Does the Parental Advisory Label Still Matter?

Parental Advisory
How much power can a "Parental Advisory" sticker have in the streaming era? Jason Katzenstein for Newsweek

This piece is part of a series on the 30th anniversary of the "porn rock" wars of 1985. Previously: "An Oral History of the PMRC's War on Dirty Lyrics."

Thirty years ago, parents breathed a sigh of relief and adolescent music fans felt a shiver of fear. The Parental Advisory label was born.

An early version of it, at least. In November 1985, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) ceded to demands from a concerned parents' group and agreed to put warning stickers on inappropriate records. By the 1990s, the black-and-white rectangle signaling "EXPLICIT LYRICS" had become a staple of music shopping.

Its power was particularly fearsome to young people. "I remember being a child and my mom bought me Madonna's Erotica album," Keith Caulfield, now co-director of charts at Billboard, recalls. "I remember seeing something on TV about how it was explicit and this was the first Madonna album that had the sticker and why doesn't mine have that? Because it was the clean version.… Even then, as a kid, I was like, 'Huh! I feel like I'm not getting what I should've got.'"

If your parents had even slightly puritanical tendencies, your CD collection was probably shaped by the mercurial judgments of the warning label. I remember standing in line at Sam Goody, hoping that my grandfather might buy me a cassette of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' platinum-selling Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The clerk pointed out the warning label (maybe he also noticed the song title "Sir Psycho Sexy"). Plan foiled. Years later, when I asked for Blink-182's Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, I was gifted the "clean version" of the CD. Mom and dad probably didn't catch the titular masturbation pun, but they noticed the sticker. The song "Happy Holidays, You Bastard" (probably the only song ever to contain the phrase "ejaculate into a sock") had been changed to "Happy Holidays" and almost entirely stripped of vocals.

These days, the Parental Advisory sticker is so iconic it even pops up on fake album covers. The label adorns several of the most celebrated releases of 2015, including Drake's If You're Reading This It's Too Late, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and Madonna's Rebel Heart.

But its power has been diminished. In 2015, teenagers aren't waiting in line at Sam Goody to pick up the Kendrick album—they're streaming it or grabbing it on iTunes, and a warning label directed at parents has as much sway as an "I Am Under 18" button on a porn site.

Did the Parental Advisory label ever really matter in the first place? Let's trace how it came to be.

Mona Lisa
The Parental Advisory label turns 30 this year. Leonardo da Vinci/Public Domain

The impetus for the Parental Advisory label came from outside the music industry.

Of course it did. Can you imagine Madonna waking up one morning and deciding to figure out a way to keep her music from falling into the hands of good, Protestant children? Tipper Gore and Susan Baker's mid-'80s advocacy group, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), were the ones who sounded the alarm. Their initial pitch was extreme. Fired up by dirty Prince and Madonna tracks, the PMRC proposed a categorical rating system for records modeled after the Motion Picture Association of America's movie rating scale ("PG," "R" and so forth).

The group outlined this idea in a 1984 letter to the RIAA and 62 record labels. Gore and Co. brainstormed a rating code: "Violent lyrics would be marked with a 'V,' Satanic or anti-Christian occult content with an 'O,' and lyrics referencing drugs or alcohol with a 'D/A.'"

But when just a handful of record companies bothered to reply, the PMRC dialed back. "We now propose one generic warning label to inform consumers in the marketplace about lyric content," Gore declared at a 1985 congressional hearing, which served as a tipping point. "We have asked the record companies to voluntarily label their own products and assume responsibility for making those judgments." On November 1, the RIAA gave in and agreed to put warning stickers on albums of their own volition.

"People were upset," Susan Baker recalls. "They were going to do something if the recording industry didn't take positive action."

For the music industry, this was a compromise. "I still feel it's been pretty harmless compared to what was originally proposed," says artist manager Danny Goldberg, who created a group called Musical Majority to oppose the 1984 PMRC demands. Goldberg's fear was an outside group or government agency passing judgment on lyrics. "It would just create an insane atmosphere for songwriters to second-guess what some committee might say if they wanted to be able to reach people under the age of 18."

Not all were satisfied. Frank Zappa, a staunch opponent of the PMRC's labeling efforts, made his views clearer than anyone. In an open letter published in Cashbox magazine, he described the label proposal as being "based on a hodgepodge of fundamentalist frogwash and illogical conclusions." When Zappa released his 1984 albums Them or Us and Thing-Fish, he decided to write his own warning label to appear on the records' inner sleeves. That warning guaranteed that the lyrics would "not cause eternal torment in the place where the guy with the horns and the pointed stick conducts his business."

According to the musician's widow, label executives later questioned why Zappa's 1986 album Jazz From Hell didn't carry a Parental Advisory sticker. "It turned out that nobody had listened to it," Gail Zappa says, in an interview shortly before her recent death. "It's all instrumental."

A 1980s Prince single was one of emblazoned with an early version of the Parental Advisory sticker. Prince

The early warning label didn't resemble the familiar Parental Advisory sticker at all. The wording and size varied from release to release. One version looked like this round sticker, in action above on a Prince single.

In the late '80s, that sticker was applied somewhat haphazardly. Gangsta rap pioneer Ice-T has claimed that his album Rhyme Pays was the first to carry it; released in 1987, the album contained the songs "6 'N the Mornin'" and "Sex." But by that year "it was clear that the use of the warning was kind of a joke," RIAA then-president Hilary Rosen later told Spin. Tipper Gore, meanwhile, shifted her focus to policing music videos and video cassettes, and published a book titled Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society.

It was time to settle on a uniform label. Pennsylvania lawmakers went so far as to call for a bright yellow label warning of "suicide, incest, bestiality [and] sadomasochism," among other items. Once again, music execs feared more restrictive government action if they didn't handle it themselves.

So they did. The authoritative black-and-white rectangle you probably recognize from your CD collection debuted in the summer of 1990. The label "will appear on the lower right-hand corner at the discretion of record companies and individual artists," a USA Tonight newscaster announced in May 1990. It has looked the same ever since, with a small tweak: "Explicit Lyrics" was changed to "Explicit Content" in 1996, after another round of congressional hearings. Another revision: The label started being printed in the album artwork itself.

When Dee Snider released 1992's Blood and Bullets with his short-lived Widowmaker project, he was told it would be stickered. "It's voluntary," he remembers telling his label. "I don't volunteer, I don't want the sticker." Too bad, he was told. "I get the artwork," Snider recalls, "[and] I see the sticker on there and I go to peel and it's part of the artwork. In an effort to save money and time, they had incorporated the label as part of your art. That, to me, was just another indignity. If you painted the Mona Lisa now, you would have a 'Warning: Parental Advisory' as part of your art."

The first album to bear the standardized label in the lower right-hand corner was 2 Live Crew's Banned in the U.S.A., released that July. By then, '80s pop had run its course; rap was the new battleground for the censorship fight, with no group as embattled as Miami's 2 Live Crew. With songs like "Me So Horny" and "Bad Ass Bitch," the group's previous album had been ruled legally obscene by a district court in Florida. A full decade before Eminem terrorized parents with The Marshall Mathers LP, 2 Live Crew members found themselves arrested on obscenity charges, along with a record store owner who sold their 1989 disc to an undercover cop. Later, states like Missouri and Iowa tried to pass bills banning minors from explicit performances.

But the obscenity ruling was overturned on appeal, and 2 Live Crew member Fresh Kid Ice says the warning label had an upside. "It helped sell the records a little bit more because it was considered taboo," Ice says 25 years later.

"We were declared obscene in a lot of stores," recalls bandmate Brother Marquis, though he says he regrets some of the group's racier lyrics: "Especially things about women that I said. As I get older, I think there are lots of things I could take back."

2 Live Crew
2 Live Crew's 1990 album "Banned in the USA" was the first album to carry the Parental Advisory label in its current form. Luke/Atlantic Records

But as popular music grew more obscene than Gore could have imagined, some records emblazoned with the warning label were selling in huge numbers. Jane's Addiction's Ritual de lo Habitual, probably stickered because of its risqué cover, went twice platinum. Dr. Dre's debut The Chronic hit triple platinum. And Red Hot Chili Peppers' filthy-mouthed 1991 opus, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, sold in the tens of millions.

Hip-hop blossomed as a major commercial force—and as the prime target of the Parental Advisory label. Ice Cube's The Predator (stickered) shot to No. 1 in 1992. Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle (also stickered) briefly held the top slot the following year. By 1992, more than 200 albums had been met with the sticker, and another round of legal headaches fell upon record store owners accused of selling obscene rap albums to minors.

"If you were a white rock act, you could get away with a couple of F-bombs or a couple of curses on your album and not get stickered," says chart analyst and pop critic Chris Molanphy. "But if you were a rapper or even a hard R&B singer and you said something as daring as 'pee,' you could get labeled."

Prince's 1990 Graffiti Bridge was met with a sticker, Molanphy notes, despite containing few lines more objectionable than "I'm testing postive 4 the funk / I'll gladly pee in anybody's cup." Like Zappa, Prince's name had apparently become synonymous with obscenity, illustrating an inherent fact of the Parental Advisory label: There's no central committee or even much of a coherent criteria for inclusion. Labels make the call themselves, and indie players can often skirt the system entirely (see, for instance, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Now I Got Worry, which contains roughly 32 F-bombs in a song called "Fuck Shit Up" but no label). Prince, on the other hand, remained a bad-boy however much his popularity waned—Graffiti Bridge, 1992's unpronounceable-symbol album, 1994's Come, 1996's Chaos and Disorder and 1996's Emancipation all got stickered.

George Carlin.
In 1990, George Carlin released a comedy album titled "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics." According to a warning in the liner notes: "This recording contains no backmasking or subliminal suggestions. All messages from the Devil are recorded clearly and audibly in standard American English." Atlantic/Laugh

As the decade wore on, Wal-Mart opted not to stock explicit CDs at all, creating both a real economic consequence for dirty lyrics and a market for those often dreaded edited versions of explicit albums, with the swear words blanked or bleeped out. (These could be inadvertently funny; the clean version of Beastie Boys' Ill Communication reversed the phrase "shifting gears" because someone misheard it as "shit.") Wal-Mart's move won over some parents, but probably cost it business. "If you're a hip-hop fan, you're not gonna go buy the clean version of the album at Wal-Mart," Keith Caulfield says. "There's so much that's gonna be bleeped out or removed."

Back then, a Parental Advisory label didn't make it impossible for kids to get their hands on the new Korn cassette, just harder—maybe you had to dub your friend's copy, or sneak over to Coconuts during free period. But the fear that stickered albums would languor in low-selling obscurity never came true. Rap is the proof.

"Some of the biggest acts in music who are connected to hip hop routinely get stickered, and their albums go to No. 1 all the time," Molanphy says. "Even what I would call middle-tier rappers—your Wales, your J. Coles—these kind of middle-of-the-pack rappers routinely debut at No. 1." In the upper echelon, "Jay Z now holds the Billboard record for the most No. 1 albums by a solo act, and among all acts, he's second only to the Beatles," Molanphy adds. "Every one of those Jay Z albums, in some retail form, has the Parental Advisory sticker."

Or take Kanye West: Every album since Late Registration has hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart. Only one of them is not Parental Advisory: the shockingly profanity-free 808s & Heartbreak.

Rhyme Pays
'Rhyme Pays' by Ice-T was one of the first albums to carry an early model of the warning label. Sire/Warner Bros

Thirty years on, the Parental Advisory warning is in an unusual place.

It's more iconic than ever, but less practical. It's easy for parents to research the lyrical content of whatever their child is listening to. But it's just as easy for any kid with a Wi-Fi connection to listen to whatever he pleases. Barriers to entry have been blasted to the cloud. Epitaph Records has apparently abandoned the warning sticker for good.

That's not to say the digital powers that be haven't made efforts to placate skittish parents. On iTunes, the "EXPLICIT" label is carved into the song metadata in bright red lettering, making it easier than ever to distinguish between dirty and clean versions. The online music store notes that it has a setting for parents to turn on restrictions for what their kids can download, but that system hinges on a highly motivated parent—and a kid who's never heard of YouTube.

Spotify and YouTube introduced a digital version of the label for U.K. users in 2011. But for most music streamers, album art is an afterthought. I made a dummy Spotify account and, after pretending to be 13 years old, found I could still stream Ghostface Killah albums to my heart's content. (Spotify hasn't responded to several requests for comment.)

There is "no way to have any sort of reasonable control" over what kids listen to in 2015, says Michael Anes, a father of two teenagers. Jack Feerick, a dad with two kids, finds the labeling inadequate in general. "I think the desire to control what your kids see and hear is a tacit admission of your own failure as a parent," says Feerick, who encourages family sing-alongs to Rage Against the Machine. "If your kids can't handle explicit language, whose fault is that?"

If the Parental Advisory label isn't quite dead, it's too ubiquitous and too much of a relic to carry much weight. It's just part of the scenery, like landline phones or TV guides. Susan Baker knows her warning has been undermined. "But there's not much we can do about that," she says. "This digital age is amazing."

Still, she has no regrets. "I know things have gotten worse," Baker adds. "They've gotten a lot worse. The objectionable things are still out there and have more acceptance in society. But at least we feel we've made a little contribution to helping parents know what to avoid."