jobs of protecting our kids from the harmful shit in this world. I would have been more upset if one of my songs or albums had not taken pride of place on their list.

Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider on what he thought of “We’re Gonna Take It” appearing among the PMRC's "Filthy 15":

I thought these women were very confused. And I quickly became aware that they only had had a passing glance at the content of songs. They just made some snap judgments. They saw the "We're Not Gonna Take It" video, "Oh, he's beating up his father, it's a violent song." They thought it was about violence against adults. They had not vetted the songs they had chosen very well.

On September 19th their battle against immorality came to its culmination in a "porn rock" Senate hearing featuring testimony from music stars who were willing to fight back the censorship. Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider testified against the PMRC proposal.

Even though Frank Zappa wasn’t included in the ‘Filthy Fifteen’ list, he still was infuriated by the fact of its existence because to him it felt like Cucamonga all over again.

Here is a video of his statement in court.

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Frank Zappa:

There are several "historical accounts" from which to choose. Let's arbitrarily choose this one: One day in 1985, Tipper Gore, wife of the Democratic senator from Tennessee, bought her 8-year-old daughter a copy of the soundtrack album to Prince's Purple Rain—an R-rated film which had already generated considerable controversy for its sexual content. For some reason, however, she was shocked when their daughter pointed out a reference to masturbation in a song called "Darling Nikki." Tipper rounded up a bunch of her Washington housewife friends, most of whom happened to be married to influential members of the U.S. Senate, and founded the PMRC.

Kandie Stroud, journalist and PMRC spokeswoman who debated Frank Zappa on TV:

We were a family completely saturated in music. I remember one time, one of my kids said, "Listen to this song, but don't listen to the lyrics, mom, you won't like them." Sure enough, it was some explicit song. I think it was something by Prince. I kind of looked into the topic and interviewed a bunch of different people in the music world. I thought, "Wow, it's really changed since the days of the Beatles and Elvis."

Cerphe Colwell, longtime Washington, D.C., radio personality who testified at the PMRC hearing:

Ironically, most of the heavy metal songs that they listed at the time were virtually unknown to the public. Heavy metal as a music format hadn't really blossomed. I truly believe to this day that one of the reasons that metal took off so much in the 1980s as a successful format is that the PMRC brought attention to what they thought was unacceptable, and of course that made it very much in the spotlight.

For Dee Snider, his testimony was a chance to show the world that he was not the dumb, aggressive metalhead the PMRC thought he was.

Here is Snider’s full testimony:

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Dee Snider:

You talk about the music that was on the Filthy Fifteen, it's easy listening by today’s standards. It’s more than ironic that in the movie Rock of Ages, the Parents Music Resource Center-esque group headed by Catherine Zeta-Jones sang "We're Not Gonna Take It" at the rock star! That’s irony in its purest form.

Dee Snider:

Gotta give John Denver credit. His testimony was one of the most scathing because they fully expected—he was such a mom-American-pie-John-Denver-Christmas-special-fresh-scrubbed guy. Everyone expected that he would be on the side of right—right being censorship. When he brought up, "I liken this to the Nazi book burnings"—that's what he said in his testimony—you should've seen them start running for the hills! His testimony was the most powerful in many ways.

Here is the full speech of John Denver American singer-songwriter, actor, activist and humanitarian:

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On November 1, 1985, before the hearing ended, the RIAA agreed to put "Parental Advisory" labels on selected releases at their own discretion. The labels were generic, unlike the original idea of a descriptive label categorizing the explicit lyrics. It is uncertain whether the "Tipper sticker" is effective in preventing children from being exposed to the explicit content. Some, citing the "forbidden-fruit effect," suggest that the sticker actually increases record sales.

A ‘U.S. News Tonight’ newscast:

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The PMRC eventually grew to include 22 participants before shutting down in the mid-to-late 90's. Though the Parental Advisory labels are largely obsolete 32 years later, the question of the PMRC's lasting legacy remains.

Tipper Gore, released a statement to Rolling Stone magazine on the 30th anniversary of the Senate hearing:

In this era of social media and online access, it seems quaint to think that parents can have control over what their children see and hear. But I think this conversation between parents and kids is as relevant today as it was back in the Eighties.

35 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Good old Frank. In a way he won anyway. The Tipper sticker, if anything, made kids buy records. 
    It just make a record more baddass cos it had a parental label on it. Loved the rush of knowing I had a CD with swearing in it (when I was 12)
    Roger Waters nailed this in 1977 when attacking Mary Whitehouse, a British advocate of Censorship, in 'Pigs (Three Different Ones)' on Pink Floyd's Animals: "Hey you, Whitehouse Ha, ha, charade you are You house proud town mouse Ha, ha, charade you are You're trying to keep our feelings off the street You're nearly a real treat All tight lips and cold feet And do you feel abused? You got to stem the evil tide And keep it all on the inside Mary you're nearly a treat Mary you're nearly a treat But you're really a cry" 
    How about you take responsibility and know what you're buying your kids and what you're exposing them to. That's the problem these days- bad parenting. Too many parents take their kids to see rated R movies, let them play GTA. This is content specifically made for adults, it's not meant to be for children. The fact that your child can get his or her hands on this material is all on you.
    Great Article! I remember when i was in high school a "rebellious" kid did a big passionate project about how the Parental Advisory sticker goes against the constitution and is Censorship. While i agree the parental advisory sticker is a tad ridiculous, and helped increase some sales, its ultimately not a big deal (its the same a R rated movie), it is most certainly NOT censorship. The product is still available and the lyrics (unless edited for Walmart) are not erased by the government. There is a distinction between a warning label, and something banned by a governing entity as unsuitable and forbidden for the public.   
     "Hook In Mouth" [Music by D.Mustaine/D.Ellefson, lyrics by D.Mustaine] A cockroach in the concrete, courthouse tan and beady eyes A slouch with fallen arches, purging truths into great lies A little man with a big eraser, changing history Procedures that he's programmed to, all he hears and sees Altering the facts and figures, events and every issue Make a person disappear, and no one will ever miss you Rewrites every story, every poem that ever was Eliminates incompetence, and those who break the laws Follow the instructions of the New Way's Evil Book of Rules Replacing rights with wrongs, the files and records in the schools You said you've got the answers, well who asked you anyway ? Ever think may be it was meant to be this way ? Don't try to fool us, we know the worst is yet to come I believe my kingdom will come [CHORUS:] F, is for fighting, R is for red Ancestors' blood in battles they've shed E, we elect them, E, we eject them In the land of the free and the home of the brave D, for your dying, O, your overture M, will cover your grave with manure This spells out FREEDOM, it means nothing to me As long as there's P.M.R.C F, is for fighting, R is for red Ancestors' blood in battles they've shed E, we elect them, E, we eject them In the land of the free and the home of the brave D, for your dying, O, your overture M, is for money, you know what that cures This spells out FREEDOM, it means nothing to me As long as there's P.M.R.C [CHORUS:] Put your hand right up my shirt Pull the strings that make me work Jaws will part, words fall out Like a fish with hook in mouth Rewrites every story, every poem that ever was Eliminates incompetence, and those who break the laws Follow the instructions of the New Way's Evil Book of Rules Replacing rights with wrongs, the files and records in the schools I'm not a fish I'm a man Hook in mouth
    In words of Mark Twain :  When a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn't anger me.  All of this censorship backfired fantastically. Everyone wanted albums with the sticker.  It wasn't a 'cool' unless it had one. Nowadays, it's much worse. Nowadays they bury you with loads of bullshit.  Nowadays they don't tell you you can't say something. They simply accuse you of offending someone you shouldn't. They accuse you of compromising 'our great values'...
    Its actually starting to repeat, because people are tending to pay more atention to the people that are pointed at as offenders. Yes, they get lots of hate, but at the same time they manage to open a lot of dialog on people.
    If a sticker stops a young child singing about masturbation, then yeah I'm ok with that, but sex sells pretty well to kids these days, and the lack of censorship for the junk on MTV doesn't seems to be helping.
    And not to mention the filth you can hire in Blockbuster or the horrible violence instilled in young ones in these so-called "games" at the arcade! Anyways, it will all become a bigger problem now that these "Compact Discs" have entered the market. May Ronald Reagan save us all!
    Of course, censorship is shit and plain wrong. But I think having a way to let parents know if the music has "adult content" is ok. I mean, is up to the parents to raise their underage kids and if they think "he's too young for this stuff, we should have a talk about the topic before he listens to this" then a little warning It's ok. My father was always open to talk about sex, so I never had that kind of problems, but I remember he did some research on GTA San Andreas and had a chat with me about the content, It was mostly "remember It's a game, killing and stealing is not right, if you don't understand something, talk to me. Have fun." Anyway, in this day and age, talking to your kids openly about this early on is the best way to go. Once they explore the internet, they better be prepared beforehand.
    Really interesting article. Always love seeing artists, famous and otherwise, sticking their necks out for what they believe in. This is something I really feel passionate about; either all music/film/tv/games/books etc. are okay or none of them are. You don't want your kids experiencing something you don't approve of? That's your problem, you sort it out. I have no issue with warning stickers as long as the actual product is unaltered/uncensored. 
    I can not one time recollect somebody refusing to let me buy music with the Tipper Sticker because my parents were not present. I was only asked once if they cared.
    Some guy tried this in the 1950's with comic books. He wrote a book called Seduction Of The Innocent. Claiming that comics where turning kids into criminals. Results where pretty much the same and faded away over time. 
    Except the comics code had a DRASTIC impact on the content of comics, particularly, a dramatic "dumbing down" of comics.
    Anthrax captured the anti PMRC and Tipper Gore sentiment very nicely with this little ditty.
    The government shouldn't control what artists can or can't say, and it shouldn't be able to alter or censor content. Boring housewives have no right to tell artists that their work can't exist. Boring housewives have no right to tell artists that their work can't exist. That said, it is good for both kids and parents to know what's in music before they listen to it, so they can follow personal guidelines if they have them. The parental advisory sticker (which is completely voluntary) is (was, I guess) helpful in identifying music that might contain objectionable lyrics to some people. Our problem is that we on the creative side sometimes become so passionate about censorship that we become ignorant as well. Healthy discussion is usually the best way through disagreements like this. Respect to guys like Dee Snider and John Denver for responding in an educated and civilized way.
    It all started because we gave them the right to vote and now they cant shut up.
    I'm glad those days are behind us.... now onto more important matters... holding actors that play fake TV presidents to higher standards to real ones.