The Parental Advisory label (abbreviated PAL) is a warning label first introduced by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 1985 and later adopted by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) in 2011. It is placed on audio recordings in recognition of excessive profanities or inappropriate references, with the intention of alerting parents of potentially unsuitable material for younger children. The label was first affixed on physical compact discs and cassette tapes, and it has been included on digital listings offered by online music stores to accommodate the growing popularity of the latter platform.
Recordings with the Parental Advisory label are often released alongside censored versions that reduce or eliminate the questionable material. Several retailers will distribute all varieties of the product, occasionally with an increased price for censored versions, while some sellers offer the amended pressings as their main options and choose not to distribute the explicit counterparts. However, the label has been questioned for its perceived ineffectiveness in limiting the amount of inappropriate material that young audiences are exposed to.
Shortly after their formation in April 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) assembled a list of fifteen songs with deemed unsuitable content. Particular criticism was placed on "Darling Nikki" by Prince, after the daughter of PMRC co-founder Mary "Tipper" Gore recognized its references to masturbation. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) responded by introducing an early version of their content warning label, although the PMRC was displeased and proposed that a music rating system structured like the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system be enacted. The RIAA alternatively suggested using a warning label reading "Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics", and after continued conflict between the organizations, the matter was discussed on September 19 during a hearing with the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Notable musicians, Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and John Denver each testified at this hearing with strong opposition to PMRC’s warning label system, and censorship in general. Approximately two months after the hearing, the organizations agreed on a settlement in which audio recordings were to either be affixed with a warning label reading "Explicit Lyrics: Parental Advisory" or have its lyrics attached on the backside of its packaging.
In 1990, the now standard black-and-white warning label design reading "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics" was introduced and was to be placed on the bottom right-hand section of a given product. The first album to bear the "black and white" Parental Advisory label was the 1990 release of "Banned in the USA" by the rap group 2 Live Crew. By May 1992, approximately 225 records had been marked with the warning. In response to later hearings in the following years, it was reworded as "Parental Advisory: Explicit Content" in 1996. The system went unchanged until 2002, when record labels affiliated with Bertelsmann Music Group began including specific areas of concern including "strong language", "violent content", or "sexual content" on compact discs alongside the generic Parental Advisory label. The Parental Advisory label was first used on music streaming services and online music stores in 2011. That year, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) revised its own music censorship policies to incorporate more prominent usage of the warning label.
The "Parental Advisory Label Program" in the United States and the "Parental Advisory Scheme" in the United Kingdom lack agreed-upon standards for using the warning label, although they provide guidelines for its recommended inclusion. Although a voluntary practice that is ultimately left to the discretion of record labels, the RIAA suggests that material with "strong language or depictions of violence, sex, or substance abuse to such an extent as to merit parental notification" be affixed with the Parental Advisory label. The BPI additionally requests that "racist, homophobic, misogynistic or other discriminatory language or behavior" be taken under consideration when determining the appropriateness of a record.
Audio recordings that include Parental Advisory labels in their original formats are generally released in censored versions that reduces or completely eliminates the questionable material, They are recognized as "clean" editions by the RIAA, and are left unlabeled in their revised formats. American retailers including Best Buy and f.y.e. distribute explicit and censored records; Target has sold both varieties of a given record, although has occasionally offered only the explicit version depending on the product. Walmart and their affiliated properties are well known for only carrying censored versions of records; in one instance, the retailer refused to distribute 21st Century Breakdown (2009) by Green Day because they were not given the "clean" copies that they requested. Online music stores, including the iTunes Store, generally have the Parental Advisory logo embedded into digital files.
Since its introduction, the effectiveness of the Parental Advisory label has frequently been called into question. Jon Wiederhorn from MTV News suggested that artists benefited from the label and noted that younger customers interested in explicit content could more easily find it with a label attached. On behalf of Westword, Andy Thomas implied that the label was purposeless on the grounds that a young customer "would get a copy of the album sooner or later from a friend or another lethargic record store clerk" like the cashier that sold him a labeled pressing of La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol. 1 (1992) by White Zombie in his childhood. He noted that its intended reaction in parents was varied; his lax mother was indifferent towards the warning, while the mother of his stricter companion did not allow her child to listen to the record.
Danny Goldberg from Gold Village Entertainment opined that the Parental Advisory label offered minimal value other than "being a way for certain retailers like Wal-Mart to brand themselves as 'family friendly'"; he felt that children were successful in getting content they desired "even before the Internet", and believed that the label had little impact on sales figures. In contrast, the RIAA maintains that "it's not a PAL Notice that kids look for, it's the music". They stated that research they had gathered revealed that "kids put limited weight on lyrics in deciding which music they like, caring more about rhythm and melody" and implied that the label is not a deciding factor for a given purchase. Tom Cole from NPR commented that the Parental Advisory label has become "a fact of music-buying life", which made it difficult for current consumers to understand the widespread controversy that came about from its introduction.
It is fairly common for an album which received the Parental Advisory seal to be sold alongside an "edited" version which removes objectionable content, usually to the same level as a radio edit. However, the RIAA Uniform Guidelines say "An Edited Version need not remove all potentially objectionable content from the sound recording." These albums are packaged nearly-identically to their explicit counterparts, usually with the only indicator being the lack of Parental Advisory seal. (A notable exception is Box Car Racer, in which a black box reading "EDITED VERSION" is placed where the Parental Advisory seal would be).
Most of the time, the edited version will only edit the content which is absolutely necessary, in order to be as identical to the explicit counterpart as possible. However, some edited albums, such as Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars ("Star 69") and Curtain Call: The Hits (first 2 tracks) will have tracks removed completely, while others, such as Take Off Your Pants and Jacket ("Happy Holidays You Bastards" renamed "Happy Holidays") and The Slim Shady LP (4 tracks were renamed) will remove objectionable content from song titles. The edited version of Life After Death is notable for having so many tracks omitted that it was able to be condensed to one disc in spite of being a double album.
The edited version of an album will normally edit to the level in which the content would be considered appropriate for radio airplay. Strong language is almost always edited out (however the edited versions of The Marshall Mathers LP and The Slim Shady LP left in nearly all profanities other than "fuck", with the exception of the album's singles in which the existing radio edits were used), in addition to racial slurs (most albums will remove "nigga/nigger"). Specific drug references are also usually edited out, primarily slang terms for illegal drugs. Generally, however, some edited albums are not consistent with editing violent and sexual lyrics, as often, these lyrics are left in unedited. An example is "Tomb of the Boom" on the edited version of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which leaves in detailed lyrics about street violence (including sound effects of gunfire and police sirens) and sexual innuendos, both of which would normally be edited out, but on the other hand, all obscenities are muted.
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- Thomas, Andy (March 10, 2010). "Is Parental Advisory sticker still being affixed to albums these days? If so, how effective is it? Actually, was it ever effective?". Westword. Voice Media Group. Retrieved July 5, 2014.