It all started back in 1984. Purple Rain was the biggest album of the year, spending 24 straight weeks on the top of Billboard magazine charts. At the time Prince was already known as a risque artist. From songs like “Dirty Mind,” which talked about having sex in a car, to “Sister,” which featured lyrics about incest, he had solidified himself as a man without lyrical boundaries. But one song finally took it too far.
That song was “Darling Nikki.” The story goes that Tipper Gore, the wife of then-senator Al Gore, purchased Purple Rain for her 11-year old daughter. When they came across track #5 she heard the lyrics and became infuriated. As the song goes in its opening: “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.” And so on.
Tipper Gore was so outraged that she got together a group of friends (other concerned parents) and formed the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center). The PMRC consisted of the wives of 10 senators, 6 Representatives, and one Cabinet Secretary. Their job: to clean up the music industry.
The PMRC made a laundry list of especially dirty songs with sultry lyrics, called the “Filthy Fifteen”. These songs included “Dress You Up” by Madonna, “Trashed” by Black Sabbath, and “Let Me Put My Love Into You” by AC/DC. Other artists on the list were Cyndi Lauper and Twisted Sister.
But Darling Nikki topped the list at number one, becoming the poster child for what Tipper Gore referred to as “porn rock.” The PMRC had several demands: (1) for all “explicit” lyrics to be printed on song covers for everyone to see; (2) for all explicit albums to be kept behind store counters, and (3) that record labels reconsider their contracts with musicians who engaged in explicit behavior during concerts. Goodbye, Slayer, for “raining blood” on stage.
Additionally they proposed a rating system:
- X for “profane” or “explicit” sexual lyrics
- V for violence
- D/A for drug and alcohol content
- O for “occult” references
Naturally, the proposal had its detractors. Among them was the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). When they said they would put warning labels on “explicit” albums, the PMRC rejected this, saying it wasn’t far enough.
The RIAA decided, logically, that it was best for the listener to make the determination. Putting the burden on the industry was an impractical measure, according to president Gary Sherman. It was unreasonable to try and rate every song released in a given year, based on “explicitness”.
This conflict led to a Senate hearing on September 19, 1985. Among the artists who testified against PMRC were Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, John Denver, and none other than Frank Zappa.
Frank Zappa gave some of the most interesting (and also enraged statements) during the hearing. He slammed Tipper’s initiative to place moral restrictions on the music industry. He equated her attempt to regulate explicit content to “treating dandruff with decapitation”. Dandruff referred to objectionable lyrics in songs; decapitation referred to the PMRC’s goal of censorship.
Some of the PMRC’s outrage was actually based on misunderstanding. For example, the Twisted Sister song “Under the Blade,” thought to be about rape and sexual violence, was really about surgical anxiety, based on one of the band member’s real-life experiences.
It ended in somewhat of a compromise. Either the record industry could label their songs from here on out, or else have all lyrics printed on the back cover of albums. The former option was made into law.
It could be argued that the recording industry agree to label their CDs under duress, having faced the threat of legislation. But from here on out, they would have the power to decide which albums would receive the dreaded “explicit” label. At first it was a black-and-white, rectangular sticker placed on albums that read “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics”. This label started in the early ’90s. The first Prince album to get it was “Graffiti Bridge”. Several years and several hearings later, the label was changed to “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content,” which is how it reads today. Unlike the stickers before, these labels would now be included in the album artwork. The first one to bear it was “Banned in the U.S.A.” by 2 Live Crew.
One result of this is that major retailers, such as Walmart and Sam’s Club refused to carry “explicit” albums. This allowed them to brand themselves as family-friendly. But the record companies created an alternative: censor their artists’ lyrics and create “Clean,” sanitized versions of “Explicit” songs.
But it didn’t sink the music market. “Explicit” albums have continued to sell big, regardless of content. We can all thank the genius of one legendary artist for upsetting the industry. And moving it in an impactful new direction, for better or worse.