It’s Time to Kill “Parental Advisory” Labels on Rap Albums

When rappers opt to voluntarily place a “parental advisory” label on their album as a badge of honor, it’s a bit like saying, “rap is not a serious art form, it’s just something we do to piss off our parents.”
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If you’ve ever had to endure a time-consuming commute to a job you hate, you’ll know that the only way to manage the soul-sucking nature of this endeavor is to occupy your mind with some form of distraction. A couple of years ago, I was fighting this battle on a daily basis, attempting to keep my self-loathing at bay by drowning out my internal monologue with a steady stream of music and podcasts. There were certain days where this strategy was effective, and many others—like the one I’m about to describe—where it failed miserably.

One morning I got into my car, queued up ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP, and hit play, only to discover that the audio on my phone had spontaneously stopped working. Desperate to avoid the torments of my own brain, I began frantically flipping between radio stations searching for something to listen to. Around the fifth time I heard Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home,” I became infuriated at what I perceived to be Fifth Harmony’s direct taunts towards my predicament: “You don’t got to go to work, work, work…”

As a result, I switched to CBC Radio (Canada’s NPR) and decided to temporarily forego music in favor of the daily news. What followed was one of the most confusing experiences I’ve ever had while alone in my car. Rather than a rundown of the headlines, CBC was airing an incredibly thorough audio documentary on the sex life of a paraplegic man who had tragically lost sensation in the lower half of his body. Perplexed, I listened to ten minutes of this documentary, thinking, “Wait, they can’t broadcast the word ‘fuck’ on the radio, but they’re allowed to broadcast this detailed explanation about simulating orgasms through nipple play at nine in the morning?!”

It’s easy to forget how absurd and arbitrary the conventions regarding censorship can be until a moment like this jars your awareness. Passively accepting the sanitization of media in public spaces is a tradition that predates all of us, as regular a feature of our daily lives as separating paper from plastic, or overlooking the demonstrable ills of capitalism. When we turn on the radio and we hear, “I ain’t sayin’ she a gold digger, but she ain’t messin’ with no broke broke,” none of us are fooled by this thinly veiled substitution, but we also don’t think twice about it because we’ve been conditioned to accept these sorts of edits as normal.

In this particular instance, the censorship in question is relatively mild, but the broader idea of censorship rarely inspires such indifference on the whole. Depending on your personal values, you may think that censorship is vital to the preservation of our collective civility, or you may think that even the most benign cases of it are an insidious infringement on the sanctity of artistic expression. Implementing a standard set of regulations to govern such a thing, then, is an impossible undertaking. No matter how stringent the rules, there will always be some people who think they’re too lenient and some people who think they’re excessively heavy-handed.

Much of this occurred to me recently as I studied the front cover of Phonte’s most recent album, No News Is Good News, and I pondered whether it genuinely warranted the “Parental Advisory Explicit Content” label affixed to its artwork. After listening to the album many times over and digesting its underlying themes, I came to the conclusion that, if your child is listening to this project in 2018, you should probably be thrilled by this apparent best-case scenario. In an era where children have unfettered access to the frequently depraved depths of SoundCloud rap, I imagine that Phonte’s use of curse words would be the least of a parent’s worries.

As it pertains to the application of these “parental advisory” warnings, the conventional debate about whether the governing regulations are too relaxed or too strict is a distracting straw man. Much more relevant is the fact that they are simply too impractical to be useful. Even the least perceptive of people can study the current media landscape and conclude that these labels haven’t been effective since the heyday of internet piracy, but it’s less well known that questions of their practicality have plagued them since their earliest iterations came into effect in 1985.

In this great overview of the history of these labels published by NPR in 2010, the author provides a fascinating account of the genesis of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), their push to regulate the music they deemed to be obscene, and how they were ultimately forced to compromise heavily on their unrealistic demands. As the story goes, the PMRC—led by glorified hall monitors Tipper Gore and Susan Baker—initially pushed to implement a formal rating system for music (similar to the ratings that apply to movies), to have explicit lyrics printed directly on album covers, and for albums deemed objectionable to be stored behind retail counters, leading to a contentious battle with representatives from the music industry.

Discussing why these demands were unrealistic years later, the current CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Cary Sherman, said, “First, no 'board' can determine what is the appropriate interpretation of a song and therefore how it should be rated. Second, it's simply impractical to rate as many songs as are released in a given year. In 2009, there were 793 movies rated. That same year, there were over 97,000 albums, or over 1.2 million songs, released."

Just months after the negotiations began, the PMRC was forced to settle on a heavily watered-down proposal: essentially, the precursor to the “parental advisory” label we see today. Music that was deemed to be explicit would brandish this label, with the caveat that this was based on the discretion and voluntary participation of the artists and record labels themselves. The RIAA offered guidelines for when parties should comply with this recommendation, but even these were too ambiguous to be useful. For example, the guideline that “contemporary cultural morals and standards should be used in determining whether parents or guardians would find the sound recording suitable for children” is about as open to interpretation as the “what are we?” text received too soon from a new romantic partner.

Of course, artists and record labels eventually began complying with the recommendation to decorate their music with the “parental advisory” label, though not from fear of consequences from the RIAA or PMRC, but to appease certain retailers which refused to sell explicit albums unless plainly marked or edited. From the same NPR article referenced above, a comment from an expert reads: “Overall, I don't think labels adversely effected sales, since kids—even before the internet—were able to get what they wanted. It ended up being a way for certain retailers like Wal-Mart to brand themselves as 'family friendly'—at least to families who didn't like profanity on records.”

And this about brings us up to the present day. Despite the fact that “contemporary cultural morals” and the music industry at large have changed dramatically since 1985, “parental advisory” labels still adorn the latest releases by our favorite artists, which are even more useless at protecting children from obscenity now than when they were first enacted. For context, consider that net neutrality laws were both passed and repealed by the U.S. government in the span of fewer than five years, yet 33 years later these completely useless “parental advisory” recommendations remain in effect.

To see evidence of this, look no further than the hip-hop releases page on Spotify, a casual glance at which proves that there’s no longer any clear methodology for when this label is necessary and when it isn’t. Consider the fact that the “parental advisory” sticker is featured on Noname’s independently released 2016 album Telefone, but not on Logic’s recent Def Jam release Bobby Tarantino II. It adorns Migos’s Culture II, but not 6ix9ine’s DAY69; Rich The Kid’s The World Is Yours, but not Trippie Redd’s A Love Letter To You 2—you get the point. Streaming services require individual songs to be marked when they’re considered “explicit,” and none of these albums feature significantly fewer explicit songs than any of the others, causing me to wonder what is leading to this confusing lack of consistency.

Interestingly, it appears the primary consideration here is the individual discretion of the artists and record companies themselves. The days of artists facing retail consequences for failing to adhere to “parental advisory” recommendations are long gone, and yet record companies still seem to be committed to including them out of force of habit. Take, for example, Cardi B’s recent single “Be Careful,” the artwork for which still features a “parental advisory” label, despite zero plans for this song to be sold in stores as a standalone track.

Artists, for their part, often choose to include these labels deliberately as a design choice, believing the symbol to be an iconic symbol of rebellion. According to Dan Stubbs, the editor of NME, “it’s almost a ‘badge of honour’ to have your album stickered. It came out of this puritanical drive in America against rock and gangsta rap but completely backfired because bands would add in extra swearing just to get the sticker. Kids would want to buy that album because it had the label on and it made your CD seem cool.”

In the height of the mania surrounding the genesis of the “parental advisory” label, I can certainly understand the drive to do this. Reappropriating the symbol to mock its self-righteous implications would have definitely been my inclination too. I would have undoubtedly owned an ironic t-shirt with the logo on it, like this one worn by Woody Harrelson’s character in the classic movie White Men Can’t Jump. Yet, 33 years down the line, this seems almost tacky. Including a “parental advisory” sticker on your album to seem dangerous feels as outdated as trying to do so by imitating The Fonz from Happy Days.

I’d imagine it’s why these labels have been essentially eradicated in every other genre but hip-hop. Granted, rap also happens to be the genre that features the most obscene content, but there are plenty of rock albums featuring explicit lyrics released each year that manage to avoid it. When rappers opt to voluntarily place a “parental advisory” label on their album as a badge of honor, it’s a bit like saying, “rap is not a serious art form, it’s just something we do to piss off our parents.” At this point in the genre’s evolution, this feels like something we can do away with.

Having spent enough time on the internet, I can say definitively that a conspiracy theorist would not have a hard time arguing that the “parental advisory” recommendations coming into effect around the same time hip-hop was gaining cultural traction was not a coincidence. And, though I’m not personally persuaded by this argument, it is certainly true that hip-hop is the genre that has been most impacted by these regulations throughout its history. 

It feels like now is as good of a time as any for rappers and record companies to take a stand and stop letting Tipper Gore, a woman who looks like this, have any impact on the genre we love.  

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