MAINSTREAM METAL, PARENTAL ADVISORIES, AND CENSORSHIP
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.
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
1. Know (knowledge):
2. Be able to (skills):
2. Ask students if they recognize the parental advisory label and if they know what it signifies. (Note to instructor: The current Parental Advisory Label was introduced in the 1990s by the Recording Industry Association of America, which begin issuing similar warning labels about music content in 1985.) Briefly discuss:
1. Read the following quote aloud: "The Parents' Music Resource Center [PMRC], a group led by a number of well-placed Washington spouses, contents that rock music has become offensively sexually explicit and that record companies must take steps to both caution consumers—through album warning labels—and reduce the frequency of such 'offensive' music" ("Zappa, Snider Take on Lyric Critics," Los Angeles Times, September 19, 1985).
2. Display the "Filthy Fifteen," a list of popular songs the PMRC found particularly unsuitable for young listeners. Inform students that the highlighted songs are from Heavy Metal groups.
3. Play the video of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (1985) and distribute lyrics to the song. Briefly discuss:
4. Explain to students that in 1985, a committee of the United States Senate held a hearing on the issue of labeling “offensive” music, at which members of the PMRC and many others testified. Play students the clip of part of the testimony of Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and discuss:
5. Divide students into pairs. Explain that each pair will be responsible for preparing an opening statement for a debate on Heavy Metal and the regulation of popular music. Students will be given a series of documents to help them prepare their arguments.
6. Assign half of the groups to be in favor of the parental advisory system, and half the groups to be opposed. Explain that they will use the handouts to draft a two-paragraph statement regarding their position on whether or not parental advisory labels should be placed on musical recordings.
7. Distribute the Document Organizer, Statement Template, and Document Set. Allow students adequate time to read through the documents, take notes on the Document Organizer, and write their opening statements.
8. After each group has prepared its two-paragraph statement, create groups of four students, each consisting of one pair that supports the labeling system and one pair that opposes it.
9. Ask each pair to read its opening statement to the second pair in its group. Reverse the procedure, with the second pair reading its opening statement.
10. Ask each pair to respond to the opposing pair’s arguments. Allow groups sufficient time to discuss/debate the relative merits of each position.
Reconvene the class as a whole, and discuss:
Ask students to expand their opening statement into a five-paragraph essay in which they make a more complete case for their position. They should be sure to use specific examples from the documents and their knowledge of popular music to support their arguments.
1. Depending on the maturity level of students, you may wish to explore some of the other songs included on the list of the “Filthy Fifteen” and their subject matter.
2. Students may also further explore the testimony at the 1985 Senate Hearings (available online). Please note that this testimony includes somewhat more detailed discussion of the specific material the PMRC found “offensive,” and is not suitable for all students.
3. With your guidance, have students explore multiple interpretations of the Motorhead song “Ace of Spades” (1980):
4. The PMRC's efforts are not the first of this kind in the United States; many works of art, music, and literature have been labeled inappropriate or potentially corrupting by critics. Between 2000 and 2009, for example, there were efforts ban the Harry Potter series because critics thought that the witch and wizard characters promoted the occult. In other cases, the work of Dr. Seuss was subjected to disfavor, particularly because of its underlying political themes.
Have students research efforts to censor a book by Dr. Suess or J. K. Rowling, or, alternatively, a work of their own choosing (this could be a book, film, music, or piece of visual art--ideally one with which they are already familiar or can obtain from the school library. This list of banned books from the American Library Association may be a good starting point). Have students identify a time when someone recommended censoring or banning their chosen work, and ask them to write a short letter to the editor of a local newspaper about the issue. Students should clearly explain what the effects of banning the work would be, and make a strong argument for or against the censorship.
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language for Grades 6-12
Core Music Standard: Responding
Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.