In the early 1980s, Heavy Metal, which had begun as a somewhat marginal musical genre, began to enjoy mainstream success with the popularity of such bands as Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Kiss, and Twisted Sister. Around the same time, MTV was born, offering a new venue for popular music and a new way for it to enter American households on a grand scale. With their high energy and visual splash, Metal bands became a mainstay of the channel, bringing the music of these groups considerable attention not only from fans, but from parent groups who deemed much of it “offensive” and sought ways to shield their children from it.
At the height of Heavy Metal’s mainstream success the wife of then-Senator Al Gore, Tipper Gore, established the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) along with the wives of several other prominent politicians. The PMRC advocated for the creation of a labeling system that would warn parents of explicit content on recordings. After a contentious hearing in the United States Senate, the record industry agreed voluntarily to adopt a labeling system that would advise parents about recordings containing content that was explicitly sexual, referenced drug or alcohol use, or contained graphic language. While many stores continued to carry recordings bearing these labels, some merchants—most notably Walmart—refused to carry recordings with advisory labels, a policy that Walmart continues today.
In this lesson, students will investigate the connection between the popularity of Heavy Metal and the emergence of the parental advisory system. They will consider who should have the power to declare a song “offensive” and whether or not access to such material should be regulated. They will further debate the merits of the labeling system, which is still in place, and consider whether or not labeling certain recordings should be considered censorship.