If I ask you to name one of the most significant changes in the contemporary and global music industry, would it be the emergence of MTV in the early 80s or the rise of grunge and teen-pop in the 90s? Or will it be the pioneering p2p pirated music sharing platform Napster that got shut down just after 2 years of operation?
The 80s music conservatism – Parents Music Resource Center
Supposedly you are more or less familiar with the music industry, you will agree with me that the establishment of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) is no less (in)famous in the mid-80s. Proposed and founded by big names like Susan Bake, Tipper Gore, Pam Howar and Sally Nevius in 1985, the aim of the PMRC is to provide parental guidelines to almost-all sensitive content in the popular music scenes.
The organization, indisputably, aroused public backlash and waves of support and opposition. A reason the PMRC gained so much attention was due to the hyper-popular glam metal scene in the 80s, Guns and Roses, Twisted Sister and Warrant are cases in point. And as a consequence of the bands’ visuals and lyrics, the genre is often regarded as “porn rock”.
The famous ‘Filthy 15’ had then come into the public’s lives. The list consists of the classic speed metal band Judas Priest, hard rock legends AC/DC and the METAL PIONEER Black Sabbath as they were claimed to be promoting drug use, sex and violence. Surprisingly, the “Queen of Pop” Madonna, Prince and Cyndi Lauper are also on the list.
Just a month before the Senate hearing in September 1985, record companies decided to add a “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics” label on albums with seemingly explicit content. The hearing had a wide range of witnesses for the case, including John Denver and Frank Zappa. John Denver said in his testimony: “… this would approach censorship. May I be very clear that I am strongly opposed to censorship of any kind in our society, or anywhere else in the world.”. Frank Zappa also argued that the proposal by the PMRC “infringes the civil liberties” and “fails to deliver any real benefits to children”.
So what was the aftermath of this controversy? As predicted by Frank Zappa, it failed to stop anyone from producing and listening to “porn rock”. However, it did catalyze the introduction of the Parental Advisory labels by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in the popular culture scene in the US. As you can imagine, almost any album in the Hip-Hop scene is labelled with Parental Advisory.
Expression through music and its limitation
Is the PMRC’s proposal absurd? Maybe. The issue, in its essence, is comparable to how people react to sensitive topics covered in films and writings. Films do receive ratings under different systems across nations, whereas with books, the boundaries are blurrier in the sense that bookstores are the more crucial gatekeeper than a solid systematic censoring structure; although overtly explicit content like nude magazines are labelled as “obscene or indecent” articles in Hong Kong and are strictly controlled by law.
Music being a sub-culture itself, punk as the sub-set of anarchism for instance, reflects a part of our society.
So, should we also put a label on music? The problem lies within the ephemeral nature of indecency, which definition changes over time along with cultural shifts in our society. Consequently, labelling music is not as easy as the PMRC had imagined. Kathleen Higgins in her book The Music of Our lives argued that music is the amalgam of emotions, moods, mental tensions and resolutions. Music being a sub-culture itself, punk as the sub-set of anarchism for instance, reflects a part of our society. If displaying violence is just the reflection of one’s reality, why should we label them as a promoter of violence?
Absurd is the underlying tragedy of the struggles of the musicians but not the expression of these struggles. Music is not only a way to heal yourself, but a means of healing others at the same time as well, as the frontman of the deathcore band Whitechapel Phil Bozeman once said in an interview, “Sharing these stories is therapeutic, but it’s more of a way to help others than myself”.
Looking at some so-called satanic music genres
The public usually connects satanism with the core and metal music scene, but this may not always be the case even if the content involves a certain amount of violence, drug use, or suicidal materials, which were criticized by PMRC.
The Japanese band and visual-kei master Luna Sea is particularly renowned for its glam metal and punk-influenced outfits and music styles; disappointment in humanity and ones’ lives are often the themes in their early work.
“針で毒を飲んだ 怯えた夜に … 手を裂く破片 限りなく 透明に近いブルー”
(Poison yourself with the syringe amidst the fearful night … The fragments that you use to cut your wrist is just like the almost transparent blue)
– BLUE TRANSPARENCY ~ 限りなく透明に近いブルー
The song BLUE TRANSPARENCY ~ 限りなく透明に近いブルー inspired by Ryū Murakami’s eminent work “Almost Infinitely Transparent Blue” is about a group of Japanese teenagers who are lost in life and as a result, immerse themselves in cycles of drug use, sex and self-harm. The song vividly depicts post-war Japanese society in the 1970s, illustrating the casual lives of teens back then. According to the logic of the PMRC and its supporters, the song should be labelled as “bad content” for the public, kids especially. But doing so is completely missing the point because the song, as well as the book, portray a piece of Japanese history that should be discussed rather than erased from society’s memory.
To Kill Achilles
“I was always told to suffer … Don’t burden your friends for their guidance … Be a man, show some strength I can’t deal with this all by myself, but men don’t ask for help.”
– There’s No Right Way to Say This….
The same goes for the British melodic hardcore band To Kill Achilles. In their song “There’s No Right Way to Say This…”, the musicians attempted to use explicit phrases to emphasise “men’s” struggles with the purpose of subverting toxic masculinity and encouraging people to reach out. How fair is it for us to judge a band by its genre?
A question for pop culture
Overt sexual depiction is the most prominent obscene content in Western pop culture. Just recall how much of the body was shown in “WAP” by Cardi B and the subtle sexualization in “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke.
The question remains what is considered violent or sensitive content. If we have such sets of rules, should we impose regulations in the music industry and how can we provide a safer web environment for our kids?
After all, there is never a way to please everyone; as Phil Bozeman puts it: “In any form of art there are people who will oppose what you are doing”.
Edited by: Yili Char