The parental advisory label, once affixed to cds and tapes with explicit lyrics, has become so ubiquitous as to not mean anything, a sort of logo making things looks ‘tough,’ ‘grimy’ or even ‘tuff.’ Outside this objective, it serves no purpose. In fact, it almost seems absurd that there was ever a time when the label was taken seriously, but indeed it once was, deadly serious, back when kids still had to buy media printed on paper, lasered on a disk or magnetized to a cassette tape. Back in this time, the purveyors of media felt, perhaps, because it was a tangible thing, themselves to be guards of morality and they readily kept anything marked ‘explicit’ away from children. I’m sure some of them did this out of a desire to keep their jobs, but, many more, I believe, simply reveled in the joys of being able to deny kids the entertainment they were after, even when the kids’ intentions were only to seek out preferable melodies, as they often were.
As far as I know, the PMRC, which launched the ‘parental advisory’ label, never had set criteria for evaluating music. Some albums escaped being labeled ‘explicit’ despite multiple dropping of ‘F’ bombs. A lot seemed to depend on how audible it was. I can recall hearing Pearl Jam’s Jeremy on the radio many time without the edit in the following:
Clearly I remember, picking on the boy/ seemed a harmless little fuck
Something in the way Eddie Vedder dropped his tone when he sang the word ‘fuck; made it acceptable enough to be played on the radio. Suffice to say, Pearl Jam’s Ten had no parental advisory label. Green Day’s Dookie was another album that used the word, multiple times in some songs, but, somehow escaped the cut, I think, due to the way it was sung.
Content too could not be judged objectively. Even after all the Walmart hype over force-editing Nirvana’s tune Rape Me. The album on which the song appeared In Utero carried no parental advisory label. Apparently such things required no need for parental consent, even some metal albums, with unspeakable topics somehow made it to shelves free from the unfortunate sticker. Probably because no one could understand the lyrics.
So while films had quantifiable ratings systems in place, a similar system was never established for music. Likewise, there was never any consensus for the sale of these albums marked ‘explicit.’ Some record stores didn’t care and sold anything to anyone—but even in the rare instance of such a place, it seemed some clerks were more conscientious than others and a place where a kid had been able to buy Ice Cube’s The Predator one day, may refuse to sell Enter the 36 Chambers the next. With such arbitrariness, I couldn’t help but to wonder if the clerks who didn’t want to sell were just being jerks. After all, was there any real punishment for sale of an ‘explicit’ album to a minor? Was there a law against it or was it just a record store policy to avoid problems with parents? I’m inclined to believe the latter. Especially as the more ‘family friendly’ music outlets (ie. the chain store in the malls) were much less inclined to sell ‘explicit’ records to minors. (It should be said here that ‘minor’ in this sense was often—bizarrely—defined as anyone under 16. Why ‘explicit’ records should be available two years earlier than ‘explicit’ films, again seemed completely arbitrary, but it was something everyone seemed to agree on).
As a kid with a dad who swore colorfully, I always thought the attempt to keep kids from listening to ‘explicit’ music hypocritical, especially if the efforts were limited to expletives rather than content (as was made, more or less, clear in the case of the Rape Me controversy). As far as my mom was concerned, the ‘parental advisory’ label meant the music was harmful to children and she was never going to be an accessory to that. But, on a nightly basis, I could hear the very words judged ‘harmful’ articulated in my home, presumably the safest environment for a child. I also thought it ridiculous that I could read these words all I wanted to. At ten years old, there was nothing in place to stop me from buying a copy of Naked Lunch—available at any bookstore, and reading it over and over.
The easiest way to thwart the ‘advisories’ was to go to K-Mart, which considered itself too morally upstanding to even stock explicit albums and they only sold clean or edited versions. If I was really desperate, which I was several times, I could go to K-Mart and get . I did this with Domino’s self-titled album and, yes with 36 Chambers of death, kid. I bought the neutered versions and, to this day, I still don’t know some of the lyrics. There’s an embarrassing gap in singalongs, especially when, without knowing it, I learned different radio-edit lyrics. Believe me, it raises eyebrows to this day when I sing:
Rolling down the street smoking, smoking/ sippin’ on gin and juice
If you remember, there was no ‘endo’ on the radio edit.
But K-mart had a limited selection. There were some albums, I was content to have dubbed on cassette but, back then, it was different owning the actual cd with the jewel case and the lyric book. It was how you demonstrated true appreciation for an artist’s product. One particular album was Beck’s Mellow Gold, which despite its irreverent and even goofy lyrics, still got slapped with a parental advisory because it had two songs with ‘fuck’ in the title—although not used in an explicit manner ie. not describing sex, not even remotely.
In 1994, the song Loser was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I loved everything about it. The rap-like delivery of the lyrics, the folksy guitar loop with a solid beat behind it, the seriousness for the absurd, the psychedelic, sitar-like lift of the chorus, it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I watched MTV, with my finger on the volume of the remote so I could turn it up if it came on. I checked the record stores as often as possible. Frustrated with the abundance of someone named Jeff Beck and the total lack of a Beck (I know this is hard to imagine now as Beck has a pretty big catalog). The first thing to appear was a cassette single of Loser which I duly handed over 1.99 for and listened to over and over. When the full-length, Mellow Gold appeared in stores, it drove me crazy. I coveted it, like nothing I’d ever coveted. The cover artwork was crazy, neon storm clouds and a skull with glowing eyes, robotic apparatus, the back showing Beck himself wearing goggles and looking beyond cool, just standing there next to songtitles like ‘Motherfuker’ [sic] and ‘Beercan’ [also, sic]. Damn I waned that cd, but, tragedy of tragedies (at least for a ten year-old), it had a ‘parental advisory’ label. I tried to buy it right there at Record Town in the mall and was roundly refused. If only it had been a few years later when the internet and downloads were perpetuating the downfall of tangible music and, it purveyor, the music store; I doubt very seriously that record stores bothered to screen anyone for sales when their place in the retail market was becoming more and more precarious, but this was 1994 and record stores were still the only way to get music. The end was right around the corner, but no one had any idea and the smug clerks laughed me out of the store when I tired to buy Mellow Gold, certain of their job security.
And, now, after this lengthy preamble, our story begins. After Record Town refused to sell Mellow Gold to me, I went immediately to Warehouse Records, which was my go-to for ‘parental advisory’ records. Most of the staff at Warehouse were younger and actually listened to a lot of the music they sold, unlike their mall counterparts who probably just went to the mall, stopped into any interesting store and filled out the application. The people at Record Town couldn’t answer any question without using their database computers. The employees of Warehouse never needed their computers. They knew exactly what was on the floor and what you’d need to order. So, I went into Warehouse, sure that they knew Mellow Gold wasn’t really a bad record—nothing like 2 Live Crew or Cannibal Corpse that might distort my tender notions of sexuality and/or violence. No, Beck just liked to toss out the f-word every so often, no different from the way people talked, really. But, to my dismay, the employee at Warehouse records didn’t see the situation as I did. The bastard even got out the little tool that freed the cd from its plastic security device and was worked on unlocking the greatest purchase I was ever going to make when he seemed to see that damn ‘parental advisory’ sticker for the first time. He stopped, looked down the counter at me, paused and snapped the cd back into its security device, shaking his head. “I can’t sell you this,” he declared, sounding slightly apologetic, “it’s got a parental advisory.” I put up a weak argument, but I knew he’d made up his mind, so my heart wasn’t in it and a moment later, I lurched out of the store, head down and walked down the alley to Kroger to meet my mom who’d gone grocery shopping. I remember it raining a gray and almost syrupy rain. It was March, but there were still dirty chunks of parking lot snow pushed up all over the place, covered with oily pebbles and the smashed parts of shopping carts the plowmen hadn’t bothered to move. It smelled like the pizza and sub place next to Warehouse had burned something.
I went back home and listened to my cassette single of Loser on repeat, wondering why my access to Beck’s creative genius had to be limited to one song. There was one more record store in town and it was a wildcard.
While the Mall boasted the national chain Record Town, the Crossing (the other mall) had Disc Jockey, which I’d never seen anywhere else. The vibe in Disc Jockey was weird. Record Town was corporate, with a vibe comparable to today’s Hard Rock Café, black carpet with the bright flecks music stores used to look glamourous back then, customized signage, neon lights sort of spangled around the place. Warehouse Records, by contrast, was a local chain that employed its products for decoration. Those huge concert posters they used to make were hung up all over the back wall with numbers so the employees could find it. The wall to the right was covered with t-shirt, many of them official concert shirts with tour dates and venues on the back. The shelves, or whatever you’d call ‘em, for cds were made out of particle board and had stickers for bands and record labels slapped all over them. Warehouse was an enthusiasts’ record store. Disc Jockey, for comparison, was way the hell out in left field. One woman who always seemed to be there had this permed hair, piled up ridiculously high. She gave the impression of someone who’d gotten a job and then, accordingly, changed her look to suit that job. Unfortunately, here we were, 1994, the height of grunge and she looked like Madonna from the Like a Prayer tour. In addition to this lady’s anachronistic hair, the place had this single wobbly line of pink neon running around the ceiling. The décor in Disc Jockey looked more like something you would’ve seen in a salon, ten years earlier, than a record store. The stuff they had pulled out on the end-caps was also baffling, a bunch of random artists displayed together like you were supposed to discern the vague connection between them. Onyx stood next to Michael Jackson’s Bad and the display was crowned with that Dwight Yoakam album with the clocks all over it. The name of the store, Disc Jockey, was also appallingly stupid. It was like calling a bookstore ‘librarian.’
The selection was alright, but what kept me from ever buying anything at Disc Jockey was the price. They must’ve had a hell of an overhead because their cds were always a good two dollars more expensive than anyone else’s and this is back when the standard price for a cd was 17.99. Damn. You had to save for weeks to get one of those things and you couldn’t even preview it. You just took the risk based on the one song you’d heard on the radio. That’s why it was so wonderful when you found a band whose entire album could be enjoyed. It was a sort of security, you knew the next album wouldn’t be so much of a gamble.
I wasn’t worried about blowing my money on Mellow Gold, I knew it was going to be great. I was so sure of it, I was even willing to throw away the two extra dollars at Disc Jockey to get it. Now, because it was so overpriced, I’d never even tried to buy a ‘parental advisory’ record at Disc Jockey. I had no idea what to expect, but I figured it’d be worth a shot, so the next weekend, when my mom needed to go to Phar-Mor in the Crossing, I went along with 22 bucks in my PacMan wallet.
My mom was always late meeting me in the mall, so I told her I’d just come back to Phar-Mor and find her when I was done. Strangely, setting out for Disc Jockey, I began to realize I was nervous, this was, ostensibly, my last chance to get this record and I knew that if I was denied sale again, I’d start to lose my nerve. If you wanted to buy something you weren’t supposed to, you had to be able to walk up to the counter carrying the item without the slightest trace of hesitancy. If you acted even remotely like you weren’t supposed to be doing something, adults picked up on it right away. If I couldn’t get the cd at Disc Jockey, I wasn’t ever going to get it.
The store was empty except for one other customer when I came in. The lady with the perm was at the counter. I tried to look casual and wandered around the store a little, flipping through the poster rack in the back and glancing at the ‘Rap’ section before heading over to the ‘B’s in ‘Pop/Rock’. They had a few copies of Mellow Gold (the album was quickly becoming popular, appearing in top ten lists all over the country, much to my continued agony). I started to pull the cd up from the entanglement of the plastic security devices, but, my eyes snagged on the ‘parental advisory.’ I looked at it and lost my nerve. They were never going to sell this to me. The label was just too bold. Then it occurred to me, ‘what if it was covered up?’ The price sticker, which was larger than the ‘advisory’ label, was, on some of the cds, partially obscuring the ‘advisory.’ I tested the price sticker, it started to peel off. I could just move it right over the ‘advisory,’ but as I peeled, the paper began to separate from the sticker. I tried the other side, but it was the same thing, the sticker wouldn’t lift clean off and that’s went it occurred to me, the ‘advisory’ label was, after all, just a sticker, I could just peel it off, like I’d done with the price tag. But, upon closer inspection, I was dismayed to find that, unlike the price sticker, the ‘advisory’ was under the plastic wrap. I considered for a few minutes and, undaunted, began to peel the cellophane off the cd.
This was one of those ideas, that starts simply and snowballs into something so unwieldy, it can’t even be recognized for its connection to the original plan. I had gone into Disc Jockey, planning to just take the cd to the counter and try my luck buying the thing and, now, here I was, slinking around the store, digging at the cellophane with my fingernail, trying to look interested in the classical section which was the farthest from the counter. Luckily, no one seemed to be paying attention. Each time I glanced around, the permed lady was busy putting the plastic security devices on a pile of cds. She didn’t even seem to notice I was in the store.
After what felt like half an hour of digging, the cellophane finally snagged and broke against the instance of my fingernail. Like pulling a tablecloth out from under a fully set table, I quickly jerked the wrapping off and shoved it in with all the Stravinsky cds, then I set to work picking at the ‘advisory.’ Like the price sticker, it wouldn’t peel clean off, but I scraped off the fuzzy paper backing as best as I could and, as a coup de grace, I pulled the price sticker off the discarded cellophane and stuck it on the naked cover of the cd. It only half stuck, part of the price sticker torn, dirty and sticking up. I apprised the result of my labor: not bad, maybe it would be obvious that the cellophane was missing, but what the hell would the perm lady care? As long as I was buying the cd, I couldn’t see why she’d care about something so trivial as a missing cd cellophane.
I turned to the counter like I’d suddenly made up my mind to buy the cd I’d been carrying all over the store. I wasn’t nervous. Really, I was quite proud of the way I’d figured to circumnavigate the situation, so I was totally taken off-guard when I set the cd down and the perm immediately began to accuse me of removing the cellophane. I started to protest that it was like that and that I’d buy it anyway no probl—
“I saw you take this off! You pulled of the advisory label! That’s why you’ve been walking all around the store. That’s what you were doing!”
So all the while, she was furtively observing me. I hate when people do that sort of thing. Why can’t people just yell, ‘hey, kid, what are you up to over there by those Stravinsky cds?’ It would obviate so many lousy situations. She let me pull the cellophane off so she could yell at me, so she could have something interesting to do. As to how quickly she deduced my purpose, I have no idea. She certainly didn’t look that smart.
“Whatever.” I had no argument for the perm. I turned and walked out of the store and, in a fit a pique, I grabbed one of the circulars sitting at the entrance and held up the Beck ad on the cover. “There’s no ‘parental advisory’ for it here!” I yelled waving the ad, but I knew it was no good. She’d made up her mind. I turned and walked out.
I walked through the Crossing to Phar-Mor where there was a small CD selection. I checked for Mellow Gold, but they only had those discounted cds and tapes they sell at gas stations with the ‘nice price’ stickers on them.
I found my mom over by the Band-Aids, comparing two different boxes.
“Why don’t you get the ones with cartoon characters?” I asked her, feigning indifference. At heart, I was bummed. My last attempt for the cd had failed. “How much longer are you goin—”
“Ma’am, could I speak with you?” A man had suddenly appeared from behind my mom, interrupting me. I could tell from his actions (and address of ‘ma’am’) that he didn’t know her. Did he work for Phar-Mor? I had no idea who this guy was but I’d learned from experience whenever someone addressed my mom as ‘ma’am’ something bad was about to happen. The man took a few brisk steps away from me and talked to my mom, sotto voce. ‘What the hell was going on?’ I wondered.
At the end of their brief conference, the man turned and walked away and my mom turned to me. “That man told me you just tried to open a cd at the cd store and you pulled some sticker off from it. Is that true?”
Son-of-a-bitch followed me across the damn mall just to rat me out!
To this day, when I’m back in Jackson, I walk by the empty space at the Crossing where Disc Jockey used to be and smile. It’s been closed for close to two decades now, and I still smile. Phar-Mor’s gone, too, but I bare them no ill-will. Really, it’s all gone. The whole world that made that situation possible. There are no more music stores, no more ‘advisory’ labels, outside the one printed on shirts on facetiously over the mouths of stand-up comics on posters. The Crossing is still there, but the corridor that ran to Phar-Mor from Disc Jockey is gone. Warehouse is gone. Record Town is gone. Just the parking lots with their dirty piles of icy parking lot snow linger on through March, melting out the slag of landscaping stones, broken rearview mirrors and motor oil.
I did eventually pay Brendan 19 dollars for a copy of Mellow Gold that belonged to his neighbor a guy we called ‘Cd Kid’ for years after, although I don’t remember ever buying anything else he had.
Around the same time, I got a Discman for my birthday and I never went anywhere without taking Mellow Gold with me to listen to. All I had been through to get the damn cd made it sound so much better than I ever could’ve dreamed. To this day, when Loser comes on the radio, I turn it up, smile and wonder whatever happened to that lady with the perm and her rat of a counterpart.
I have written this down because, as near as I can discern, this sort of shit doesn’t even happen to kids anymore.
Who knows if they’re better off.