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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