Essential Question

How was Heavy Metal involved in the 1980s controversy surrounding the creation of parental advisories for “offensive” music?


In the early 1980s, Heavy Metal, which had begun as a somewhat marginal musical genre, began to enjoy mainstream success with the popularity of such bands as Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Kiss, and Twisted Sister. Around the same time, MTV was born, offering a new venue for popular music and a new way for it to enter American households on a grand scale. With their high energy and visual splash, Metal bands became a mainstay of the channel, bringing the music of these groups considerable attention not only from fans, but from parent groups who deemed much of it “offensive” and sought ways to shield their children from it.

At the height of Heavy Metal’s mainstream success the wife of then-Senator Al Gore, Tipper Gore, established the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) along with the wives of several other prominent politicians. The PMRC advocated for the creation of a labeling system that would warn parents of explicit content on recordings. After a contentious hearing in the United States Senate, the record industry agreed voluntarily to adopt a labeling system that would advise parents about recordings containing content that was explicitly sexual, referenced drug or alcohol use, or contained graphic language.  While many stores continued to carry recordings bearing these labels, some merchants—most notably Walmart—refused to carry recordings with advisory labels, a policy that Walmart continues today.

In this lesson, students will investigate the connection between the popularity of Heavy Metal and the emergence of the parental advisory system. They will consider who should have the power to declare a song “offensive” and whether or not access to such material should be regulated. They will further debate the merits of the labeling system, which is still in place, and consider whether or not labeling certain recordings should be considered censorship.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

1. Know (knowledge):

  • The involvement of Heavy Metal in the music regulation controversy of the 1980s
  • The involvement of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the creation of a system of parental advisory labels for “explicit” or “offensive” music.

2. Be able to (skills):

  • Debate the relative merits of opposing arguments
  • Evaluate different interpretations of songs and other forms of artistic expression
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the parental advisory system and whether or not it should be considered a form of censorship
  • Common Core: Students will cite evidence from documents, pictures, and videos to develop an argument for or against a specific position (CCSS Reading 1; CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Writing 1; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2; CCSS Speaking and Listening 4)
  • Common Core: Students will think critically about how language functions in different contexts, exploring the theme of censorship (CCSS Language 3; CCSS Language 6)