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Sticker Price: Race, Sex, and the Parental Advisory Label

How the parental advisory sticker has helped shape sex, race, and degradation in music.


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The debate over sex in popular music dates back to the beginnings of popular music, from the orgiastic prose of 17th-century Italian madrigals to the virgin sacrifice of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. In 1985, hand-wringers secured a major victory over the sexually explicit when Tipper Gore led the Parents' Music Resource Center in stamping a prominent "parental advisory" sticker on albums with profane lyrics.
Now, researchers from Brigham Young University are peeling back the label. "Viewed originally by some as censorship, warning labels appear now to have allowed artists an unbridled freedom of expression in their music," they write in the latest issue of Sexuality & Culture. "This may be a case where attempts to protect young people from degrading material has backfired and ironically increased exposure to that from which it was intended to protect."
In the study, BYU researchers P. Cougar Hall, Joshua H. West, and Shane Hill scoured the lyrics of Billboard Top 100 hits from 1959 to 2009, searching for references to sexual content—anything from hugs to anal sex. They then coded each reference as either "degrading" or "non-degrading," depending on whether the sexual act referenced sexual objectification, non-consensual sexual activity, or even "a standard of beauty equating physical attractiveness with being sexy."
Then, they took the search a step further, indexing the results by the artist's race. While the lyrics of white artists have remained consistently degrading since 1959, lyrics performed by non-white artists grew steadily more degrading over the decades, then amped up the sexualization in 1999 and 2009. Among 2009's most popular tracks, 46 percent of sex-related lyrics sung by non-white artists were coded as degrading. According to researchers, "lyrics containing sexualization only significantly increased for non-Whites following the introduction of the parent advisory label," which first appeared on album covers in 1985 then grew more standardized in 2000.
The parental advisory warning label was more than just a blight on album art—it represented mainstream backlash to the rise of rap music in particular. The researchers theorize that "non-White artists have responded differently than White artists in the post-parent advisory era due to their history of oppression." In other words, some artists have reacted to increased mainstream censorship by carving out a necessary alternative space beyond the "parental advisory" sticker, using profanity, violence, and degrading sexual content as a radical tool.
Of course, a sticker isn't the only change to hit the music business since 1985. But regardless of the label's effects, the racial schism in sexualized music has complicated implications for race and gender relations beyond the music charts. The researchers note that a hypersexualized representation of racial minorities is nothing new, as "non-Whites have confronted persistent sexually aggressive stereotypes and expectations of hypersexual behavior" throughout history, and "people of color have persistently been stereotyped as hypersexual 'animals' unable to control their sexual appetites and desires." Challenging the parental advisory label with even more profane content may have helped establish an artistic space for non-white artists beyond mainstream control. But suburban white kids are still buying the results.
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