The Devilish History of the 1980s Parental Advisory Sticker: When Heavy Metal & Satanic Lyrics Collided with the Religious Right

Frank Zap­pa called them the “Moth­ers of Pre­ven­tion,” the group of wives mar­ried to mem­bers of Con­gress who decid­ed in the mid-80s to go to war against rock lyrics and whip up some good ol’ con­ser­v­a­tive hys­te­ria.

We’ve talked about this time before on this site, espe­cial­ly as Zap­pa him­self tes­ti­fied in front of Con­gress and sparred on the Sun­day Belt­way shows like Cross­fire.

Vox’s Ear­worm series, now back for a sec­ond sea­son, tack­les this moment in a time that would have lit­tle ram­i­fi­ca­tion before the design-ugly “Parental Advi­so­ry: Explic­it Con­tent” stick­er.
(Just an aside: I know their head­line is click-baity, but real­ly? Heavy met­al and Satan gave us this stick­er? More like Tip­per Gore and their family’s pres­i­den­tial ambi­tions gave us it. Oy.)

Any­way, Gore’s Par­ents Music Resource Cen­ter (PMRC) gave us a list of the “Filthy Fif­teen,” includ­ing songs like Sheena Easton’s “Sug­ar Walls” and Madonna’s “Dress You Up,” which either con­tained lyrics “pro­mot­ing” vio­lence, sex­u­al ref­er­ences, drug and alco­hol, and Satan’s favorite, the “occult.”

Estelle Caswell explores that last cat­e­go­ry and dives into the increas­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty dur­ing the ‘80s of heavy met­al music, which was often invok­ing Satan in its lyrics, or cre­at­ing occult-like atmos­pheres in its pro­duc­tion.

This campy, hor­ror­show cul­ture ran right into the grow­ing pow­er of con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­tians and evan­gel­i­cal preach­ers who made a *lot* of mon­ey whip­ping up “Satan­ic Pan­ic” among their nation­al flock. They lis­tened to rock records back­wards, believ­ing they heard sub­lim­i­nal mes­sages.

Of course, none of this would have gone much fur­ther than church­es if it wasn’t for the major net­works turn­ing a noth­ing sto­ry into headlines–the Vox video reminds us how com­plic­it Ted Kop­pel, Bar­bara Wal­ters, Ger­al­do Rivera, et al were in pro­mot­ing it. They also looked at the ris­ing teenage sui­cide rate and used heavy met­al as a scape­goat, instead of–as the video explains–family breakups, drug abuse, eco­nom­ic uncer­tain­ty, and increas­ing access to guns.

The warn­ing label itself appeared in 1990, just as rap was tak­ing off and a new lyri­cal boogey­man appeared. Dig­i­tal media and file shar­ing, along with YouTube and oth­er sites, mut­ed this kind of cen­sor­ship. And par­ents, in the end, still need to do the job over what their chil­dren see or don’t.

How­ev­er, cen­sor­ship is back, but there are no Wash­ing­ton Wives act­ing as scolds. Now it is the whims of cap­i­tal, as in the col­lapse of Tum­blr, or it is a faulty algo­rithm that cen­sors old mas­ter paint­ings filled with nudi­ty, just as guilty as porn, that are our new decen­cy guardians. Where are those con­gres­sion­al hear­ings?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Brief His­to­ry of Hol­ly­wood Cen­sor­ship and the Rat­ings Sys­tem

George Orwell Iden­ti­fies the Main Ene­my of the Free Press: It’s the “Intel­lec­tu­al Cow­ardice” of the Press Itself

Home Tap­ing Is Killing Music: When the Music Indus­try Waged War on the Cas­sette Tape in the 1980s, and Punk Bands Fought Back

Frank Zap­pa Debates Whether the Gov­ern­ment Should Cen­sor Music in a Heat­ed Episode of Cross­fire: Why Are Peo­ple Afraid of Words? (1986)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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