In Cyber Safety, The Digital World

How to Get the Most out of Those Parental Advisory Stickers

If you’ve ever been in a record store outside of the instrumental section then you’ve seen the bold, black and white “Parental Advisory Explicit Content” stickers. If you have children those stickers probably make you think twice about what that music might say. It might even tempt you to ban any album that displays the sticker from your house. While this can be tempting, it’s a ban that will be difficult to enforce for long, and impossible to enforce at places like friends’ houses, or even out in public.

The parental advisory logo is just that, an advisory. The organization behind the labels, the Parents Music Resource Center, has resource right in their name. Those stickers are meant as a resource so that you can educate yourself and be aware. Though certain artists may claim it, they don’t necessarily represent an attempt or encouragement to censor music.

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Let’s first take a look at how those stickers got there in the first place. I don’t remember a time when there weren’t parental advisory stickers on certain albums. They have always been a part of my music consuming and buying experience. As music began to cover more and explicit and adult content in more open ways parents began to worry about what their children were being exposed to. In 1985 the PMRC gathered a list of 15 songs that they felt were representative of the unsuitable content in music of the day.

Mary “Tipper” Gore spearheaded a campaign to have music rated in a similar way to movies. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) countered with the label we are all so familiar with. Artistically they probably didn’t want to segment their output in the same way that movies are. They also didn’t want to pay for a regulatory system to rate the thousands of records released each year.

This means that the RIAA gives record labels general guidelines about the type of material that should be labeled and it’s up to the record labels themselves to decide what gets tagged and what doesn’t. As music moved towards digital distribution, the labeling of explicit content followed it.

Couldn’t you just buy the “clean” version of the record?

Well yes, most big music releases are released in both “explicit” and clean forms. And in some cases the clean version may be a reasonable alternative, but in most cases the record is edited sloppily, and often distractingly. A few artists have laden their clean versions with jokes, drawing attention to the fact that the album has been edited and reducing the validity of the musical experience.

Remember, children get the same things from music that adults do, and when parts of it are cut out children past a certain age will notice and will likely search out the unedited, and more authentic, version. And in the digital age they will find it, or one of their friends will. There’s little to be done about that.

Clean versions also tend to simply edit out bad language, curse words and explicit references to sexual acts. Innuendo, even obvious innuendo will remain intact. The overall message and tone of the album will remain intact. The anti-authoritarian anger of Rage Against The Machine is little altered by the removal of curse words. The message remains. A song like “Cop Killer” is still about killing cops, whether they are allowed to drop an f-bomb or not.

An opportunity

Here’s what my parents did when I started expressing an interest in music beyond their own tastes. Some of it was labeled as explicit. At a fairly young age, rather than banning me from listening to the music, they entered into a conversation with me about it. I was dumbstruck the first time I attempted to shock my parents with music and was instead asked why I liked music with such negative language, ideas and emotion.

“Because I was trying to shock you,” wasn’t going to be a valid answer, so I actually had to think about what I liked about music. What ideas were being expressed that made the album a positive experience for me? Was the use of explicit language justified? I even decided to stop listening to certain albums and artists because I realized I couldn’t justify my listening beyond shock value.

I learned not only to be critical of my own media, but my own taste. I learned about myself by having to tell my parents why I liked certain things that they found objectionable. I learned why they found things objectionable or uncomfortable. They also learned about me and what I liked and valued in music, philosophy and other things. It dissipated the adversarial attitude we could have taken towards music and gave all of us more complete, human views of each other beyond parent and child.

Listen to music with your children

If they’ve got their headphones in while they’re doing chores, invite them to put it on the stereo. If you are driving or riding in the car with them, let them have control of the music every once in awhile. Even if you don’t like the music, and lets face it, probably a lot of it you won’t, it’s another step in putting music out in the open and starting conversation. My mom actually decided to occasionally sing along and now does a pretty good Disturbed impression.

Coaxing the music out of the bedroom and headphones not only lets you see what music is influencing your child, but lessens the influence that that music has. Artists, when accused of encouraging children towards anti-social behavior, have frequently used the defense that if their music has more influence on a child than a parent does then perhaps the issue is not so much the message being received, but that no other authoritative message is being received.

Isolation and shame are never emotions to be used as weapons to exert control. Communication and conversation will always foster better results. Even if you don’t like what you find you will have found it, and you will have made it okay for the child to talk to you about it.

Does the parental advisory logo really make a difference?

Decades down the line, is the sticker still having an impact? Now that I am an adult I pay it no mind. I rarely even register if it’s there or not. I still take note when children are involved, but by and general it’s just another part of the packaging. Some have argued that the label marks certain records out for young consumers as “forbidden” and they are sought out as status symbols.

The RIAA cites research that children put lyrics behind rhythm and melody when selecting music that they listen to. This is probably true. Even a simple pop song can take a few listens for the lyrics to really land. Of course a song with an attractive rhythm and melody is more likely to garner enough interest from a listener to encourage them to investigate the lyrics.

The controversey around the label has largely died down. If there are any objections these days it is over the need to produce “clean” versions of albums to be sold in “family friendly” retailers like Walmart. Either the economics of the situation are difficult, or the artist feels their work is being reduced by being censored.

So what’s all that come to?

Well, you should use the logo as a conversation starter and an information gathering device. It does give you valuable information about an album. It lets you know that there’s cursing, sex or violence and those are all things that you should engage your kids. You shouldn’t use it as a device for automatic censorship.

That doesn’t mean that there will never be an album that you don’t want your children listening to even after you have a conversation with them, but simply banning everything with the sticker makes the issue one of conflict instead of conversation. Welcoming the music your children like into your life, just as you welcomed them into your life will bring rewards just as welcoming a child into your life brought rewards over rejecting them.

You don’t have to like it. You can tell them you don’t like it, but just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean you can’t engage with it. Sometimes the greatest rewards come from engaging things we don’t like. I consider my parents conversations with about music they didn’t like as one of the best things they ever did for me.

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