Who knew that it was a Prince song, flagged for its provocative lyrics, Darling Nikki would eventually lead to the Parental Advisory Sticker you see on some albums. A song about a lady in a hotel lobby taking care of herself with the help of a magazine…
Movie rating systems had been around since the late 1960s but what about records?
You could say Prince is the reason this familiar little label exists:
Music is rated by the artists who make it and their labels. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) calls it the “Parental Advisory Label Program” — that’s PAL for short.
From the RIAA website:
“Individual record companies and artists decide which of their releases should receive a ‘PAL Notice’ indicating that the release contains explicit content.”
But there’s no specific definition of “explicit.” The main criteria seem to be: strong language or depictions of violence, sex, or substance abuse.
The RIAA site then offers this caveat:
“A determination that a sound recording contains PAL Content is not a statement as to whether the sound recording is or is not suitable for particular listeners. Nor is the absence of any notification that a sound recording contains PAL Content a statement that the sound recording is completely devoid of all references to strong language or depictions of violence, sex, or substance abuse.”
The record industry first recognized a threat when the Parents Music Resource Center launched in April of 1985.
ONE YEAR AFTER 1984’s Purple Rain…
The non-profit foundation got off the ground with $5000 from a musician — Beach Boy Mike Love. The founders were prominent Washington women including Mary (Tipper) Gore (then wife of Senator Al Gore).
Today’s Criteria For A Parental Advisory Label:
“The PAL program is intended to balance the rights and interests of artists and consumers,” says RIAA President Cary Sherman. “Artists have a first amendment right to express themselves, and consumers have a right to hear what those artists say. Consumers also should be warned when they might find some of the content objectionable. By asking the artist and the label to make that determination, we avoid any appearance of censorship by a ‘board’ or some music nanny. Instead, it’s the artist and label who are advising listeners that they should be aware that some of the content may be objectionable. No artist wants to fool a consumer into buying an album she might find objectionable.
We’ve always believed that general guidance is the most appropriate standard. We shouldn’t be classifying songs as “explicit” or not based on some application of arbitrary rules. I was just listening the other night to a James Taylor song that used the lyric ‘my f***d-up family.’ Does that make the song, indeed the entire album, explicit? Bright-line tests just don’t work well in this situation.”
The PMRC compiled a list of 15 songs it deemed objectionable. Topping the list was Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” for its reference to masturbation. The story goes that Tipper Gore bought Purple Rain (the album containing “Darling Nikki”) for her young daughter, who promptly pointed out the naughty bits.
The Washington wives used their connections (PMRC’s founders included wives of 10 Senators, 6 Representatives, and a Cabinet Secretary) to leverage their cause. And they had some leverage — it seems there was a bill that the music industry very much wanted to get through Congress. H.R. 2911 proposed a tax on tape recorders and blank cassettes as a way of collecting royalties (most of which would go to the labels) to offset the claimed losses that would result from home taping.
Just five months after the PMRC launched, the RIAA announced that record labels would put advisories on albums. But the PMRC rejected the RIAA’s olive branch, saying the industry proposal did not go far enough. The PMRC wanted all song lyrics printed on album covers; albums with explicit covers kept behind record store counters; and a requirement that labels reassess contracts with musicians who engaged in violent or sexually explicit behavior in concert.
The PMRC also proposed a rating system similar to the MPAA’s:
X for “profane or sexually explicit” lyrics
V for violence
D/A for drug and alcohol references
O for “occult” content
The RIAA rejected these demands and suggested a label reading, “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics.”
Cary Sherman, the current President of the RIAA, was a lawyer at Arnold & Porter at the time.
“First, no “board” can determine what is the appropriate interpretation of a song and therefore how it should be rated,” Sherman writes in an email. “It’s up to the listener to decide the meaning of a song. Second, it’s simply impractical to rate as many songs as are released in a given year. In 2009, there were 793 movies rated. That same year, there were over 97,000 albums, or over 1.2 million songs, released.”
Nevertheless, the PMRC pushed for a panel of industry and consumer representatives — similar to the MPAA ratings board — to develop specific guidelines.
“The original proposal for a full blown ratings system was opposed by Frank Zappa and by a group I organized of managers, agents, PR people, artists and some label execs called The Musical Majority (a reference to the Moral Majority founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell), which was created in association with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union),” says Danny Goldberg, who was then head of Gold Mountain Records.
“We felt that words did not lend themselves to a movie type rating system,” Goldberg continues, “because different people would interpret what was ‘violent,’ etc., differently — not to mention humor, irony, etc.”
“I remember the PMRC complaining about the song ‘Under the Blade’ by Twisted Sister which they claimed was about rape,” says Cary Sherman. “But the lead singer for the group, Dee Snider, testified that the PMRC was projecting its violent fantasies into his music, which was actually about the fear that a patient experiences on the operating table before surgery, and that the song was inspired by surgery that the band’s drummer had to undergo.”
Snider testified at a 5-hour hearing held by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on September 19, 1985. The hearing room was filled with TV cameras (all of the major networks were there). By most accounts, the most damaging testimony came from John Denver — in support of freedom of expression. But much of the coverage went to Frank Zappa (the event was marked last month by the unveiling of a statue in his honor in his hometown, Baltimore) because his testimony was both, well, Zappaesque and cogent.
His full statement is part of the Congressional Record. Here’s a choice bit:
“The PMRC promotes their program as a harmless type of consumer information service, providing ‘guidelines’ which will assist baffled parents in the determination of the ‘suitability’ of records listened to by ‘very young children.’ The methods they propose have several unfortunate side effects, not the least of which is the reduction of all American music, recorded and live, to the intellectual level of a Saturday morning cartoon show.”
Less than two months after the Congressional hearing, the adversaries announced a compromise: albums could either bear the label “Explicit Lyrics – Parental Advisory” or, in lieu of that, have all of their lyrics printed on the back cover.
Several chains announced they would not carry stickered albums. Wal-Mart Stores, Sam’s Club and Walmart.com (collectively “Wal-Mart”) still operate under a policythat disallows recordings with the Parental Advisory Label.
Today, “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content,” is a fact of music-buying life. So it’s perhaps hard to imagine what a big deal this fight was. The story was covered by the international media. Countless musicians, from Metallica to Sonic Youth to the Ramones to Ice-T recorded songs or produced album art criticizing the Parents Music Resource Center.