PMRC And Writing

Back in 1985, a group known as The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) dropped a bomb on musicians. That bomb was set off (or so the story goes) when Tipper Gore walked in on her daughter listening to W.A.S.P. album and the detonation is still felt today, albeit less seismically than back in 1985.

The bomb was the idea that some music (namely W.A.S.P. albums) needed some kind of mechanism to inform parents that the albums they were buying for their kids might be less than vanilla. As if any parent picking up Inside The Electric Circus would think they were getting savory easy listening.

After months of Senate hearings and Dee Snyder folding like an amateur poker player at pro night, a mighty black and white sticker started appearing on music deemed inappropriate for kids. You still it sometimes today, for those of you that actually look at CDs rather than ripping them to MP3 and tossing the disc.


The sticker that guaranteed a good album

Now, the funny thing about all this – at least in hindsight – was all the hysteria on both sides. Tipper Gore and her Washington Wives Club were absolutely terrified that heavy metal music would turn kids into Satanists, which was largely unfounded. Sure Blackie Lawless is on the cover of a W.A.S.P. album wearing nothing but body paint and fake nails, but the album itself wasn’t bad. Especially once you got the image of Blackie Lawless wearing nothing but body paint and fake nails out of your head.

On the other side of the spectrum, artists were apoplectic that they were being censored and, like many other things, the move would destroy freedom of expression. Again, this was largely unfounded. Although, to be fair, after the PMRC bombshell, W.A.S.P.’s next album – The Headless Children – was surprisingly tame. Whether that was due to the efforts of the PMRC or the band simply got older and ran out of alcohol and floozies is a question for the ages.

But remember, this was all going on in 1985. It was in 1986 that the Beastie Boys taught us how to party with License to Ill, 1989 saw 2 Live Crew releasing As Nasty As They Wanna Be, and Body Count dropped Cop Killer on us in 1992. Any one of those would likely have caused Tipper & crew to seize and shake violently.

Music went on. It’s still going on. In the end, all the PMRC did was give a bunch of bands free advertising and cost record labels extra money.

So, what does all this have to do with writing?

Well, I was reading blogs this morning and came across an interesting entry by A.A. Frias titled “Should Books Come With Content Warnings?” My first, immediate reaction was “Not only no, but hell no.” Fortunately, I’ve been living up to a promise to myself to listen not only to what people have to say, but why they’re saying it, so I read the whole piece with an open mind. Or at least a mostly open mind. It was early and I hadn’t finished my coffee.

Especially after I read the whole post and realized she wasn’t advocating content warnings, just trigger warnings.

She makes some interesting points and does a great job of differentiating between Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings, and establishes a case for why trigger labels could come in handy for some people. It’s a thought-out post and I suggest you read it, especially if you don’t really get the difference between content that offends and content that can trigger.

Now, her post was on the net benefit of trigger warnings and I’m not in any position to debate that. She also doesn’t agree with content warnings on books. So, essentially, we’re on the same page.

But it got me thinking. We have warnings on all sorts of media. Movies get MPAA ratings. TV shows get ratings and warnings. Music has warnings. Guess what doesn’t have warnings?

I will pretty much guarantee there is someone out there right now, sick to death of seeing 50 Shades of Grey at Target and wondering what can be done about this awful, awful thing. To some people, that book is the literary equivalent of walking in on your child listening to W.A.S.P. So, the question of the day is, should there be, or will there be content warnings on books? After all, it happened in music, movies, and TV, what makes us think it can’t happen in books, too?

I’m pretty dismissive of the idea of warning labels ever showing up on books. Frankly, I’m dismissive of warning labels in general. But remember Rule 34: if it exists, there’s porn of it. The explosion of erotica might just be what’s needed to jump-start someone’s campaign and once that happens, it’s a forgone conclusion that we’ll all (well, at least me) be putting warning labels on our books.

Did you know there’s Trump/Putin erotica out there? I’d heard the rumors and, yes, they are true. No, I haven’t read any, but I can imagine coming across the following line when it wasn’t expected (consider yourself warned):

“His tiny hands searched in the darkness, desperately seeking a way to make his own perestroika from a tower of glasnost.”

Go ahead, get that one out of your head. I dare you. I double dog dare you. BTW, I totally made that up.

Also by the way, the cover of that book should be content warning enough for anyone. Yeesh.

So, would I freak the heck out if I read that line? Not gonna lie here,  I’d probably laugh my ass off. But, yeah, it’d be unpleasant and leave me wondering what kind of book I picked up and how to get my money back.

But does it warrant a warning label on the book? No, not really. After reading the blurb, and the title, and looking at the cover I really should expect lines like that and know to leave that book alone. If, perchance, you happen to have written that book, you’re welcome for the free publicity.

Because of all that, and the fact that the PMRC’s warning labels accomplished diddly squat, I don’t think we really need content labels. Just like Blackie Lawless on the cover of Inside the Electric Circus (and song titles like “95-N.A.S.T.Y.” and “King of Sodom and Gammorah”) gave listeners a pretty good idea of what to expect, a book cover and blurb should give readers a pretty good idea of what to expect.


This looks like wholesome, family music. Besides, wasps are neat bugs.

A title like Putin on the Trump: A Vladimir Putin Donald Trump erotic journey helps give the reader insight into what they’re in for, too. And let me just say, um, yuck.

But just because I don’t think we need content warning labels on books doesn’t mean someone out there isn’t looking to kick start their career by going after books they don’t like. We’ve seen plenty of times where books were burned (by the way, never burn a Kindle, the smoke is lethal), so it’s not too much of a stretch that we’ll see warnings at some point in the future.

Should it happen, should the stark fist of government intervention find its way into the literary world, there will likely be much wailing and gnashing of teeth along with wails of 1st Amendment violations and stifling of creativity. But I have a feeling the literary world would soldier on just like the musicians of the 1980s. We’ll just have warning stickers on our book covers and, just like the music warning stickers, they’ll guarantee a good time.

What do you think? Are warning labels a good idea or a bad idea? Do you think we’ll see a time when they’re mandated? I’m not in any way, shape, or form informed enough to debate trigger warnings, but feel free to weigh in on those, too.


10 thoughts on “PMRC And Writing

  1. Thanks for the mention! I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I really liked what you had to say in your comments on it as well.

    I’m pretty much on the same page as you. I’m not for content warnings that restrict what people can read, nor am I for warnings about anything anyone might find unpleasant. I do support trigger warnings, but that’s something different.

    “… the difference between content that offends and content that can trigger,” is a great line. Thanks for highlighting that. I think that’s where people get muddled when it comes to this topic.

  2. I’ve always been in favor of things like MPAA ratings and FCC guidelines, and I still am. I’m still for ratings on CDs even though no one buys them anymore. I was always against trigger warnings, though, thought they were stupid. But maybe they are kind of the same thing. If they are, I’m still for ratings but not trigger warnings, from the perspective of protecting our kids, not our grown-up babies. Adults should not need trigger warnings. We can’t trigger warning the news, or adult interactions. We can’t trigger warning a conversation with a stranger, so to expect one on a blog post is a little ridiculous. But it’s right to rate the content of a consumer product in terms of it’s age appropriateness when we’re talking about families and kids.

    • As I understand the triggering issue, it’s more akin to PTSD than to “I don’t like this”. If that’s the case – and I’m sure there are people abusing it, but you can’t stop that – then I’m more amenable to it. As for the ratings and warnings, like I said, I’m neither here nor there. They can be useful, but mostly they don’t accomplish their end goal since they’re ignored in a lot of cases. Parents should be able to do some research on things and, I’ll admit, ratings can give us a good indication of where something falls on a spectrum, but it’s usually still an arbitrary judgement on someone’s part.

  3. Very interesting Eric.. my instinct is no but there is an argument to be fair…when I was a kid the odd dirty word in a book was the only source of porn.. now it’s everywhere.. great piece as always

    • When the Internet was younger, back in the mid 90s, we used to have debate about what was appropriate on it and what was not. It was usually the religious types that wanted all porn on the Internet banned because “think of the children’. It would have been a lost cause. There was also some debate about using a .xxx domain for porn. That would have been great from a network security point of view – block that domain and you were done. It never came to fruition, though.

  4. Having written a novel that concerned Disassociative Identity Disorder and having done quite a bit of research into this condition, which included speaking to sufferers on a forum, I can see that trigger warnings to prevent plunging vulnerable people into potentially dangerous situations would be useful, and some might say essential. The problem is that there are many different triggers and, wtih the best will in the world, you can’t warn about everything.
    Concerning content warnings: there’s a lot of stuff in the world that is disgusting and shouldn’t exist, but it does, despite common decency, and most of us have the sense to ignore it. Turn off the TV, close the book. I’m not sure censorship works. Take Lady Chatterley’s Lover…

    • A buddy of mine and I were batting around an idea to put together a crowd-sourced list of possible triggers for a given book. It wouldn’t be 100%, but it would be better than putting the onus on writers who likely don’t know (or care, in some cases) what to look for. It wouldn’t be difficult to do, but getting buy-in from readers might be tricky.
      As to censorship, I’m never for it. It just makes things taboo and, therefore, more fun. I’m on the fence about warning labels; they seem pretty harmless, but they don’t really accomplish much. All in all, I say leave it alone.

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