What's the Point of Parental Advisory Warnings in the Digital Age?

Should Spotify come with a censorship option?EXPAND
Should Spotify come with a censorship option?
Flickr user Carolyn Tiry

I have a son who will turn two in November, and like many kids his age, he is absorbing language with a vengeance. Every day he has at least one new word to share with the people who make up his current world.

Sooner or later, one of those words that comes out of his adorable little mouth is bound to be of the four-letter variety. And when that epithet is inevitably unleashed, who or what will be to blame for its soiling of his clean little slate?

My own speech patterns should obviously be first on the list for scrutiny. I work in journalism, and profanities, obscenities and vulgarities surface in my own spoken vocabulary on a semi-regular basis.

As far as my kid goes, though, even if I were to eradicate any and all foul language from my own speech, that still leaves the ever-present media, including the music I play for him during our dance parties or when I’m simply seeking background noise. One or two songs out of every hundred that I play includes a word I wouldn’t want him saying around my mother.

I don’t remember my parents ever grappling with this issue. They very rarely used four-letter words themselves, and listening to mostly oldies in the car meant we didn’t hear anything too controversial. Now that I’m a parent myself, I’ve had to think about those parental-advisory labels more than I have since I could buy my own albums.

I still think twelve is a decent age for purchasing music with those labels. But what if my kid wants a CD with the ever-threatening “explicit lyrics” when he’s six? Or five? Four? Younger? Would that answer vary depending on the album? Depending on the kid?

My parents didn’t spend much time vetting the media we consumed, whether it was the movies we watched, the books we read or the music we bumped in our rooms. And as my taste in music evolved away from what they typically played, I did listen to music with lyrics some might deem questionable — but by the time I heard those words in a song on an album I bought, I’d already known what they meant and how to spell them for years.

In fact, when I look back on my love affair with language and think about when I learned which words, what stands out to me is that all of the “bad words” in my vocabulary came to me via my peers, not from my parents — and definitely not from my music.

I do remember having conversations with my parents about suggestive advertising jingles and lyrics to songs being played on the radio — about what they meant and how we felt about what they meant.

In that way, my parents certainly had discretion over my musical experiences. But they didn’t need a label on an album to do that. They just needed to pay attention to me, to what I was doing and to what was playing in the background while I did it.

And now that actual CDs have become all but obsolete and we’re all getting our music digitally, the evolution of “parental advisory” is happening right in front of our eyes. It’s a restriction setting with Apple, an “explicit filter” when using Pandora.

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Spotify doesn’t appear to have a parental option, at least not yet — but after reading community threads featuring parents who threaten to abandon the service if it doesn’t immediately implement a “safe mode,” I realize I might be in the minority with my laissez-faire attitude toward children and music.

It remains to be seen whether the service will acquiesce to these demands or remain free and unfettered, and whether its decision will hurt the company or help it. But here’s my take: I don’t think I would be doing my own child any favors by adjusting settings on an account to filter what he hears. I’d rather take my own parents’ approach: Listen to what he’s listening to and engage with him about it. I’d like to talk to him about what those labels mean and why they exist, and about how art is both form and content, and whether a piece of music considered crude or offensive enough to warrant a label can still be art.

The labels themselves might lead to a whole new conversation about where we as a society draw our lines, whether and how those lines shift, and where my child sees himself in relation to them.

I don’t blame parents for wanting to keep tabs on their kids. We’re constantly reminded that the world is a scary place, and it’s our job to protect the little ones in our care.

And, yes, there are words that aren’t appropriate to use in every setting, words we use when we want to convey extreme emotions — which is also, I believe, what music does for humans. Music helps us take situations and feelings that are too intense for our bodies and capture them in an immortal format.

Some songs are scary and address ugly issues, things we don’t want to talk about with kids — that’s understandable. But keeping kids from listening to those songs won’t protect them from the often terrible things that serve as artistic inspiration.

Human emotions can be scary and overwhelming, and listening to music can be cathartic. I’d rather expose my kid to a cuss word or two than deprive him of something that resonates with how he’s feeling — and helps him feel better as a result.


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