1985 — A Great Song And A Great Year

(Originally published November 18, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

I have always loved listening to music.  I listen to old music, new music, pop music, show tunes, rap, Latin, classical, and the much-maligned adult contemporary. I love to hear what’s new and I want to know what other people are listening to.


Of course, I made mix-tapes in high school and college, and I’ll even be so bold as to say I still make a pretty mean mix-CD today. When you hear songs on the radio, that’s music and a message others are selling to you. But when you take the time to handpick songs, then that mix, conscious or not, says something about the way you see the world and yourself. A music mix is like emotional carbon dating.

So, imagine my thrill when for my birthday last month my thirteen-year-old made me a mix-CD.  Okay, so he was a few days late and he cut the song list too small so it keeps sliding out the case.  But he listened to and thought about music. He arranged 15 songs in a particular order.  And he gave it to me.

Perhaps jealous they hadn’t thought of it themselves, my younger two were quick to dismiss his song choices for their suburban mother.  They paid no mind to the Ike and Tina Turner or UB40 selections but moved right on to today’s chart toppers.

“Seriously, Ke$ha?” one said.

“You put Eminem on a CD for mom?” asked the other.

“What’s wrong, you don’t think I like Eminem?” I asked him.

“It’s just a little inappropriate for you,” my nine-year-old told me.

While I appreciated the concern for my vulnerable ears and the moral high ground emanating from the backseat, I’d frankly heard it all before.

It was actually 25 years ago this month, when the music industry bowed to pressure from Tipper Gore, other political wives and the National Parent Teacher Association and began labeling music that contained explicit material. The “Tipper Sticker,” which evolved into the Parental Advisory label was born.

The debate raged that fall – over album covers, videos, backmasking, and explicit song lyrics – particularly those of “The Filthy Fifteen” – songs from Prince, Sheena Easton (?), AC/DC, Madonna, Def Leppard and Cyndi Lauper.  The hearings in the capital brought out Frank Zappa, John Denver and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider.  (Such star power wouldn’t be seen again in the chambers until Stephen Colbert told Congress this fall that farm work “is really hard.”)

People took sides on the Senate floor, in the recording studios, and in my childhood home. Even though my sister already owned the requisite leg warmers, headband and satin shorts, my mother would not let her buy Olivia Newtown-John’s album, Let’s Get Physical.  And my father was not a fan of us singing along with The J. Geils Band to (Angel Is A) Centerfold as he drove us to our parochial school.

But sing along and listen away we did. With our radios, our friends, our records, our cassette tapes and our Sony Walkmans. We wanted our MTV and we got it.

Watching the popular 1984 music video We’re Not Gonna Take It is still entertaining and now comically nostalgic. The dad screams, “What do you want to do with your life?” And the buttoned-up pre-teen with Yale and Stanford pennants on his wall says, “I want to ROCK” before morphing into Dee Snider, hair icon of the decade (which is, actually, really saying something).

So, 25 years later, Dee Snider spends time raising money and awareness for the March of Dimes through Bikers for Babies. And I have not-so babies in the backseat singing along to Usher, Kid Cudi, Katy Perry, Lily Allen and Jay-Z. Some of it’s good; some of it’s awful. Some would be laughably explicit, if they weren’t also crude.  And my kids love it all.

We talk a lot together about the music and the artists. We play “name that tune.” We decipher some of the lyrics and we leave others alone. They own a few CDs with the parental advisory label, and they download some “explicit” songs from iTunes.

But every time, material is marked “explicit” or has an advisory label, it forces me to investigate, ask why, and make the decision myself.  Perhaps just as it was intended those many years ago, the label raises a flag and actually calls on me to make a decision as the parent.

I know that my kids listen to more without me, and that’s okay. I don’t believe that pop or rap will cause them to wake up in Vegas and “shake the glitter” from their clothes or think that domestic abuse is okay.  No more than I bought into Madonna telling me “the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mister Right.”

Yes, a remarkable amount of today’s music contains depictions of violence and sex. I say “no” to some and “yes” to others.  I change the station a lot.  Music has always been a generational defining line. I tell them they need a little Van Morrison and the Clash.  And they tell me what I need.

“Mom, you would love this song because it’s about The Flinstones,” my youngest eagerly told me one day. Sure it is.  Because the refrain goes like this, “call me Mr. Flinstone, cause I can make your bed rock.”  Wilma would’ve loved that one.

This week, I was the guilty party peddling inappropriateness when I brought up rock legend Meat Loaf in conversation and my children replied with disgust, “What is that?”  I decided the situation needed to be remedied immediately.

And let me assure you.  No matter how great you remember Paradise By The Dashboard Light sounding in the women’s ice hockey locker room during college, it is a decidedly different experience while driving your three young children to school at 7:45 in the morning.

Meat Loaf sings, “Ain’t no doubt about it, we were doubly blessed – cause we were barely seventeen and we were barely dressed.”  I ended our mutual discomfort, when my oldest said, “This is terrible! What is the deal with the baseball announcer?”

No matter the alarm, fear and anger raised by Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center 25 years ago, the changes they brought are probably just about right.

No music was or is censored. Artists still create what they want and businesses still sell it.  And the parental advisory label does just what it should. It announces to consumers, corporations, artists, children, and to parents themselves, that the ultimate authority in the life of a child is the parents.

While he actually spoke in support of the record companies in 1985, John Denver’s Senate testimony speaks to me today:

“The problem has to do with our willingness as parents, to take responsibility for the upbringing of our children. To pay attention to their interests, to respond to their needs and to recognize that we, as parents and as individuals, have a greater influence on our children and on each other than anything else could possibly have.”

Now I’m just waiting for Weezer’s latest single to start climbing the charts.  The refrain goes, “Smart girls, never get enough of those smart girls, smart girls.”

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