In Praise Of The Explicit

How one generation tried — and failed — to censor us.

January 9, 2019

July Westhale
Parental Discretion Advised
Lennart Takanen

here is something I find a little challenging to admit: the little lyric books that accompany CDs still give me a shiver of fear. Still — here’s the kicker: no matter what the CD, every single album that came into my extremely religious household had to pass a brutal, mortifying assessment: the lyric test.

Let me back up. I came of age in the late nineties/early aughts: a time of holographic sneaks, mail-order books, and the era of the word ‘sneaks’. It was a time of butterfly clips and JNCO jeans, boy bands with gel-shellacked hair, and MTV’s Total Request Live.

It was also a time when music was in a state of chaos; grunge was winding down and rock was entering a sonic sludge of era mashups: Blink 182, Brittany + Christina, one hit wunderkind such as LFO and 2gether.

Remember those CD catalog companies we all used to rip off? It was something like — get twenty CDs for ten cents! And then you had to actually pay for them, but they did a dumb thing and sent them to you first, so no one ever paid.

Okay so maybe it was only eight CDs. And maybe we were the only ones who got away with not paying for them.

In this way, my sisters and I built a steady and eclectic collection of tunes. This was primary comprised of our favorite to-be-choreographed-at-the-pool classics, like Savage Garden’s 1997 self-titled album, or Jewel’s “Pieces of You” (which is so embarrassing, why is it that Jewel is so embarrassing now? Is it her Gemini enthusiasm?), or LFO’s 1999 self-titled (seems it was a trend), but especially “Summer Girls”.

But it always came down to the words.

Those folders of lyrics to me, always a poet, were wonderful. In the grungy, faux-gothic era of the 90s/aughts, the paper was nearly always dark with light print, and it often smelled freshly-inked, slightly noxious, and filled me with a sense of extreme discovery — I was about to truly know, in an artistic comprehension that bordered on near-Biblical, the secret meanings behind all of my favorite songs.

Polly want a cracker — cool, seems right

think I should get off her first — what?! ohhh.

The only thing that kept the small window of mail order CD exploitation from being a downright haven for me was the fact that — concurrent with our regularly arriving treasures — came my parents newfound interest in extreme censorship. This was a product of moving from Southern California to Northern, of joining a new church, and also, quite likely, the exacting realization that their marriage was failing.

Either way, every time we got a new piece of media — books, magazines, but mostly CDs — we had to call a family meeting, then stand in front of everyone and read, word by word, the lyrics out loud. If they were in any way obscene (and this was wildly open to interpretation), then into the junk pile they went — do not pass go, do not get your allowance back.

At this time, my parents also did not allow us to talk to boys on the phone (hilarious, because I am a big homo), didn’t let us use the internet (we had a family email address for anything electronic that needed to happen), didn’t let us read teen magazines (hence my obsession with PULP, which is the teen mag I’ve always wanted), and didn’t let us watch secular TV or movies, unless they had seen them first.

But though my parents’ censorship was humiliating, extreme, and weirdly short-lived (a few years later, when they were definitely on the brink of divorce, I don’t think they knew where we were half the time), they weren’t islands unto themselves in this need to control media influence. (Fun fact, I’m now a Media/New Literacies scholar, and teach media in my Critical Thinking classrooms).

My parents, seventeen years apart, come from the Boomer Age and Gen X, respectively. My mother was raised by a Southern Baptist preacher, in a loving but strict household. To be honest, if she hadn’t been married to such an oppressive Boomer traditionalist who ruled everything with an iron fist, her rebel ways probably would have had her going to Korn concerts with us. As such, in an attempt to save her marriage, she gave way to Boomer ideals.

But think about what else was happening at the time, or at least, what set the precedent for the time.

Observe:

In 1985, Tipper Gore founded the Parent’s Music Resource Center, an entity that would become responsible for affixing those tantalizing EXPLICIT/Parental Advisory labels on CDs for decades to come. There are many versions of how this began, but my favorite is by Frank Zappa, as told in his manuscript “The Real Frank Zappa Book”:

There are several “historical accounts” from which to choose. Let’s arbitrarily choose this one: One day in 1985, Tipper Gore, wife of the Democratic senator from Tennessee, bought her 8-year-old daughter a copy of the soundtrack album to Prince’s Purple Rain — an R-rated film which had already generated considerable controversy for its sexual content. For some reason, however, she was shocked when their daughter pointed out a reference to masturbation in a song called “Darling Nikki.” Tipper rounded up a bunch of her Washington housewife friends, most of whom happened to be married to influential members of the U.S. Senate, and founded the PMRC.

The group sent a letter to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and more than 50 record labels. According to A History of Evil in Popular Culture, “The letter proposed that record companies either cease the production of music with violent and sexually charged lyrics or develop a motion picture-style ratings system for albums.… Violent lyrics would be marked with a ‘V,’ Satanic or anti-Christian occult content with an ‘O,’ and lyrics referencing drugs or alcohol with a ‘D/A.’”

While this happened the year after my oldest sister was born, and the year before I was, the PMRC’s black-and-white stickers catered to the kind of moral mania that my parents gulped up readily — a sort of (literal) sticker solution to the eighties-and-nineties moral drudgery that was (in their eyes) likely brought on by Gen X hedonism and apathy, but was probably actually caused by the major fucking comedown of Boomer excess.

And perhaps that’s why my Xer mom was so ready to jump in — she was made to feel complicit in the moral degeneration of her children’s generation. This, coupled with healthy religious guilt, made her a perfect accomplice.

We are nearly forty years away from the formation of PMRC (and, for that matter, Morality in the Media, which came of age during a similar time period), and I haven’t lived under my parents’ roof for more than half my life, which has given me many, many years of unfettered music-listening, media-consumption, and conscientious meditation on how, why, when, where dangerous messages live in my psyche — because, surely, they do.

That’s true for all of us. Still, I think they live in our psyche in the form of internalized racism, sexism, homophobia, whorephobia, ableism, etc, rather than how often I utter the word fuck (which is, admittedly, a lot).

Rather, I think the intense censorship of my pre-teen and teen years actually had the opposite effect on me; always endowed with a curious mind and a sense of resourcefulness (plus friends with very liberal parents), I took on an almost obsessive interest in the explicit.

I always snuck biographies of rock stars into my biology books (and was thrilled to learn, though I’ve never been a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, that they had a face-off with Tipper in 1991). I had friends burn CDs for me of all the bands I wasn’t allowed to listen to, then masked them with the name of some or other Christian rock group. As a college student, I took it upon myself to keep a steady supply of sex education literature, condoms, and morning-after pills in my dresser drawer for anyone who needed them, and in my twenties, I became obsessed with the intersection (often troubled) between different waves of feminism and sex work.

I became a sex educator, writer, and advocate in my late twenties — and now, I run PULP with my fabulous co-founder, Katie Tandy.

And maybe that’s the effect, truly, of the explicit, the only part of this with any real longevity (after all, ‘parental advisory’, thank god, has a shelf life) — real, gritty, juicy imprint of understanding, even unconsciously, even as in a bright and crusty teenaged way, what was at stake in hearing brilliantly dirty lyrics and music as my mind was growing and expanding. Not just the words, mind you (which I’ve always upheld as the greatest and most mighty), but the delivery of the words. Which is to say, units of sound that enact and experience of something, or, the real reason we love music — delivers a profound experience of art. Hearing Tori Amos’ song “Icicle” — as chilling and brilliant and clear as it sounds — and catching the sharp edge of her lyrics: “And when my hand touches myself/I can finally rest my head/And when they say take of His body/I think I’ll take from mine instead.”

Masturbation! This song was about fucking yourself. I was transported to the secret sexuality of Judy Blume novels, the dizzying triads in Archie comics, the oversexed and waxy stares of the otherwise innocent kids in Nick-at-Night shows.

The blurring happens beautifully, and in many ways, perfectly for a developing brain and body — especially one socialized as female, for whom the only acceptable form of sexuality is the explicitness of others, and surely, of art.

Let us praise the explicit, which was generationally beaten out of us, yet still, in glory glory glory, lives.

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