Parental Advisory

Explicit Content: When Parental Advisory Came Into Play

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when you could buy any record, regardless of the content on the album.

The Parental Advisory label, aka PAL, was first introduced as a warning label by the Recording Industry Association of America in 1985 when an album is deemed to have excessive profanity or adult content. It was meant to serve as an indicator to parents when purchasing music for children. Tapes and cassettes were slapped with the label on the cover art, and audio downloads would follow suit when iTunes and digital platforms would hit the mainstream.


An early version of the parental advisory sticker in the 1980s (via Wikipedia)

The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) formed in April 1985 and prepared a list of 15 songs deemed to have unsuitable content. Prince’s “Darling Nikki” was among them, cited for its references to masturbation. The PMRC felt that music should receive the same treatment as movies and proposed a rating system. The RIAA countered with a label reading “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics.” A hearing was held on September 19 to discuss the change. Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and John Denver all testified against the warning label, stating the act of censorship as more dangerous. Two months later, the participating organizations agreed on a settlement in which audio recordings either had to contain “Explicit Lyrics: Parental Advisory” or the lyrics had to be attached to the back of the packaging.

The iconic black-and-white still seen today was introduced in 1990, flipped to read “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics.” 2 Live Crew’s Banned In The U.S.A. was the first album to feature the new label. This followed an incident in 1987 when a record store in Florida was forced to close down after a part-time clerk was arrested for selling a copy of 2 Live Is What We Are by the group to a 14-year-old boy. Officials deemed the recording “obscene” because of its pornographic lyrics.

By May 1992, over 225 records were marked with the warning. The label would expand beyond lyrics for questionable subject matter, and the wording was once again changed to “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content.” In 2002, Bertelsmann Music Group introduced specific guidelines alongside the label, like “strong language” or “sexual content.”

Record labels are free to voluntary submit albums with content that “merits parental notification”, but the RIAA suggests all material with “strong language or depictions of violence, sex, or substance abuse” to have the label. In Britain, the BPI also requests “racist, homophobic, misogynistic or other discriminatory language or behavior” to be taken into consideration.

If an album contains explicit content warning, there may be an alternative version released that eliminates the content in question, recognized as “clean” versions by the RIAA.

Ever since its implementation, the label has received criticism for how effective it actually is. Do store employees effectively police the age of purchasers to make sure they’re of legal age? What constitutes material deemed too inappropriate for young ears? Will kids gravitate to CDs slapped with the label because they know it has content that may intrigue them? Critics say it’s simply used by retailers as a way to appear family friendly. RIAA research finds that kids don’t put much weight on lyrics in deciding what music they like, relying on melody and rhythm to sway their purchase decisions.

In the age of Internet purchases and streaming, the access to explicit music has only widened, and makes it much more difficult for parents to police what their children are listening to. There are parental filters available on services like Spotify and Apple Music, but access to public videos on sites like Vevo and YouTube make it much trickier to filter.

Is there value in the ‘Parental Advisory’ label? Let us know in the comments below.


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