Music has the unique ability to stir up emotions like few other artistic mediums. It can be serene, violent, ambiguous, and of course, controversial; which is especially true of modern pop music. Parental advisories are a prime example of the conflict between the freedom of expression and governmental regulation.
Controversy in popular music is not a new concept, by any stretch. Debates over the merits of a composition have existed as long as music itself. Even pillars of Western music such as Mozart and Beethoven had compositions that sparked heated debate among audience members and politicians. In the modern age, the idea that music and lyrics can negatively influence the general public is as prevalent as it was two and three hundred years ago.
Attempts to censor artists and musicians most often happen when the language or tone of a piece of music offends the perceived standards of a given society. For most musicians, their art is often a reflection of what they see and hear around them, for better or for worse. This often includes profane language, or espousing an unpopular political or social dogma. And of course, this in turn presents a problem for politicians and advocacy groups whose primary function is to protect the welfare and interests of their constituency. Music parental advisories are a modern product of this ongoing battle between these two groups.
In 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) pressured the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) into placing music parental advisories on any album containing profane language or questionable material. For the PMRC, this action was simply an attempt to limit the exposure of children to the material contained on these recordings and was not viewed as unreasonable. However, for many artists it was a direct threat to their rights of free speech and freedom of expression. The resulting debate, while making for great political theater, produced results that were unexpected for both sides.
One of the most striking results came in the form of album sales. The PMRC and artists alike believed that the addition of music parental advisories would inherently create a decrease in overall album sales. This notion was disproven in spectacular fashion. As with many other situations, trying to censor something or someone invariably creates a curiosity among the public and it soon spreads like wildfire. Albums that were labeled as being profane or obscene became huge hits; with many selling millions more copies than they would’ve sold had they not been part singled out.
Another interesting result of these highly publicized debates was that the RIAA agreed to add the explicit language stickers, but only on a voluntary basis. They were never mandated to do so by the government and this agreement is still in place today. Of course, this means that there are no set guidelines and it is more often used for marketing purposes than for alerting consumers. Music parental advisories, while in theory might be a good idea, have proved to be largely ineffectual when it comes to their intended purpose