Recently, artist and researcher Nickolay Lamm released a collection of graphs charting changes in pop song lyrics. These images reveal what many critics of contemporary culture have been saying for years: Popular music has become increasingly crass. Maybe this shift is the handiwork of the usual suspects—greedy corporations, say, or an increasingly godless society. But it’s just as likely an unintended consequence of the kind of political scheming you’d expect more out of TV dramas than out of real life.
In the early 1980s, Tipper Gore, wife of then-Tennessee senator Al Gore, was on a mission. Outraged after overhearing her daughter listening to the Prince song “Darling Nikki,” she took it upon herself to do something about the state of pop music. It resembles a storyline from House of Cards: Claire Underwood had the Clean Water Initiative and her campaign against sexual assault in the military; Tipper Gore had the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group of Beltway wives dedicated to preserving the moral integrity of the nation’s children through a national media campaign designed to educate the public about the prevalence of explicit content in rock music. Her husband, a democrat representing one the most religiously conservative states in the country, had his eyes on a 1988 run for the presidency. Senator Gore was therefore more than happy to accommodate his wife’s family-values crusade.
But the PMRC’s mission went beyond mere education; the organization also sought to re-establish control of children’s cultural environment through stricter regulation of music packaging and retail display. The group hoped that political pressure would compel the Recording Industry Association of America (a trade organization whose members produced more than 85 percent of available records at the time) to take these steps voluntarily.
This incident was not the first time that the record industry had been lobbied to better police raunchy lyrics. Religious groups had been staging protests, writing letters, and burning records since Elvis first shook his hips on the Ed Sullivan Show. And artists and entertainers had been fighting obscenity charges for live performances and records for decades. But suing artists and record companies proved ineffective. To be judged obscene, a work had not only to be offensive but deemed lacking “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” A more common strategy for those wishing to clean up music was to push for laws that limited children’s access to questionable material, both through a rating system, similar to the one used by the Motion Picture Association of America, and through restrictions on the placement of certain albums at major retailers.
While record labels bristled at the notion of censorship, most of them carefully monitored and crafted their content to appeal to the broadest audience possible. For example, the first commercial rap record, The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” released in 1979, sounds rather wholesome compared even to recordings of the first live hip-hop performances from 1977 and 1978, let alone the gangster rap that caused a stir in the 1990s.
While the labels could ignore the threats of a few random fanatic groups, the PMRC represented something far more intimidating: the United States Senate, which could back up its threats with regulations.
But Congress could protect the industry, as well as regulate it—at least for a while. In the early '80s, analog dubbed cassettes were eating into record-industry profits, and with Sony developing a digital audio recorder for commercial release, industry executives were looking to hedge their risks through a federal tax on all blank audio cassettes and cassette recording equipment. Not only would the tax increase the cost of home recording, the proceeds of the tax would be given to record producers and artists.
In the meantime, the PMRC was getting its way. The centerpiece of its campaign was the September 19, 1985, congressional hearings before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on the vital matter of “porn rock.” During the hearings, senators passive-aggressively questioned artists ranging from hair metal singer Dee Snider to folk singer John Denver, suggesting something needed to be done—and that it would be a shame for the government to have to do it. One of the stars of the hearings ended up being Frank Zappa, who vigorously questioned the purported “education, not legislation” agenda of the hearings.
In all truth, the hearings were not aimed at legislation. Prior to the hearings the RIAA agreed to label cassettes and albums with explicit lyrics, as the PMRC had recommended, making the proceedings little more than political theater designed to show that the senators involved were in line with the rising tide of 1980s social conservatism.
Early implementations of music labeling were inconsistent. Labels and artists not only decided what material to label, but what the label in question would say, making the warning label a new medium for expression. For example, the warning label on rapper Ice T’s The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech . . . Just Watch What You Say (1989) read in part, “Parents Strongly Cautioned: Some material may be X-tra hype and inappropriate for squares and suckers.” While proponents of music labeling had called for labeled records and cassettes to be confined to separate rooms in music stores, rooms in which customers would have to show ID before entering, the voluntary labeling of records placed no obligation on the retailer—although many, most notably Walmart, chose not to carry albums with parental advisory labels.
By 1990, a uniform sticker had emerged. Record companies’ concerns that the labeled records would suffer at the cash register proved unwarranted. In an industry that placed a premium on rebelliousness, the warning sticker became a badge of honor among musicians and their teenage fans. The long-held American popular music tradition of coding racy material in symbols and double entendres gave way to overt crassness. Even artists who had largely steered clear of controversy in the past, like Michael Jackson, found themselves purposefully cultivating controversy to remain relevant.
If the PMRC's aim was to convince the music industry to clean up its act by threatening record labels' profits, it failed miserably. Not only was the music industry raking in huge profits selling teenagers music more provocative than the Prince song that led to the creation of the PMRC in the first place, but record executives got their music-dubbing tax as well.
The labeling kerfuffle and recording tax were inextricably linked: Hearings on the tax followed the “porn rock” hearings by a couple weeks. The following year, John Danforth (R-Miss.), who had chaired the “porn rock” hearings, proposed a 35 percent tariff on digital recorders sold without an anti-recording chip. Al Gore proposed a similar tax the year after that. Gore’s act was defeated. The industry finally got what it wanted with the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992, which included a tax on all digital recorders, the proceeds of which were filtered back into the record industry.
Songs still needed radio airplay and video plays on MTV, both of which still fell under the FCC's decency guidelines. Fortunately for record producers, digital recording and editing had significantly lowered the cost of creating multiple versions of a song. Record labels that had once self-censored to reach the broadest possible audience developed an alternative, two-track song model: an explicit version for the album and a cleaned-up one for the radio, allowing artists like Dr. Dre to insult the moral sensibilities of just about anyone while simultaneously getting Top 40 airplay. And it all came from a convenient quid pro quo between an industry looking for favorable treatment and an ambitious politician and his wife.
The music market landscape is very different in the Internet age. Those seeking to rein in raunchy music in 2014 would not be able to confront a single entity like the RIAA. And in the virtual marketplace shelf space is virtually unlimited, so there really is no threat of a recording being kept from consumers by a retailer (though Walmart still carries the torch). More importantly, Internet services and content providers recognize parents’ concerns and offer a variety of mechanisms to filter what their children are exposed to. Parents can pre-scan albums on iTunes or Amazon before deciding to purchase them. Internet radio services like Pandora and Google Play are quickly taking the place of radio for teens and have explicit language filters that give parents the option to weed out explicit content. And contrary to alarmist notions that the relative anarchy of the Internet would send the decency standards of popular culture spiraling precipitously down, lyrics may be getting less dirty.
For example, a search for each of the seven words you can’t say on TV at Rap Genius’s Rap Stats website, which provides an online tool that plots the frequency of appearance of individual words in rap songs from 1987 to the present, reveals that four of the seven are found less often in rap songs released in recent years than in songs released in the late 1990s.
And here House of Cards is instructive in a different way. While initially there were great concerns over explicit content in original television series produced by subscription networks like HBO and Internet content providers like Netflix, all of which operate outside of traditional FCC broadcast content guidelines, television today is not a race to the bottom. The same can be said for the 2012 Supreme Court ruling that threw out fines the FCC levied for fleeting nudity and obscenity on broadcast networks Fox and ABC.
Media consumers don’t want raw pornography; they want great content. If the artistic license to use the F-bomb helps artists create a better show or song, audiences are more than happy to go along with it. It is this understanding among audiences, content providers, and producers that has ushered in what many are calling the second great era of American television.
Today, musicians and music producers’ greatest concern is what copyright and royalties will look like in the age of online streaming. As this debate continues, it is important to keep an eye out for those who would use debates about the delivery and compensation for content as a platform for censoring and shaping the content, as well. We’ve been down this road before.