Don’t trust anyone over 30, goes the old adage. By that age, the thinking goes, people are settled in their ways, more prone to social conservatism, to convention, to the rat race, man. Nothing rock ‘n’ roll about that.
Well, a certain black-and-white sticker turns 30 this week. You may remember it from your younger days, when it was ubiquitous at the record store (if you remember those). But by the aforementioned rubric, the Parental Advisory Label -- that little, block-lettered afterthought in the bottom right corner of your favorite potty-mouthed CDs from 8th grade -- has been a buzzkill from the bizarre moment it was born.
Picture this: On the afternoon of Sept. 18, 1985, a heated congressional hearing is underway on Capitol Hill. In a packed hall, Senator Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) takes the podium with a magenta blazer and a stern edge to her voice: There's a piece of evidence she wants her fellow legislators to see.
“I don’t watch much television,” she begins. “I’m not sure how many of my colleagues get much opportunity to watch any of the music video shows now available on cable and free TV. But I have brought along two videos from which to choose, which I believe are representative of the kind of presentation which have caused the furor.”
“We will show them,” she concludes awkwardly, glancing down at her notes. “The first is by the group, uh...Van Halen.”
And then a woodgrain television is wheeled out toward the front of the room, and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee sits and politely watches the music video for “Hot for Teacher.”
The circus-like nature of the current primaries might seem unprecedented, but by all accounts, the situation in Washington 30 years ago this week was much, much weirder. Ronald Reagan had been sworn in for a second presidential term nine months earlier, having won one of the biggest landslides in electoral history. The religious right wielded incredible power, while the left grasped for some way to reinvent itself -- and, by all accounts, they decided on a culture war. Never mind that the cards of the Iran-Contra affair were being dealt behind closed doors: In the halls of congress, Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore, was on a mission to protect American children from Cyndi Lauper singing about the joys of masturbation.
Yes, sex-, drug- and occult-laced rock ‘n’ roll music was corrupting American youth faster than you could say Purple Rain, argued Gore, and it was the government’s job to stop it. Her newly formed Parents Music Resource Center pushed for the Recording Industry Association of America to establish a rating system similar to the one in place for movies, by which to warn parents when records were not suitable for young ears, and why: V for Violent, X for sexually explicit, and so forth. They also argued for lyric sheets printed on every scandalous record that made it to shelves, and incentives for record stores to simply decide not to carry records deemed explicit at all. (Wal-Mart eventually took this bait.)
"We're not censors," Tipper Gore told Rolling Stone at the time. "We want a tool from the industry that is peddling this stuff to children, a consumer tool with which parents can make an informed decision on what to buy. What we're talking about is a sick new strain of rock music glorifying everything from forced sex to bondage and rape."
Music industry veteran Danny Goldberg, then the head of Gold Castle Records, didn’t disagree that there were some unpleasant lyrics out there in the world of ‘80s rock music. But he did, like many others, recognize the huge potential for such a “consumer tool” to infringe on artists’ First Amendment rights.
“The primary trigger for movies [ratings] had to do with nudity, and four-letter words, these very tangible criteria. And a lot of the songs they were targeting -- obviously there’s no nudity in a lyric, it’s an audio experience. And even then the songs they were targeting didn’t necessarily have four-letter words,” says Goldberg from New York, where he now heads Gold Village Entertainment.
Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” for instance, was the subject of very heated discussion thanks to the word “masturbate.” (He left the subtlety to Lauper, as it were.)
“Any time you have subjective criteria like that, you’re creating a climate of inhibition," says Goldberg. "And that would just completely contradict the spirit of what popular music is about, which is the voice of teenagers, in a way. It would have caused an impediment to selling to people under 18, which was a large part of the audience for some of these artists. The way they demonized pop music was just not intellectually honest.”
Noting that the RIAA wasn't designed to deal with such controversies -- up until then, it had mostly dealt with copyright law -- Goldberg called every label owner and band manager he could think of, and forged a partnership with the ACLU. A few press releases later, the controversy’s place in the media spotlight was sealed -- even before the strangest of pop music’s bedfellows came together to testify on behalf of free speech. (The anti-labeling faction called itself the Musical Majority, in a nod to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, a reference of which, Goldberg notes, he was rather proud.)
In the weeks that followed, during what newspapers gleefully referred to as "porn-rock" hearings, Congress saw the testimonies of a typically meandering yet cogent Frank Zappa, a surprisingly eloquent (and Christian-identifying) Dee Snider, and -- perhaps most shockingly -- a staunchly anti-censorship and yet still squeaky-clean John Denver.
Over a period of two months (during which a pastor read lyrics about golden showers aloud in Congress, among other memorable testimonies), they and other free speech advocates argued the PMRC down to the program that’s been in place ever since: the little old sticker in the bottom right-hand corner of a cassette tape or CD denoting “explicit content” -- which really just means profanity, which really just means five or six words. Individual labels and artists could choose which records got the stickers; retailers could choose whether or not they wanted to sell the explicit versions or the “clean” ones or both.
And henceforth, protected from pop music, no teenager ever wanted to have sex or smoke weed ever again.
Juuust kidding. So what kind of impact did the PAL actually have?
“I would say the program was mainly a failure based on what they were trying to achieve,” says Marc Weinstein, co-founder of Amoeba Music, whose first store opened in Berkeley in 1990. “More often than not, from what I saw, it actually became a sales tool -- it made it easier for teenagers to identify the cool stuff.”
“If we ever wound up with the censored version it was by mistake, and we would sell them for a dollar or so just out of disrespect for the program,” he adds.
In practice, the whole concept reminded Weinstein of a different failed program: The “Home Taping Is Killing Music” slogan adopted by the British Phonographic Industry in the early ‘80s.
“Obviously the [PAL] is a freedom of speech issue, but...they go hand-in-hand for me,” says Weinstein. “Just these silly ways the industry tried to deal with behavior that you can’t really regulate, which in the end is natural behavior. No one was getting hurt, and they’re spending time and money creating this program...I don’t know what they thought they were going to accomplish. It was just clueless.”
The RIAA, which updated its guidelines for the PAL program in 2006, disputes the notion that teenagers are actually drawn to the labels. “It’s not a PAL Notice that kids look for, it’s the music,” insists the organization’s website. Reached by email this month, representatives from the RIAA said they had no access to data that would point to the label’s actual impact on sales nor its success rate at actually keeping objectionable material out of the hands of youths. But the program is still very much in effect.
The kicker, of course, is the Internet.
"Each individual track that has potentially objectionable content is labeled 'explicit,' which stays with the track even after point of purchase [online]," former RIAA president Cary Sherman told NPR in 2010, explaining the program's digital adaptation.
But ask any teenager how easy that is to ignore and, well, they'll probably tell you they've never noticed it. In retrospect, the PMRC hearings represented the last time it even seemed plausible that adults or those in a position of power could control what young people consumed, for better or for or worse.
“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 '80s. Music is a universal language that crosses generations, race, religion, sex and more. Never has there been more need for communication and understanding on these issues as there is today...All of the artists and record companies who still use the advisory label should be applauded for helping parents and kids have these conversations about lyrics around their own values."
She did not, unfortunately, comment on the slew of imaginative art and performance inspired by the PMRC.
Otherwise: Fair 'nuff, Tipper. Maybe it's because we recently turned 30 too, but we do think it's a good idea to talk to your 12-year-old daughter about what, exactly, is happening in Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" video. Not because it's going to corrupt her -- but because she's going to see it anyway. And because, while you might not like every word out of every artist's mouth, you don't want the government, or any other organization, telling Minaj when and where she can and can't sing about her butt. It's the very silly-seeming beginning of a very serious and slippery slope.
So happy birthday, PAL. We'd like to think we learned something from you. Such as: It's over 30, sure, but the First Amendment doesn't care if you like it. And that's about as f***ing rock 'n' roll as it gets.