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Sound warning

Parental advisory labels for music are losing effectiveness in the age of internet streaming

Sound warning

Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie (boy: Paula Daniëlse/Getty Images; sound waves: iunewind/istock)

Michael Siluk/UIG/Getty Images

In 1996, back when people actually bought music in stores, Walmart made headlines when it announced it would no longer sell CDs with a parental advisory label warning adults about explicit content. Gone from its shelves would be popular ’90s chart-toppers Alanis Morissette, Marilyn Manson, and any rapper not named Will Smith.

Back then, not being able to buy certain CDs at a big-box store was a big deal. So were parental advisory labels. In 2016, though, three of the five Grammy nominees for album of the year featured at least one explicit song, and labeled albums sold better than their clean counterparts. Example: The explicit version of “Starboy,” by R&B act The Weeknd, ranked 37th in mid-December on Amazon’s bestseller list. Its clean counterpart? 1,673rd. Republic Records released both on the same date with the same songs at the same price.

Many stores only sell explicit versions. At my local Target I couldn’t find a single clean version CD. Walmart remains the lone big-box retailer to stock only clean versions of CDs in its stores, but even it has caved. Check and you will notice it has quietly walked back from its long-standing “mature merchandise policy” by offering explicit versions of these same CDs online. Not that young people buy CDs anymore.

Warning labels are fast growing obsolete as kids flock online to get free unfiltered music, but the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which licenses and distributes parental advisory labels to record companies, stands by them. Cara Duckworth Weiblinger, the association’s vice president of communications, says people recognize the labels and they “serve as an educational tool to raise awareness of music’s content.”

‘The label is more symbolic than anything else. It has no impact now.’ 

But labeling an album explicit is strictly voluntary. Artists and record companies make the decision and leave RIAA in the dark. The association has never given detailed guidance for how an album should be considered explicit, does not keep statistics on how many albums it has labeled, and does not discipline record companies or artists who refuse to use the label. The Parents Music Resource Center, the committee that fought for the label and a music rating system in the mid-1980s, stopped meeting in the 1990s.

Since its demise, no authority has stepped in to rein in or regulate, and online streaming services have arrived at different ways to treat objectionable lyrics. Pandora, YouTube, and Google Play offer options to turn on or off explicit content. Apple Music goes further, censoring explicit song titles on its music streaming service—listeners have to type in asterisks to search for songs with profanity in the title—and allowing only clean versions of songs to be played on Beats1, its 24-hour live radio program.

Spotify, on the other hand, has never offered an option to turn off explicit content, despite numerous requests. Nearly 7,000 listeners have asked the popular Swedish music streaming service since 2012 for a button to filter out explicit content. It finally responded in November to say it was a “good idea.” Spotify did not respond to my multiple interview requests.

So if a kid wants to hear unfiltered music, he will have little trouble finding it somewhere. With a pair of headphones and a fast internet connection, he can easily bypass his parents, and in so doing, the parental advisory label.

“The label is more symbolic than anything else,” said Paul Porter, a veteran music industry insider who runs 98.5 The Wire, a new radio station in Orlando, Fla. “It has no impact now.”

Porter, who chuckled at the mere mention of the label, says its lack of influence isn’t the real problem—it’s the music itself. His radio station, which primarily plays R&B and hip-hop, said the latter genre in particular has changed dramatically for the worse.

“Hip-hop was fun back then [in the late ’80s and early ’90s]. Now it’s just sex, sex, guns, and drinking 40s.” 

That’s 40 ounces of alcohol, and many record companies and artists are supersizing darker themes and adult content as well. Many listeners are lapping it up, but the recording industry continues to struggle financially: RIAA says the music industry took in $7 billion in 2015 (down from almost $15 billion in 1999), and the 2010s are on their way to being the poorest-earning decade in U.S. recording history.

WORLD contacted record companies, including Sony, Universal, and Warner, but received no response.

Porter says the solution to the music industry’s malaise lies not in better labeling, but in striving for balance. His station, for example, plays a mix of what’s hip along with what he calls “conscious records” to strike a balance between what listeners like and good music that might not necessarily be on everyone’s radar.

Conscientious DJs like Porter have some power to control their content, but listeners who want to hear less obscene music elsewhere face an uphill battle, as do parents. While the government can’t penalize musicians for music you purchase, it can penalize radio stations for music you hear over the airwaves.

Coby Burns/ZumaPress/Newscom

iTunes online music store includes the parental advisory warning. (Coby Burns/ZumaPress/Newscom)

A Philadelphia-based grassroots protest group says it helped take Wilmington, Delaware–based music station Kiss 101.7 off the air after complaints from its members about explicit songs led to fines and bad publicity. Every year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fines dozens of television and radio stations for broadcasting objectionable material, and penalties have ranged from $7,000 (for off-color jokes on a local morning radio show) to $3.6 million (for sexual content on prime-time TV). WORLD verified that another station bought Kiss last April and converted it to talk radio, but Kiss co-founder DJ Shorty T claims the switch had little to do with losing money, according to an interview with The (Wilmington) News Journal.

“Rage Against the Ratchet” founder Carvin Haggins takes pride in Kiss’ demise, but—like Porter—says explicit content is now so ubiquitous that sheltering children from obscene content is not as simple as slapping a label on an album, taking down radio stations, or bleeping out four-letter words. He says radio is “a blind man’s porn”:  “They’re playing this stuff at 7 a.m. when they’re getting ready for school, all the way to 4 p.m., when they come home, so their minds are being inundated with pornographic lyrics.”

Haggins has taken his fight for music decency to Washington, D.C., where he hopes informal meetings with policymakers will drum up enough interest to introduce legislation that would keep radio stations from playing explicit songs—including even their clean versions—within normal listening hours. But even with help from grassroots affiliates in New York, Chicago, and Florida, Haggins feels like “David going up against Goliath.” How will his group persuade record companies, media conglomerates like iHeartMedia, and the FCC?

It can start with informing parents about their options. If you no longer buy CDs, you can activate parental controls on your children’s devices and look for content filters on favorite websites or streaming services. Plugged In, a Focus on the Family–sponsored site, is an excellent option for parents looking for extensive reviews of the latest entertainment with Christian sensibilities in mind. More proactive parents who hear obscene music on the radio can file indecency complaints with the FCC, which has a surprisingly easy-to-navigate complaint website.

It also couldn’t hurt to listen to this year’s Grammy nominees before they’re awarded on Feb. 12—your kids may stream their songs the next day. 


Grade inflation

Unlike music, other forms of entertainment (movies, video games, and television) use ratings systems to give audiences an idea of what’s appropriate for different age groups. But this doesn’t mean they’re accurate. In many cases, most companies do their best to manipulate the system to attract the widest audience and lucrative commercial tie-ins. 


How it works: All televisions made after 1999 have a v-chip that allows users to ban TV shows rated above a certain parental guidelines rating. This enables parents to tailor their viewing within their own home. According to the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board, an independent survey says most Americans are satisfied with the TV ratings system.

How it doesn’t: Networks, which rate their own shows, give deceptively lower ratings so they don’t lose advertisers, says Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council. Also, the v-chip does not work for streaming services such as Netflix, which has separate parental controls.

When it doesn’t work: VH1’s Dating Naked and Discovery’s Naked and Afraid (the titles say it all) are currently rated TV-14. Until recently, AMC’s The Walking Dead, which features graphic violence and gore, also had a TV-14 rating. Complaints from the Parents Television Council helped to change The Walking Dead, currently the second-highest-rated cable TV show, to TV-MA, the strongest rating allowed.

Gene Page/AMC

The Walking Dead (Gene Page/AMC)


How it works: Theaters restrict movies to patrons by age or require parents to accompany a minor. Family-friendly retailers like Walmart also require ID checks for anyone purchasing R-rated movies, and streaming services like Netflix have easy-to-use controls for parents who want to restrict content based on ratings.

How it doesn’t: With 98.9 percent of all movies in 2016 rated PG, PG-13, or R, it’s become easier to blur the lines between these ratings. It’s apparent the ratings guidelines have slipped, giving movies with Oscar-level talent an easy pass despite their explicit content. Also, government research shows theaters sometimes fail to enforce their own policies against allowing unaccompanied minors into R-rated films.

When it doesn’t work: The Martin Scorsese–directed The Wolf of Wall Street—which had strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, and 569 utterances of a certain four-letter word—is rated R. It probably wouldn’t have made $91 million at the box office and garnered critical acclaim if it had been rated NC-17.


The Wolf of Wall Street (INFdaily)


How it works: In addition to a clearly marked letter rating on game boxes, accompanying descriptions often give reasons for the rating. Many game systems have parental controls to prevent kids from playing games above a certain rating.

How it doesn’t: Ratings are not as prominent on online versions and can seem confusing to parents.

When it doesn’t work: Grand Theft Auto V, one of the best-selling games of all time, includes murder, prostitutes, and the murder of prostitutes, yet is rated M. Only 27 games have ever been given the AO (adults only) rating, which is the equivalent of an NC-17 rating in movies.

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

(Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career class.