In the early 1980s, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began coming under attack for what was seen as increasingly violent and sexual lyrical content in popular music. In October 1984, for instance the National Parent-Teacher Association organized a letter writing campaign trying to pressure the RIAA to adopt a label indicating which albums contained explicit lyrics. The RIAA largely ignored these requests at first, but they had to take issue more seriously once opposition started coming from alternate sources.
Leading the charge was the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a parental rights group advocating for increased parental control over what children are able to access and consume. The primary goals of the PMRC, headed by Tipper Gore, were to inform parents of the allegedly violent and sexual lyrical content of much popular music and to push the RIAA to censor or regulate albums that featured this content. The PMRC even singled out 15 specific songs — “The Filthy Fifteen“—across a variety of musical genres as examples of the kind
By 1985, these issues were debated in the Supreme Court. During these hearings, the PMRC advocated printing lyrics on album covers, keeping albums with explicit covers under the counter, pressuring broadcasters to avoid airing music with controversial content, and developing a labeling system of warning stickers. The arguments of the PMRC created enough public outcry that many major retailers refused to keep any ‘questionable’ albums on their shelves.
Of course, public support was not only on the side of the PMRC, and strategies were developed to allow those who opposed the PMRC position to be heard. For example, Frank Zappa helped distribute information kits to fans and supporters encouraging them to get involved at the local level. Furthermore, Zappa, along with fellow musicians John Denver and Dee Snider, testified before the Supreme Court and argued that the interpretation of lyrics should be left to the listeners and not a regulating body.
Dee Snider of the popular hair metal band Twisted Sister famously testified before the Senate in 1985
By the end of the hearings, the PMRC had given up on all their demands except for the inclusion of a parental advisory sticker on the covers of albums with allegedly explicit content. After some negotiating, the RIAA agreed to voluntarily create and impose a parental advisory seal. Though not used consistently, this label is still in effect today, and some major retailers, like Wal-Mart, still refuse to carry albums that feature the seal. Because the music industry could not afford to have their products banned from one of the world’s largest retailers, the industry began producing censored or edited versions of albums that could be sold in-store.
Records May Soon Carry Warnings That Lyrics Are Morally Hazardous (The Wall Street Journal, July 31, 1985)
Discord On Record Warning(The Washington Post,August 29, 1985)
Good Golly! Politicians’ Wives Lobby To Stamp Out X-Rated Lyrics (Chicago Tribune, September 1, 1985)
Industry Said Fearful Of PMRC’s Sway (The Washington Post, October 30, 1985)
Protect Us From ‘Voluntary’ Labels(USA Today, January 10, 1990)
Record Bills Dropped(The Washington Post, April 6, 1990)