"Parental Advisory. Explicit Content."
Remember that little sticker? The little black and white one that used to rest in the corner of only the most bad-ass of cassette tapes?
The first albums I remember seeing with this warning were Danzig's self titled album, Soundgarden's Louder than Love and Guns and Roses' Appetite for Destruction. This was sometime after a this committee called the Parents Music Resource (PMRC), headed by Tipper Gore, forgot all about our first amendment rights, and lobbied for slapping the sticker on nearly every album under the sun.
My first experience with it was around the age of thirteen, when I purchased a copy of White Zombie's La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol 1.
The cover itself was enough to peak the interest of any adolescent just on the cusp of rock and roll rebellion. Psychedelic strands of green and purple waved behind pictures of the dread-locked band members; Mr. Zombie standing the tallest and most prominent of all. And there it was, in the bottom right corner, a black and white sticker warning me that some of the lyrics may not be suitable for my impressionable ears. Despite the warning, the clerk at Budget Tapes and CDs in Wheat Ridge sold it to me without even checking my library card.
When I got back to my mom's car, I took the tape out of its plastic bag and stared at it wild eyed. My mom had never censored anything I listened to, and had actually bought me Nirvana's Nevermind a few months earlier. I was excited to show her how much my musical tastes had matured.
"Check it out!" I exclaimed. "Devil Music!"
My mom turned to me with surprise, "Devil Music?" she repeated with concern in her voice. "Maybe you shouldn't have that," she said to me but more out loud to herself.
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"Why?" I asked. "I mean, it's just a joke. I don't even think they sing about the devil. 'Thunderkiss 65' is about a car or something, I think."
Although my argument was far from convincing, it was enough to make my mom realize I was just a teenager and still had some things to figure out. She probably also figured that I would get a copy of the album sooner or later from a friend or another lethargic record store clerk.
So, although the little black and white sticker "advised" my mom that I would be hearing foul language, it didn't dissuade her from allowing me to do so, and soon enough, I was jamming out to "Welcome to Planet Mother Fucker" at full volume.
My friend Caleb's mom didn't exactly feel the same way as she confiscated the tape after I let him borrow it for the weekend. Feeling bad, Caleb gave me a copy of, the Rob Halford fronted, Fight's War of Words, which was far from adequate compensation. Even though the sticker didn't prevent my mom from letting Zombie become part of my tape collection, it was clearly affective on certain, more strict, parents.
Remembering this episode made me wonder: What happened to that little sticker?
Perhaps, because of the advent of iTunes, I just don't see as many physical CDs as I used to, or maybe I just got used to seeing it, and I don't even realize it's there any more. Or maybe, the PMRC realized how completely ineffective the sticker was and stopped using it entirely.
Chris Trovero, who works for Epitaph Records in Los Angeles, says that, although he knows Epitaph has released albums with the sticker on it in the past, since he started there three years ago, the practice has been abandoned. This past year, for instance, Epitaph released New Junk Aesthetic by Every Time I Die, an album which features tracks like "The Marvelous Slut" and "Goddam (sic) Kids These Days," whose song titles alone seem to justify a sticker.
Trovero, who says his parents blocked MTV entering his home growing up, thinks the practice of censoring music is outrageous. "Nobody is forcing people to buy these records," he points out. "So they should have the freedom to choose what they like, regardless what the government deems necessary."
"Parental Advisory stickers were cool," he adds, "when Sublime was -- and that was never."
Another label who insists they've never slapped an advisory sticker on an album is the Chicago based, Bloodshot Records, home to the somewhat controversial Detroit Cobras and volatile bad boy, Ryan Adams. Bloodshot's Pete Klockau says he can't ever remember the label using the sticker, but chalks it up to the label's more mature fan base.
"Most of our artists keep the 'fucks' and 'shits' to a minimum," he explains. "We've just assumed notable exceptions to the rule are not a substantial draw with the under eighteen set.
"For those sixteeen-year-olds out there digging into Andre Williams' catalog," Klockau declares, "we salute you, and the foul language is our gift to you for having superior musical taste at such an early age."
Although Klockau's tastes have matured, he can remember a time when his musical tastes were similar to the rest of us.
"The first tape I ever bought, that had the parental advisory sticker," he recalls, "was White Zombie's La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol 1."
Much like I was as a teenager, Klockau says he was not drawn to the album because of its filthy lyrics, but rather the image it represented.
"Yes, that White Zombie record I bought when I was fourteen said 'shit' and 'fuck' in spots," he acknowledges, "but so did I at fourteen. Mostly, it was a record with songs about hot rods and monsters. Should that have the same sticker as a record with songs about murdering and raping people? Probably not, but it did."
So, if certain segments of the industry are no longer using the parental advisory sticker, does it indeed still exist? I went to Wax Trax to snoop around, use their bathroom and see just how many I could find.
The first display I came to was dominated by Neko Case albums. The squeaky clean, fire-haired crooner is more known for her powerful voice and humorous narratives than she is for foul language, and so unsurprisingly, not a parental advisory sticker was in site. Likewise, it was also notably absent from Sade's new album. Sensing that its absence had more to do with the fact that I was in the adult contemporary section, I ventured over to where it all started for me in the first place.
Heavy fucking metal.
What do you know? It didn't take long before I found my old black and white friend, affixed securely to the corner of one of the first CDs I picked up in the new metal rack. Although it was smaller than I remember, I still felt the same sense of excitement and danger as when I first encountered the sticker more than fifteen years earlier.
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So who was it? Who, despite America's declining civility and morality still had to be packaged with a warning for all parent's of potential teenage buyers? As I scanned the title, I chuckled out loud, for in my hand, I was holding Hellbilly Deluxe 2, the brand new disc from Rob Zombie, former lead singer of ... wait for it ... White Zombie.
I didn't buy the new Zombie disc, because, well, at 28, songs about monsters, Satan and cars don't really move me like they did when I was thirteen. I have grown up and, maybe because of the day I was allowed to buy that White Zombie tape, I am able to listen to music as creative expression and form my own opinions. (Just the same, one of the few musical opinions I still share with my thirteen-year-old self is that Rob Halford's side project, Fight, sucks. Big time.)
So, as final conclusion of this completely unscientific study, should we let our kids listen to whatever they want and risk having them turn into foul-mouthed, Satan loving glue sniffers? I think the answer is clear: Who the fuck cares?!