Pushing the boundaries of socially acceptable expression has been a controversy that has been fueled by the artistic community throughout history. Sculptures, writers, painters, poets, filmmakers and comedians have all pushed the envelope of the public comfort zone. Music, of course, has had its own prominence in expanding political discourse, inciting political change, and exploring social taboos. Part of my passion for contemporary music, as with many of the people with whom I share a generation, has been its ability to bring forward important issues through song lyrics. The issues of civil rights and the peace movement were obviously punctuated and profiled by artists such as Curtis Mayfield and John Lennon in a way that inspired phenomenal change in our thinking and our societies’ direction. However, challenging acceptability is not just a thing for Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Marvin Gaye. It’s also the domain of Redd Foxx, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dog, and Slayer. As entertainment expanded and liberalized the commercial expression of sex, drug use, and violence over the past half century, music has, of course, been a prominent vehicle.
When you look back on the music that was banned in the ‘50’s or was considered revolutionary in the ‘60’s it is beyond mild by today’s standards… or lack of standards. As music and other aspects of creative expression have become more fragmented, aggressive, diverse, and often self-serving, some of the efforts to corral it or police it seem to be limp or helpless efforts today.
As a major label marketing person, my many colleagues and I had to grapple with the issue of the Parental Warning sticker. It became a political tool that some naively thought would save our children from the evils of society. Although it is still in use today – even in the digital music world – the meaning of it, for the most part, has long since faded.
I have to admit (should I go there?) that I was likely the first person to ever create a warning sticker for an album. I believe it was for Ted Nugent’s “Scream Dream” album. If there is an earlier one, I am not aware of it. I worked with Ted in several capacities, from 1975, when he was signed as a solo artist to Epic Records into the early ‘80’s. We became good friends in those first couple of years as the Epic publicity department engineered a phenomenal media campaign that was pivotal to Ted’s launch into guitar god stature. Susan Blond, Pat Siciliano, Glen Brunman, Carol Bork, Eric Van Lustbader and I, along with his management publicist, Laura Kaufman, had a brilliant time positioning Ted into media situations that he completely loved and slam dunked. As his career grew, I later joined Ted’s management firm, Leber-Krebs, Inc., and became his music publisher. By 1979, I had returned to Epic and in my role in the Epic marketing department, became Ted’s product manager, and worked together on the gold “State of Shock album.
In putting together the album packaging and marketing campaign for his next album, “Scream Dream”, I had the occasion of reviewing the lyrics to all the songs. I think we were trying to figure out if they should be printed inside. Ted’s lyrics were often cartoonish, sometimes funny, and were nothing that should be taken too seriously. Ted, even in his strong convictions, always seemed to apply a sense of humor to it. We liked to give album buyers as much value as we could find, so if re-printing the lyric seemed worthwhile and not too redundant, we would probably do it. It was in this review that I discovered a lyric that included a violent act against a Catholic nun. I remember being surprised, as Ted often wrote sexually explicit lyrics, but I hadn’t remembered any overtly violent ones. I think the song was called “Violent Love”, but I have been unable to find those lyrics online to correlate it.
I have never felt that it was my right to deem what is socially appropriate. I do, however, believe that a consumer should be given information to let them know what they are buying. Because these lyrics were pretty extreme in 1980, I also felt that the album might create a ‘returns’ problem at retail, with parents bringing the album back. Such disruption was not something that our retail accounts liked. On that basis, I had the very individual thought that a sticker might be appropriate. If my porous memory serves me right, I believe the copy I wrote was something like “This album may contain lyrics that may be objectionable to some consumers”. If that’s not correct, it is fairly close to the sticker that ultimately was included on the cover.
As political as the entire PRMC (Parents Music Resource Center) issue became after its launch in 1984, the decision to include this first warning sticker several years prior was a very simple one. I went to my boss at the time, Ron McCarrell, and told him of the lyric, the issue I thought might arise at the retail level, and my suggested copy for the sticker. He thought it made common sense, approved it, but ran it by Epic’s label head Don Dempsey, simply so that Don was aware of what we were doing. In the meantime, I informed Ted’s manager, David Krebs, who I had worked for and remained friends. As any good manager, David was furious. He had never heard of such a thing and didn’t think his artist needed to be singled out. However, when I explained my concern about the possibility of returns, he acquiesced. I never heard if Ted really cared either way about it. Frankly, I doubt that it would be a big concern to him.
Over the next couple of years, albums occasionally were stickered for content in much the same way as we did on that first one. However, by 1985, a movement was in full swing and local obscenity laws became a major issue for music retail stores across the country. Now, even one curse word might be considered offensive under local laws and the major chains, especially Wal-Mart began applying major pressure on the record labels to disclose any questionable lyrical content. Wal-Mart was feeling the local pressure more than any other retailer. This was all political cover-your-butt business, but meetings abounded internally to evaluate if a sticker was needed at every label as this political issue expanded. Acts were advised to remove a gratuitous curse word, to avoid being excluded from being positioned at Wal-Mart. Everyone was overreacting.
However, what happens when you start legislating morality? Usually, it only encourages people to push the envelope further. As heavy metal and gangsta rap artists moved forward, they were compelled to make sure their albums were stickered. If they weren’t, it was a sign they weren’t heavy enough, edgy enough, or gangsta enough. The Parental Warning sticker became a marketing badge for edgy artists. The “clean” versions of albums, often massively bleeped, found their way into retail to assure that sanitized aggressive music could still be conveniently racked across America. What a convoluted pile of junk. It never solved the social values issues and nade most of these albums utterly unlistenable.
Sometime in the mid to late ‘80’s, I was made the representative from Epic on the R.I.A.A.’s marketing committee. The committee was chaired by Hilary Rosen, who had the unenviable job to try to make sense of the Parental Advisory sticker. At the first and only meeting I ever attended, Hilary raised the issue of trying to revise the copy of the sticker to have it make more sense and perhaps better represent the responsibility of the industry on the issue of consumer awareness. There must have been 20 major label marketing executives in attendance. We were the supposed marketing geniuses millions of album sales. However, after several hours of discussion, the meeting degenerated into a discussion of how large the sticker should be. Somehow the simple idea of disclosing the content of a product had devolved into a stupid political tool that was manipulated and used by the most liberally offensive creators of content and also the most conservative censurers of free expression. I’m so sorry I ever had the thought!
Today, as I watch the news on television and as I explore it online, I had the thought that we should have a sticker to warn everyone that not all the news we are getting is fact. You know, just something simple to provide a little consumer awareness! Then, I thought about how the truth about the truth might be manipulated. Might that lead to the PTRC (The Parent Truth Resource Center)? Then, maybe people would start bleeping out the obvious distortion of facts, which would sound pretty annoying. We would also then have people reach the point where they didn’t care if they heard the truth, but just want to hear what they want. It’s 30 years later. I think I’ll give up on stickers!
One side note to this story: Interestingly, we never heard one, single, solitary complaint regarding the violent lyric directed toward nuns on that album. No organization came to the defense of those poor sisters. No parent called us. No priest wrote us. We heard not one peep about it!
Conversely, my old friend Ted once sent me a smoked duck for Christmas. He had it sent to my office and it arrived on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, I had left for vacation the day before and like almost everyone in the music business, I didn’t return to the office until after the New Year. Upon arriving on the 12th floor of the CBS Records upon my return, everyone was in turmoil about this unbelievably rank odor coming from my locked office. We had the two-week old smoked duck removed, but it was the talk of the building that entire day. For weeks, people talked about how offensive Ted Nugent was for sending me that duck! Folks, that was a nice Christmas present from the Nuge!
I guess it is all a lesson in the complications and futility of effectively responding to social values in our mass market society. Sometimes it just has the aroma of a two-week old smoked duck.
(Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com. I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)