By Jess Goulart
Image courtesy of Duncan Hull.
In February of 1999, Eminem released The Slim Shady LP. By May of that same year, I was in detention six times for quoting his lyrics in choir (“Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records; well I do, so fuck him and fuck you too!”). It was at this point in my life that I first became aware of the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker (PAL), which did nothing to dissuade me from buying that album or any others.
Of course these days the PAL is all but obsolete, but in the past, the battle for its fate raged with a fury. Political agendas were won, freedom of speech was trumpeted, a committee of angry moms remained quite out of touch with reality, and though it turns out the PAL did not affect record sales one way or another, it’s still an important icon in the music industry’s history.
The PAL was first introduced by Al Gore’s wife Mary (Tipper) in 1985. She bought her young daughter the new Prince album, Purple Rain, and was appalled when the girl instantly pointed out that the song “Darling Nicki” referenced masturbation. Reactions to explicit lyrics influenced Tipper and various other women of political power (wives of 10 Senators, 6 Representatives, and a Cabinet Secretary) to form the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC).
At the time, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) desperately wanted Bill H.R. 2911 passed, which proposed a tax on tape recorders and blank cassettes that would offset the loss in royalties music labels were experiencing as artists began to record at home. Using their influence, the PMRC helped push the bill through. Shortly thereafter, the RIAA announced record labels would put advisories on albums.
But alas, the PMRC wasn’t satisfied.
They demanded that all song lyrics be printed on album covers, that albums with explicit covers be kept behind record store counters, and that labels reassess contracts with musicians who engaged in violent or sexually explicit behavior in concerts.
They also wanted to enforce a music rating system similar to the one enforced by the Motion Picture Association of America (NC-17, R, PG-13, PG, G).
There are two obvious problems with these requests. First, lyrics are subjective, so it’s impossible to define what is “explicit” and what is not. Second, in any given year there are a few thousand movies released into theaters, but there are literally hundreds of thousands of new songs. A committee would have to listen to every single one to rate them.
These were among the arguments made by the RIAA against the PMRC at an infamous hearing in 1985, during which Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister spoke in support of freedom of speech. Snider in particular drove home the point about subjectivity of lyrics when he testified his song “Under The Blade” wasn’t about rape and bondage but, in fact, an impending surgery.
Zappa scathingly prognosticated the death of the music industry due to censorship, but popular opinion holds that Denver was the most convincing. He was expected to side with the PMRC and shocked them all when he took the stand and said, “that which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting. Consequently, a great deal of time and energy is spent trying to get at what is being kept from you.”
The RIAA and PMRC eventually agreed that a Parental Advisory Label would be placed on select albums, but it was up to the music labels themselves which albums would be labeled. Far from the intended rating system, the decision turned the PAL into the marketing tool Denver predicted.
Some authorities claim that labels did indeed use the PAL to bolster sales, but analytics data on the numbers is sparse, so that conclusion is speculative. Generally, it looks like the PAL didn’t affect sales one way or another.
It is clear, however, that some bands crafted reputations for themselves with anti-PMRC campaigns. For example, Rage Against The Machine and Tool took nude photographs to make statements against censorship from PAL and PMRC.
When retail businesses, like Walmart, wanted to promote an image of being family friendly, they would refuse to sell explicit albums marked by a PAL sticker.
If the PAL did positively impact sales, that success was short lived. With the sudden rise of digital media, the PAL and all its baggage it quickly faded into obscurity. A Gallup Youth Survey found that by 2005, 74 percent of adolescents polled said the sticker didn’t affect their purchasing a record one way or another. Interestingly, the study also showed that of the small percentage of teens who said their purchasing was affected by the PAL, future Republican voters were more likely than future Democrats not to buy a PAL album.
One study out of the University of California says the PAL may have contributed to a subtle social distaste for profanity in lyrics that developed over a long period of time. Researchers found that there was a decrease in lyric profanity from 1970 to 2012 due to an artist response to consumer preference. Worth noting is that study also found there is no correlation between profanity and juvenile delinquency or teen pregnancy.
The PAL is still around, often imbedded within the digital artwork of an album. Sharing platforms like iTunes and Amazon do warn of explicit content, but any teenager with a smartphone can listen to whatever they want–which according to the PEW research center is nearly every teenager in the country.
What’s most fascinating is considering the PAL as a symbol for the social milieu at the time of its introduction. With the 80s culture of MTV, an artist’s “image” became as substantial as the music they produced, and teens became a highly desirable and easily accessible demographic for music marketers to target. Thus, the PAL was used to help brand musicians to teens.
As the PAL continually loses its relevance, a new, more democratic censorship symbol is taking its place. The Not Safe For Work (NSFW) tag that denotes explicit content online is as telling of our current culture as the PAL was of the 80s. It speaks to an Internet driven society where anyone can consume anything.
Thus the power of censorship is our own, exercised whenever we deem it appropriate–a fitting end to the PAL’s evolution.