How the Lyrics of a Prince Song Resulted in the ‘Parental Advisory’ Sticker

Steve Palace
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On the surface, they couldn’t be more different. One is a serious politician with concerns for the environment, the other a flamboyant star renowned for his decadent imagery.

Yet Al Gore and Prince share a personal bond, and this connection changed the music industry forever.

In 1984 Prince’s Purple Rain album was ringing in people’s ears. Also a hit movie, the release featured many talked-about tracks. “Darling Nikki” with its highly erotic content became a standout.

Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States.

This wasn’t a surprise to those familiar with the artist’s work. An interview from the Guardian in 2011 referred to him as “unsettlingly potent.” For the uninitiated however the explicit lyrics were an eye-opener, especially with children wanting to hear the album of the moment.

Enter Tipper Gore, author, advocate and wife of then-Senator Al Gore, who’d bought Purple Rain for her daughter, then aged 11. As “Darling Nikki” played she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

Al and Tipper Gore’s wedding day, May 19, 1970, at the Washington National Cathedral.

“The vulgar lyrics embarrassed both of us,” she said, quoted in a USA Today opinion piece from 2016. “At first, I was stunned, but then I got mad! Millions of Americans were buying Purple Rain with no idea what to expect.”

An unsuspecting Prince gave rise to the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The organization was founded by Tipper Gore, together with Susan Baker, Pam Howard, and Sally Nevius.

Their husbands were all tied to government, so the women were branded the “Washington Wives.”

Prince performing Purple Rain. Photo by Getty Images

The Center itself wasn’t in the mood to be patronized. Its mission was to have potentially offensive albums labeled. They even had their own nickname for those tracks deemed particularly bad – the “Filthy Fifteen.” This dubious Hall of Fame included entries by Madonna (Dress You Up), AC/DC (Let Me Put My Love In You) and Judas Priest (Eat Me Alive).

As mentioned in a 2016 article for Spin, the group wanted “guidelines for regulating music deemed sexual, violent, or all-around uncouth, slapping warning labels on anything that fit the bill.” The measures were voluntary, but still unpopular.

Tipper Gore, cofounder of the Parents Music Resource Center.

In 1985 a hearing took place at the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. The political establishment went head to head against the music business. And the latter wasn’t going down the censorship route without a fight.

Frank Zappa was one of those who voiced objections. USA Today reported him as saying, “the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of ‘toilet training program’ to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few.”

Frank Zappa. Photo by Helge Øverås CC BY 2.5

This national conversation resulted in the now-ubiquitous Parental Advisory sticker placed on many albums. Some argue the move placed a stranglehold on the industry. USA Today remarked that “this wasn’t so voluntary…This was the U.S. government regulating media through the threat of legislation, despite the First Amendment’s prohibition against government control of content.”

Big outlets such as Walmart began making creative demands on those wanting to display their stock on its shelves. There was a silver lining of sorts, in that the stickers encouraged sales, driven by excited listeners wanting to hear about sex, drugs, and crime.

The irony was that Prince ended up embracing society’s conventions by finding religion. “I was anti-authoritarian but at the same time I was a loving tyrant,” he commented in the Guardian interview. “You can’t be both. I had to learn what authority was. That’s what the Bible teaches. The Bible is a study guide for social interaction.”

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He went on to praise countries with strictly-defined rules, though it’s unclear how far those views went. Quite a turnaround perhaps for the man who once outraged the Gore household with racy lyrics and provocative dance routines.