Porn Rock and the Origin of Explicit Labels

"Parental Advisory: Explicit Content" lable for porn rockOnce upon a time, music did not carry “Explicit” warning labels. Then something happened in 1985, one of those moral panics that periodically sweep the U.S. The panic in this case was “porn rock,” the nickname given to racy or violent music that became the subject of Congressional hearings. Tipper Gore, wife of Senator Al Gore, had bought her 11-year-old daughter the album “Purple Rain.” The movie and accompanying album by Prince had come out the year prior, both becoming mega hits. But when Tipper Gore heard the song “Darling Nikki,” which describes a woman masturbating to a magazine in a hotel lobby, she was appalled.

While troubling lyrics in rock music had concerned the PTA for several years, those efforts had not mobilized public opinion. Building on these concerns, however, Mrs. Gore co-founded the Parents Music Resource Council (PMRC). Being a senator’s wife, with connections to other Washington wives, she was able to leverage influence to bring attention to the issue.

You’re Wrong About Takes on Porn Rock

One of my favorite podcasts dissects the history of the PMRC and subsequent Congressional testimony. You’re Wrong About, hosted by Huffington Post reporter Michael Hobbes and journalist Sarah Marshall (who is working on a book about the satanic panic), takes up well-known incidents from the past. With an ample dose of humor, they confront what we thought we knew, blasting apart our assumptions and misconceptions.

The PMRC wanted a series of album labels to alert parents about problematic content, along with some other measures to keep such material out of the hands of impressionable youth. They compiled a list of the fifteen most objectionable popular songs, dubbed the “Filthy Fifteen,” which included songs by Prince, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Def Leppard, and Black Sabbath.

At the same time, Congress decided to hold hearings. Dee Snider, lead singer of Twisted Sister, gave eloquent testimony opposing the labels, as did Frank Zappa and John Denver. In one of the best moments, Snider skewers the misinterpretation of what the song “Under the Blade” is about.

Congress ultimately took no action, partly because the recording industry agreed to start using parental advisory labels for explicit content. Later, the label became the E in a square (which unsuitably reminds me of a children’s letter block).

Listen to the two-part podcast about porn rock by You’re Wrong About. Digressions include Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off a bat, satanic rhymes, teen homicide rates, Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” and Trixie Mattel.

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