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06 July

Parental Advisory: the secret history of music’s most controversial logo

 

Before becoming the standard bearer for scandalous lyrics, the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” logo had long been the subject of debate in the USA. In the 1980s, the American Senate was the backdrop for a standoff between pious hypocrites and rock stars in vests. In the hotseat: rock porn and the advocacy of drugs. And the cast of this improbable story: Prince, Tipper Gore, Daniel Snider, NWA, Madonna, Drake and even Cindy Lauper.

By Alexis Thibault

Prince & The Revolution – “Darling Nikki”

The day Prince made Apollonia Kotero cry 

 

Bare-chested on stage, Prince swaggers, glistening with perspiration in the crimson glow of an American nightclub. A crucifix necklace adorns his slender body. As the languorous notes of Darling Nikki commence, the metamorphosis of the star into erotic icon is complete. This torrid scene, from the film Purple Rain­ – a spin-off from the eponymous album released a year earlier in 1984 – is a pure concentrate of the sex-symbol’s imagery in the 1980s. In this somewhat awkward movie – saved only by its insanely brilliant soundtrack – Prince gazes at a woman in the audience: the tune, Darling Nikki, he sings is addressed to a certain Apollonia Kotero, who betrayed the singer by joining his rivals, a band called The Time. His character, the Kid bursts into song: “I knew a girl named Nikki I guess you could say she was a sex fiend, I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine, She said how'd you like to waste some time and I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind.” Eyes brimming with tears, crushed by regret and humiliation, Apollonia gets up and rushes out of the venue.

 

 

In 1985, Parents Music Resource Center’s objective was simple: to contain the spread of indecent lyrics as much as possible. 

 

 

In the USA alone, Purple Rain sold 13 million copies. And among those curious to indulge in Prince’s sixth opus, was a certain Mary Elisabeth “Tipper” Gore, married at the time to Al Gore, future vice-president of America. When she put the record on her turntable and discovered Prince’s track, she was mortified: her 11-year old daughter who didn’t miss a second of scabrous and provocative opening verse of Darling Nikki, was also listening. The mother went bonkers. She couldn’t believe these “embarrassingly vulgar lyrics” and worried that “millions of Americans would buy this record without knowing what to expect.” Tipper Gore was of a conservative leaning with deeply ingrained traditional values, and this time things had gone too far. It was simply unimaginable to her that young people could be perverted by the release of musical works (from heavy metal to porno rock) and movies (from horror to ultra-violent). But Tipper Gore knew she couldn’t lead this fight against the perversion of the youth on her own. In the 1980s, a new Christian right was emerging under the Reagan administration, using biblical texts to comment on the chasms in an immoral society with the aim of re-establishing traditional Christian values.

The PMRC in 1985. Mark "Weissguy" Weiss.

The “Washington Wives” revolt

 

Tipper Gore surrounded herself with powerful people – mainly the wives of American politicians – and played on the status of her own husband, a member of the chamber of representatives since 1977. This was the beginning of the “Washington Wives”. The group grew stronger and increasingly powerful as pupils’ parents and teachers joined their ranks. In 1985, together they founded the group Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Its goal was simple, to contain the spread of indecent lyrics as much as possible, and stop them from reaching innocent ears. But very quickly, their route was blocked. Among their opponents was a certain Mary Morello - mother of Tom Morello, the guitarist in Rage Against The Machine - and she became a figurehead of the campaign “Parents for Rock and Rap” founded in 1987, to defend freedom of expression. The showdown had begun.

 

 

In Purple Rain, Prince embodies the words of Darling Nikki, as a provocateur fully aware of his obscene lyrics. It was this point of view that various musicians tried to argue, horrified by the idea that they could be silenced. 

 

 

The PMRC took a considerable lead: they put pressure on music labels, overwhelmed the press with vitriolic texts and went as far to draw up a (non-exhaustive) list of tracks that should be prohibited. On it is a delicious mix of Madonna, AC / DC, Cindy Lauper and of course, Prince. The group contacted around sixty record labels insisting on new clear classifications: D for any mention of illegal substances, V for the apology of violence, S for words of a sexual nature and O for so-called “occult” texts. As they gained ground, Tipper Gore’s clique paid for an editorial in the Washington Post and people started to sit up and take notice. Some twenty labels capitulated and integrated a new logo on their album covers to ease tensions, following the example of the film industry. The words “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics” quickly become the now familiar, “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content”.

Daniel Snider and Mary Elisabeth “Tipper” Gore in 1985.

The trial of obscene people

 

In the film Purple Rain, Prince literally embodies the words of his track Darling Nikkiplaying an unscrupulous provocateur perfectly aware of how obscene his lyrics are. If his crude phrases seem shocking, it’s deliberately so, to highlight the awful behaviour of the character. The embarrassing words have a function, and are certainly not incidental. This was the point of view, several musicians, composers and lyricists tried to get across, horrified by the idea that an assembly of uptight listeners might be able to silence them. A major debate broke out in the United States Senate at the time. On the hot seat: porn rock and drug advocacy. The last men standing in the face of steamroller Tipper Gore was a trio made up of singer John Denver, known as The Kitchen Man, Daniel Snider, the leader of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister, and the illustrious composer Frank Zappa.

 

1985. Daniel Snider arrived in the Senate Chamber, wearing the last clean clothes he could find in his wardrobe – a pair of jeans and a cheap vest – proud to be so scruffy in front of the senators, as he would reveal a few years later in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. Sunglasses perched on his nose, barely able to see through his tousled blond lion’s mane, the photographers couldn’t get enough of the rocker. But his couldn’t-give-a-damn attitude made his discourse even more astonishing: “Good day or good evening, I’m not sure what to say here… My name is Daniel Snider, I’m 30 years old, I’m married, I have one child aged 3 who is being brought up in the purest Christian tradition. Believe it or not, but I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and I don’t take drugs. I compose and I play music for the group Twisted Sister, classed as heavy metal.” As the musician completed his monologue, viewers witnessed an historic exchange between Daniel Snider and the president of the Assembly:

 

– “Mr Snider, imagine a piece of music that praises incest. Do you think parents should know about it, or do you think it only concerns those who buy or sell this record?

– As I explained in my testimony, it’s essential that parents know that these words exist.

– And how could they know?

– It's very simple. As a father and as a rock fanatic, I know that a cover with a pentagram and a goat's head cut in half between a woman's legs is not the kind of album I’d let my son listen to. Let’s say, I’m browsing through the track list for The Time’s Ice Cream Castle ** album. I think the title If the Kid Can’t Make You Come is pretty self-explanatory. And when an album doesn't clearly state the colour, parents should listen to it first. If they find it too violent, I’m sure stores would agree to take it back if necessary. 

– Do you think parents and children are aware of all the elements present in a music album?

– I myself don't know half of what’s in my album collection. There are bands that I listen to primarily for musical reasons, and others I listen to for the lyrics.

 

In spite of Daniel Snider’s efforts, the “Parental Advisory” logo did make its way onto album covers in the form of a simple sticker. A hard knock for the industry because the American store Walmart then refused to sell those stickered records. And likewise, the albums featuring the mention were simply prohibited in China and Saudi Arabia. But the majors saw a positive effect too, as those particular albums attracted the youth - it was supposed to protect - who were keen to consume the forbidden fruits.

 

In France, the “Parental Advisory’ is purely for effect. We tried to imitate the Americans, and said to ourselves "We’ll do the same!

Hip-hop’s moment of glory

 

Born in the Bronx ghettos in the early 1970s, hip-hop evolved around legends and designs like most musical trends, with mimicry key to integrating the movement. From dance to graffiti, hip-hop is above all an outlet, an art form that fed on violence and rage and was then spat out in verses of rap. Very quickly, rappers’ words were singled out without any prior analysis, without any of its detractors taking the time to dissect the effects of dramatization, the expressive richness of the language - from slang to neologisms - and games of out-doing one another. In 1985, after the introduction of the logo by the Recording Industry Association of America, the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker was no longer a protective device, but a guarantee for trash and shocking content. Indeed it became an affirmation of quality for rappers, the equivalent of a "credible" stamp. While they hadn’t dealt with the justice system directly, they could at least purport to be speaking to a freed audience. Especially because since then the socio-political demands of the rap pioneers have gradually given way to other rhetoricians mastering the art of the punchline and obscene phrases - sometimes deliberately misogynist – thus transforming rap into a new form of entertaining pop music bursting with irony.  

 

 

“NWA, South Central Cartel, Geto Boys, Public Enemy… 80% of the artists we listened to had this thing on their record covers. We thought it was cool and at that time, our words were "explicit" for once!" Rockin’ Squat

 

While the use of this logo became obligatory in the USA, it certainly wasn’t the case elsewhere. To find out more, we contacted the marketing director of a well-known record label: “In France, the use of “Parental Advisory” is purely for effect. We tried to imitate the Americans, we said to ourselves, ‘We’ll do the same! It's all about fortifying the album and using that logo as an argument of authority.” But who would want to add such a logo and thus deprive themselves of a swathe of their potential audience, when it’s not even mandatory? "In fact, it’s become a piece of artwork," he continues. "We don't know who’s made the decision when we see a cover for the first time. It could be a request from the artist himself, an idea from the photographer, a suggestion from the graphic designer or even the producer.”

Formed in 1985, the French hip-hop group Assassin attacked the political system from the moment they began. With a triple gold disc under their belts, the band, led by Rockin’ Squat and Solo (then joined by DJ Clyde and Doctor L.) was inspired by the pioneers of hip-hop, in the purest tradition of the movement. With his new solo album 432HZ currently on release, Rockin’ Squat agreed to talk to Numéro about his relationship with the “Parental Advisory” logo: “It’s been following me for 30 years! I used it for the first time in 1991 on Note mon nom sur ta liste, Assassin's first EP. NWA, South Central Cartel, Geto Boys, Public Enemy ... 80% of the artists we listened to at the time had it in their album covers. Not only did we think it was cool to use the same logo as these artists, but at that time our words really were ‘explicit’ for once! " Rockin' Squat hijacked the famous sticker twice: first in 2007, on his EP Too Hot for TV where he transformed the “Parental Advisory” into “All Medias Conspiracy Learn The Truth” and then again this year, with his new album where it reads “Natural Frequency: Important Content”, in a direct reference to the frequency his record was made on.

 

 

"We get multiple versions of the same song. The original version keeps the plain text, the others delete the shit, fuck, bitch and nigga. It’s unpleasant and totally illusory since the word ‘censored’ catches our attention. 

 

 

Another case is with French singer Thaïs Lona, the young protege of trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, who released her first neo-soul album on July 1st. This lady sings in English. On the dust jacket, she appears at the edge of a bed and stares at the camera with a huge sad-looking teddy bear by her side. At the bottom left, we find the famous logo. “It wasn’t the managers but Ibrahim Maalouf and the guys at the label who insisted on adding it,” she recalls, “I do use a few coarse terms and the 'Parental Advisory' is essential if I want to export the record. I accepted it immediately, and was surprisingly really proud to have it on my album, I saw it as a kind of victory. It’s silly when you think about it… 

“Note mon nom sur ta liste” Assassin (1991) and “Too Hot for TV” by Rockin’Squat.

In France, among the top ten most listened to tracks on Spotify, we find Shape of You by Ed Sheeran in first place, then Au DD by PNL, Desaccordé by Vald and Macarena by the Belgian rapper Damso. Seven tracks out of this selection are extracted from albums with the “Parental Advisory” sticker. Across the Pond, its use is now systematic. Ludivine Grétéré, press secretary for American labels, explains why: “We almost always receive two or three versions of the same song, especially for hip-hop artists. We use one or the other according to the media on which it’s going to be broadcast. The original version keeps the plain text, this is the ‘Dirty Explicit’ version, while the ‘clean’ version removes all the shit, fuck, bitch and nigga. Those words are just swallowed or replaced with a beep. It’s quite unpleasant and totally illusory since the word ‘censored’ catches our attention. ” In early July 2020, the “Parental Advisory” logo appeared on 23 of the top 50 albums on the American Billboard, and most notably on five of the top 10. There we see albums by rappers Drake and Post Malone currently jostling for the top spot with Rough and Rowdy Ways, the U-rated, logo-free album by a certain Bob Dylan…

 

 

*Tipper Gore in her book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society (1987).

**Prince took part in the composition of the album Ice Cream Castle by The Time in 1984.

In 2002, filmmaker Mark Waters condensed the trial and the discussions of Daniel Snider at the Senate in a TV film entitled, Warning: Parental Advisory.

Album 432HZ, by Rockin’Squat now RCKNSQT, is now available

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