Popular Culture and Social Control: The Moral Panic on Music Labeling

Mathieu Deflem
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This is the manuscript of an article in American Journal of Criminal Justice, 45(1), pp. 2-24, February 2020. (First published online: July 24, 2019.) doi.org/10.1007/s12103-019-09495-3 

The final version is available online from the publisher and as PDF file

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2020. “Popular Culture and Social Control: The Moral Panic on Music Labeling.” American Journal of Criminal Justice 45(1):2-24. 

Abstract Record Labeling

Informed by a moral panic perspective, I analyze the music labeling debate in the United States from the mid 1980s until the early 1990s. Instigated by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a voluntary group set up in 1985 by several politically well-connected women, this peculiar chapter in the control of music led to a hearing in the U.S. Senate and produced an intense debate, involving members of the community and musicians, litigation in the courts and legal discussions, police actions, as well as research by academic experts. The moral panic faded rather quickly after a warning label for music recordings was adopted, which remains in place today. This paper presents an effort in cultural criminology to make sense of this episode in the social control of music and argues that a historical approach to moral panics, conceived as cultural struggles, has important analytical advantages because of its relative detachment from the immediacy of an intensely debated social concern.

Keywords: Cultural criminology; Moral panic; Criminalization; Popular culture; Music

An earlier paper, from which this publication is revised, was originally available online as "Rap, Rock, and Censorship: Popular Culture and the Technologies of Justice."


In this article, I examine the history of the music labeling debate that took place in the United States in the wake of actions that began in the mid-1980s and that still, albeit it in different form, have implications today. The changes that have taken place in the music industry over the past years, especially under the influence of the rise of the internet and the spread of digital technologies, have altered the conditions of the material products of music itself as musical recordings have moved from vinyl and CD to download and streaming services. As a literal example of labeling in the criminological sense, the case of music labeling is therefore a matter of the history of (popular) culture and its control. Such a historically informed perspective is all the more relevant as music labeling in the form of warnings based on lyrical content is still applied today as a direct result of what happened now more than three decades ago. Music listed in iTunes and album covers appearing on streaming services, for instance, have the letter “E” posted next to songs considered explicit as well as a warning sticker that has remained fundamentally unchanged in contents and appearance since its introduction in November of 1985.

I will analyze the criminological context of music labeling on the basis of a moral panic approach, a perspective that is not only distinctly criminological but also intimately connected with popular culture ever since Stanley Cohen (1972) introduced the term in the context of research on the youth groups of mods and rockers in the United Kingdom to refer to the exaggerated concern over these groups’ involvement in violence as posing a threat to the social order. I will apply insights from moral panic scholarship to the music labeling debate that developed in the United States in the 1980s, when attempts to control popular music where renewed and intensified. Rock, pop, and rap music then came under rather intense attacks that focused on these musical forms’ alleged explicit and troublesome sexual and violent lyrical content. Harmonizing with the social problems associated with moral panics, these issues were conceived of as a threat to the fabric of society. Through an examination of the actions undertaken to control certain forms of popular music from the time of the founding of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in 1985 until the early 1990s, I will investigate how various social movements, institutions, and actors were mobilized. As the analysis will show, this episode in the social control of popular music not only related to its commercial distribution and reception among various segments of the public, but at times also involved legal activities as well as police actions, effectively involving a criminalization, rather than a mere control, of music.

This paper’s primary theoretical contribution emanates from its historical focus to a moral panic as a cultural issue. Because popular culture is intrinsically subject to change as tastes, hits, and fashions come and go, the moral panics perspective is better suited to an analysis of events that occurred in the past. Beginning with Cohen’s (1972) work on mods and rockers, moral panics perspectives have at times suffered from being too close, in time and otherwise, to its subject matter. When a historical approach is missing, moral panics research may be an expression of what it tries to study (Rohloff & Wright, 2010). Because moral panics are peculiarly intense moments in time that dramatize and potentially criminalize a problem, I argue, an investigation of the conditions and consequences of moral panics will produce more valid results when the intensity of such debates has faded. The historical focus of this paper is not unrelated to its own development. Part of the research here presented was already undertaken in the early 1990s and presented at a scholarly conference (Deflem, 1993). The paper from that conference was made available on the internet from about 1997 onwards (until it was removed last year in preparation of this article). Given its focus on a popular theme and the initial popularity of the internet among a younger generation, the website version of that preliminary study became among the author’s most consulted writings despite not having been formally published. This research of the music labeling debate, now some three decades ago, is therefore justified because it enables scholarly analysis rather than being stuck in mere normative critique.


After an initially slow start, the criminology of popular culture has in recent years been more firmly established (Deflem, 2010; Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, 2015). The presidential address by Brian Payne (2012) before the Southern Criminal Justice Association published in this journal a few years ago offers an interesting guide to show the ways in which culture and art matter for the study of criminal justice. Payne argues that the criminal justice sciences (in the plural) form an interdisciplinary field, the various social-science disciplines of which can fruitfully rely on each other as well as on insights from art and the humanities. In this paper, I respond to Payne’s call for collaboration between criminology and cultural studies by examining a puzzling instance of music being subjected to processes of social control.

The dramatization of evil, to borrow Frank Tannenbaum’s (1938) now famous phrase, can be manifested in a variety of ways, from very informal to highly formalized mechanisms, and has as such also been addressed in research on moral panics. Stanley Cohen (1972) was especially interested in the various stages in the development of a moral panic. Applied to youth cultures and their alleged troubles, particularly the violence between mods and rockers, Cohen thereby identified the central role of the media in exacerbating a social problem to the extent that it will be formally responded to by government authorities, in turn amplifying the severity of the problem as it was and continues to be perceived in the community.

The concept of moral panic has proven extremely durable since Cohen’s (1972) original formulation and continues to be widely applied (Critcher, 2017; Goode, 2008; Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009). Yet, despite or perhaps precisely because of its popularity (Garland, 2008), the approach has also been exposed to a number of theoretical and conceptual challenges (Critcher, 2008; Hier, 2008; Krinsky, 2013; Young, 2009). Having seeped into common parlance and into the very media it often condemned (Hunt, 1997), the expression moral panic is at times used rather casually without much theoretical significance or any clear link to broader criminological questions and social theory (Rohloff & Wright, 2010). In more informed scholarly analyses, both the conditions and consequences of specific instances of moral panics have received much attention and, related to fundamental conceptual issues, the terms of moral panic research have been refined (Flinders & Wood, 2015; Young, 2009) and reconceptualized, for instance in terms of (de)civilization processes (Hier, 2011, 2016; Rochloff & Wright, 2010) and moral regulation (Critcher, 2009, 2011; Hier, Lett, Walby, & Smith, 2011).

With respect to the status of moral panic as a concept, I adopt in this paper a more cautious approach than suggested by use of a so-called ‘moral panic thesis’ or ‘moral panic theory.’ Rather than implying any thesis or theory of causes and development of stages, not to mention any linguistic quibbles over the implied psychological associations of the word ‘panic’, I rely on moral panic as a sensitizing concept that offers a framework for analysis rather than a specific explanatory thesis or theory. In this way, a moral panic perspective has the advantage of opening up relevant dimensions of a process of social control, but it does not a priori imply a specific theory of the causal mechanisms that ultimately need to be developed to explain the interplay between deviance/crime and social control/criminal justice. Further, as the number of moral panics in any society at a given time is by definition low, an interpretive approach geared at a detailed understanding of a case may be better suited to fulfil scholarly objectives. Thus, this paper seeks to show, by illustration of one case that is explored in depth, the value of relevant components of social control which a moral panic orientation can expose, rather than remaining paralyzed by the fact that the perspective cannot explain everything.

With respect to the research value of moral panic scholarship, the topics that have traditionally received most attention include the disproportionality in the concerns expressed in a moral panic and the role of the media in the creation thereof (Goode, 2008; Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009; Hunt, 1997). Two intertwined issues are thereby posed which the present analysis of the music labeling debate will confront. One, prior research has almost exclusively devoted attention to the moral entrepreneurs that are said to create a moral panic by establishing a consensus that a social problem of tremendous weight is taking place. Two, the media are thereby analyzed (and critiqued) to play an active role in promoting the panic by articulating the moral entrepreneurs’ position. Yet, taking cues from moral panic scholars who have suggested that the media are not a monolithic institution representing only the moral entrepreneurs’ perspective (McRobbie & Thornton, 1995; Webb & Griffin, 2019), I will argue that the case of music labeling shows that a moral panic is created by a clash of forces and opinions, whereby at least two opposing sides are in conflict with one another over what is (im)moral or not. In case, those who argued that lyrical content can be harmful were in the music labeling debate confronted with those who claimed that musical expression and free speech are central societal values. Additionally, I will show, the media thereby functioned not as an actor in this debate, but as a field in which discussions and confrontations took place.

I suggest that the overconcentration on consensus and the one-sided perception of the role of the media in prior moral panic research is due to a general lack of historical focus as, most typically, moral panics will be analyzed when or shortly after they are occurring. Historical research is typically conducted to illustrate the value of the perspective by examining moral panics in the past. But historical analysis, because of its detachment, has additional advantages, because it can uncover hitherto unknown dimensions of moral panics that can lead to re-articulate how they are to be conceptualized and studied. In a recent analysis of the Salem witch trials, sociologist Isaac Reed (2015) has interestingly brought out the cultural dynamics at work in a moral panic process. In part relying on the call by David Garland (2008) to adopt a cultural approach in moral panic studies, Reed (2015) thereby conceives of a moral panic as a “struggle for cultural power” (p. 68). This insight harmonizes with my contention that a moral panic is most essentially a debate between opposing sides operating at the cultural level, which a case related to music will particularly acutely reveal.

Conforming to these insights, I will in this paper mostly be concerned with the different institutions involved in the creation of a moral panic and, especially, how these institutions relate, acting with and against one another, to create a particular outcome. What is especially revealing, the analysis will show, is how some institutions and their actors are part of the community (private actors and voluntary associations), who work together with, or find themselves in opposition to, governmental institutions, especially legal and legislative bodies, thereby creating a feedback effect back into the community at large. The case of music labeling will specifically be shown to involve a moral panic that brings in close contact moral entrepreneurs, legislators, legal representatives and agents of criminal justice (the societal control culture), as well as business leaders and a variety of community members with widely conflicting viewpoints.


Concerns over rock ‘n’ roll and other forms of popular music have off and on over the course of pop culture history fueled public debate and instigated social control (Jones, 1991, pp. 75-76; McDonald, 1988, pp. 294-302; Nuzum, 2001, pp. 211-266). At times expressed as a moral panic (Castillo, 2011, pp. 108-154; Cloonan, 2002), such concerns do not primarily relate to any musicological qualities, but instead have much to do with the threat to social norms or community values such forms of music were thought to represent. Characteristically, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s went hand in hand with the rise of discussions about juvenile delinquency as a major social concern. The opening credits of the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle, dealing with violence in an inner-city high school, are set to “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets. But even with rock ‘n’ roll’s occasionally problematic history in mind, the activities that were instigated against rock and pop music in the 1980s represented a peculiar effort of renewed control.

The Invasion of the ‘Washington Wives’

The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was founded in 1985 as the result of the unusually combined efforts of several concerned parents, including several women whose husbands had close ties to or were participants in American government (Chastagner, 1999; Coletti, 1987, pp. 421-426; Gray, 1989a, pp. 151-153, 1989b, pp. 6-8; Kaufman, 1986, pp. 228-231; Nuzum, 2001, pp. 13-43; Roldan, 1987, pp. 222-231). The formation of the PMRC began when Tipper Gore, wife of former Vice-President and then Senator of Tennessee Albert Gore, bought the album Purple Rain by Prince for her then 11-year old daughter. Gore was shocked to find out that one of the songs on the album, “Darling Nikki”, contained an explicit reference to female masturbation. Independently from Mrs. Gore’s experience, Susan Baker, wife of former Treasury Secretary and White House Chief of Staff James Baker, around the same time overheard her 7-year old child singing along to “Like a Virgin” by Madonna, leading Mrs. Baker to be stunned to realize “what’s going on in pop music” (quoted in Roldan, 1987, p. 223). Also around that time, Pamela Howar, wife of Washington construction executive Raymond Howar, noticed the lyrical contents of the songs she was dancing to during her aerobics classes and discovered that her daughter was listening to the same kind of music over breakfast.

In April of 1985 the concerned parents, together with Sally Nevius, wife of Washington D.C. city council chairman John Nevius, and Ethelyn Stuckley, wife of Georgia Congressman Williamson Stuckley, joined forces. On May 13, 1985, they formed the non-profit, tax-exempt organization Parents Music Resource Center. The PMRC did not have formal membership procedures, but brought together a group of affiliates, including several U.S. Congressmen, who shared concerns over the direction of popular music. Under the Presidency of Pamela Howar, the PMRC compiled a mailing list appeal to similarly concerned parents and to raise money.

The main objective of the PMRC was to inform parents about the music young people were exposed to on radio, via recordings, and at live concerts, and to request the record industry for voluntary restraint with regard to music that was deemed explicit or obscene. The PMRC originally proposed a rating system for music similar to the movie ratings system used by the Motion Picture Association of America, and requested that detailed warning labels be placed on record covers (Coletti, 1987, pp. 424-425). The PMRC also suggested that song lyrics be printed on the album covers, records with obscene covers be placed under the counters of record stores, record companies to reconsider their contracts with performers who displayed sex or violence during shows or on records, radio stations be furnished with lyric sheets, backward masking be banned from all songs, and music videos be rated on the basis of both the lyrics and the visual performance.

To raise awareness, the PMRC started the publication of a monthly newsletter and sent letters to some sixty music companies, to the National Association of Broadcasters, and, most importantly, to the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA). The RIAA, which at the time represented record companies responsible for 85% of the total sales of recorded music in the U.S. (at that time constituting a multi-billion dollar industry), initially responded fiercely against any of the PMRC’s demands, invoking First Amendment rights of the free exercise of speech (Goodchild, 1986, p. 161). A mere few months later, however, on August 5, 1985, RIAA President Stanley Gortikov sent a letter to PMRC President Pam Howar in which he stated that the RIAA would agree to have a warning sticker placed on all future albums which contained songs with explicit lyrical content (U.S. Senate, 1985, p. 98). The sticker would read: “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics.”

Events proceeded to unfold quickly in favor of the PMRC’s stated goals. In a letter of August 7, 1985, PMRC President Howar expressed her organization’s discontent with the Gortikov proposal, because the proposed sticker would not have a diversified rating decided upon by a panel to deem music offensive, satanic, sexual in nature, and otherwise objectionable for specific reasons. In response, on August 13, 1985, the RIAA sent a letter to the PMRC stating: “Explicit is explicit... There are just no ‘right/wrong’ characterizations, and the music industry refuses to take the first step toward a censorship mode to create a master bank of ‘good/bad’ words or phrases or thoughts or concepts” (cited in U.S. Senate, 1985, p. 103). The RIAA’s suggestions provoked opposition from record companies, radio and TV representatives, as well as musicians, who felt that even the RIAA’s proposed rating sticker amounted to censorship and an abridgement of First Amendment rights. Remarkably, the dispute moved to Capitol Hill, where a hearing was held before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on what by then had come to be known as the issue of ‘porn rock’.

The Senate Hearing on Record Labeling

Held on September 19, 1985, the Senate Hearing on Record Labeling was arguably the best attended and media-covered hearing ever held before a Senate Committee (see U.S. Senate, 1985 for a full transcript of the hearing, selected testimonies of which are currently available on YouTube). Little is known about how the hearing came to be organized and who could persuade the committee to convene, but the fact that many PMRC affiliates were wives of important Washington politicians and businessmen, and that the wives of Committee members Albert Gore, John Danforth, and Ernest Hollings were affiliated with the PMRC, cannot be reasonably held to be coincidental. The purpose of the hearing, according to Committee Chairman John Danforth, was to discuss rock music that dealt explicitly with sexual topics and the glorification of violence. Senator Danforth stressed that “the reason for this hearing is not to promote any legislation... But simply to provide a forum for airing the issue itself, for ventilating the issue, for bringing it out in the public domain” (U.S. Senate, 1985, p. 1).

First speaking at the hearing were Committee members Paul Trible, Paula Hawkins, Hollings, and Gore, all of whom raised concerns over the influence of recent forms of rock music for the children of America. Senator Hollings even indicated that he would seek a way, if possible, to find “some constitutional provision” to tackle the “outrageous filth” of “music interspersed with pornography” (U.S. Senate, 1985, pp. 4, 5). Hollings was joined by Senator Exon who also advocated legislation or some form of regulation. Senator Gore asked for self-restraint on the part of the recording industry.

Next, representatives of the PMRC Susan Baker, Pamela Howar, Sally Nevius, Tipper Gore, and Jeff Ling alluded to the relevance of popular music for teenagers and the enormous amounts of records that are sold, additionally relating their concerns to teen pregnancy, the teenage suicide rate, and rape. They singled out several songs deemed objectionable, the so-called ‘Filthy Fifteen,’ consisting of both well-known and relatively obscure songs by such performers as Sheena Easton, Cindy Lauper, Madonna, Mary Jane Girls, Judas Priest, AC/DC, Mercyful Fate, and Venom. Tipper Gore testified that the PMRC was no longer interested in an independent ratings system, instead suggesting that record companies voluntarily label their products. (U.S. Senate, 1985, p. 13). Susan Baker similarly called for self-restraint in the form of voluntary labeling.

The musicians’ standpoint was represented by Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snider. Frank Zappa argued that the PMRC’s demands were “equivalent to treating dandruff by decapitation, whipped up like an instant pudding by the Wives of Big Brother” (U.S. Senate, 1985, pp. 52-53). Zappa stated that the RIAA had given in to the record labeling proposal because it sought to have the so-called Blank Tape Tax passed, referring to the Home Audio Recording Act. Sponsored by the RIAA, the Home Audio Recording Act was the (unsuccessfully) proposed bill that sought to levy a tax on home taping and give royalties to the recording industry for sales of tape recorders and blank tapes. Zappa observed that Senator Strom Thurmond ran the committee responsible for this proposed legislation and that his wife was affiliated with the PMRC (Gray, 1989a, p. 154).

John Denver began his testimony by recounting that he had been the victim of censorship when his song “Rocky Mountain High” had been “banned from many radio stations as a drug-related song. This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains” (U.S. Senate, 1985, p. 65). Denver acknowledged the PMRC’s concerns, but attacked the attempts to suppress ideas and words in a democratic society, even drawing comparisons with Nazi Germany. Additional musicians’ testimony was provided by Dee Snider, lead singer of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister. Referring to his Christian beliefs and arguing that his songs were written in that spirit, Snider stated that the Twisted Sisters’ songs the PMRC had condemned as containing references to sadomasochism, bondage, and rape were either misquoted or misinterpreted.

Lastly testifying at the hearing was RIAA President Gortikov, who indicated that by the time the hearing was held some 24 of the RIAA’s member companies had already agreed on the labeling of records containing explicit lyrics. A more specified form of labeling or rating Gortikov denounced as impractical because the RIAA’s companies at that time released some 25,000 new recordings every year. The hearing was adjourned after some five hours of debate.

The Sticker

Play video for a brief history of the music labeling debate.
On November 1, 1985, the PMRC, along with the National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA), reached an agreement with the RIAA to establish a record labeling sticker (Coletti, 1987, p. 424). The agreement stipulated that the printing of lyrics remained optional and, because of space limitations, that music cassettes were exempted, bearing only the imprint “see LP for lyrics.” The RIAA proposed a new uniform sticker, to which the PMRC responded favorably (Jones, 1991, p. 78). The sticker’s wording was precisely specified (“Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics”) as was its relative size and (black-and-white) color and its appearance on the lower right-hand corner of all records, cassettes, and compact discs. In 1996, the label was standardized with the words “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content,” in which form it exists until this day for all types of recordings, including digital downloads and streaming services. The Parental Advisory Label or so-called PAL Mark, as the RIAA has designated it, is trademarked and subject to a license agreement with individual record companies (RIAA, “Parental Advisory Label”). As currently used by iTunes, for instance, the label is employed to indicate that parental discretion is advised by reference to contemporary cultural morals and standards (Schonfeld, 2015b). When a recording is available in both explicit and edited formats, iTunes and other music platforms have since also introduced a “Clean Lyrics” label when parental discretion is not advised.


It would be tempting to write either an internal history of music labeling as a matter involving only those who directly contributed to promote or oppose the label or, alternatively, to speculate on the presumed external causes of labeling related to a political economy of market and power forces (Critcher, 2011). Instead, from a perspective that recognizes multiple players in a moral panic discourse, the actions of the PMRC and the introduction of the parental advisory label can be shown to not stand alone among efforts to legally control popular music in the 1980s and early 1990s and, additionally, for such controls to be challenged. I will in the coming pages indeed show that a cultural climate existed in which community sentiments and legal actions taken at the level of legislation, the administration of law, and criminal justice intersected to create the contours of a moral panic on popular music. In formal courts of law, constitutional issues related to music were specifically discussed in relation to loudness, incitement, and obscenity.

Music and Loudness: Rock Against Racism

By the late 1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet explicitly included music and song lyrics among the classes of constitutionally protected speech. While at the time only lower courts had recognized music as free speech (Goodchild, 1986, pp. 134, 142-145), the case of Ward v. Rock Against Racism in 1989, involving the use of guidelines to control the volume of music, brought the issue within the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

The association Rock Against Racism had for several years been organizing musical events to promote its ideas at the Naumburg Bandshell in New York City’s Central Park (Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 1989). Just beyond the park are the apartments of Central Park West, and its residents had regularly complained to city officials about the noise caused by rock performances. On March 21, 1986, the City of New York promulgated guidelines on noise-amplification that specified that any concerts held at the Naumburg Bandshell could only be held using amplification equipment and a sound technician provided by the city of New York. Rock Against Racism filed a motion against the enforcement of these guidelines. The municipal guidelines’ validity was initially upheld in court, but the ruling was reversed by the United States Court of Appeals, upon which the case was brought before the Supreme Court.

In June 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that the New York City noise regulations constituted a permissible regulation of time, place, and manner of expression and “did not violate free speech rights of performers” (Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 1989, p. 2746). Based on the so-called O’Brien test, developed in United States v. O’Brien (1968), the guidelines were ruled to be content-neutral, narrowly tailored to serve substantial government interest, and allowed for ample alternative channels of communication. The Court’s decision is an important one to the music labeling debate because by ruling on the New York City noise regulations on this basis, the Supreme Court formally declared that music is protected speech under the provisions of the U.S. Constitution. “Music, as a form of expression and communication,” the Court stated, “is protected under the First Amendment” (Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 1989, p. 2753).

Music and Incitement: Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest

On the night of October 26, 1984, 19-year old John McCollum shot himself in the head with a .22 caliber handgun (Block, 1990, pp. 787-788; Holt, 1990, pp. 70-72). For most of the evening, McCollum had been listening to the Ozzy Osbourne albums Diary of a Madman and Blizzard of Oz. He later went up to his bedroom, put on his headphones, listened to Osbourne’s album Speak of the Devil, and shot himself. A year later, in October of 1985, McCollum’s parents filed suit against Ozzy Osbourne and record company CBS on charges of negligence, product liability, and intentional misconduct, alleging that the music had incited their son to commit suicide. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County dismissed the case in August 1986. But the parents appealed the decision and claimed that Osbourne’s music contained themes of Satanism and death, and that particularly the song “Suicide Solution” had incited their son because, quoting the song’s lyrics, it preached that “suicide is the only way out.” The song was also claimed to contain ‘masked’ lyrics not printed on the album (specifically the line “get the gun and try it, shoot, shoot, shoot”).

The Court of Appeals ruled that Osbourne’s music was constitutionally protected (McCollum v. CBS, 1988). On the basis of the so-called Brandenburg test of incitement (based on the decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio [1969] that struck down a state law prohibiting the advocacy of violence for political and industrial reform), the court held that Osbourne’s lyrics did not command anyone to take immediate action and that the lyrics were at best an advocacy of violent action “at some indefinite time in the future” (McCollum v. CBS, 1988, p. 194).

Later on in the 80s, music was again up on trial on suicide allegations. On December 23, 1985, 18-year old Raymond Belknap and 20-year old James Vance were listening to the album Stained Class by the British metal band Judas Priest (Block, 1990, pp. 778, 788-789; Houser, 1990, pp. 327-331). The two Nevada men had been listening to the album on repeat for over six hours while smoking marijuana and drinking beer. Afterwards, they went to a playground near an empty churchyard, where Raymond Belknap put a sawed-off shotgun beneath his chin and shot and killed himself. James Vance also shot himself, survived with critical injuries, but died three years later.

The families of the men filed a lawsuit against Judas Priest and their record company (Judas Priest v. Nevada, 1988). At the trail, the plaintiffs’ attorneys avoided to sue Judas Priest for their songs’ lyrical content because of the decision meanwhile reached in the McCollum case, instead arguing that the suicides were the result of hidden messages on the Judas Priest album, one song of which would contain the line “do it, do it.” After a 17-day trial, Judge Whitehead ruled that Judas Priest’s music could not have incited the two youths to commit suicide because the songs on the album Stained Class did not contain any “intentionally placed subliminal messages” (Vance v. Judas Priest, 1990).

Music and Obscenity: The 2 Live Crew Go to Court

The obscenity case surrounding the 2 Live Crew’s 1989 album As Nasty As They Wanna Be in the early 1990s presents among the most interesting court cases on popular music (Beatty, 1991; Campbell, 1991, pp. 177-215; Clark, 1990; Friedland, 1991; Gordon, 1991, pp. 506-517; Morant, 1992, pp. 16-20; O’Gallagher & Gaertner, 1991, pp. 105-110). In 1989, the 2 Live Crew album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was released on Skywalker Records along with a ‘sanitized’ parody version of the recording, called As Clean As They Wanna Be, that contained the same music with different lyrics. In mid-February of 1990, the Sheriff’s office of Broward County, Florida, began an investigation into the Nasty album in response to complaints received from South Florida residents. On February 26, 1990, Broward County Deputy Sheriff Mark Wichner traveled to Sound Warehouse, a record store in Broward County, and bought a cassette of the Nasty album. He had six of the album’s songs transcribed and sent to Judge Mel Grossman of the Broward County Circuit Court, requesting that the judge find probable cause that the album was obscene.

On March 9, 1990, Judge Grossman issued an order stating he had found probable cause to believe the recording was obscene. The Broward County Sheriff’s office subsequently distributed copies of the order to about twenty record stores that might be selling the Nasty record in the county. Within days, all record stores in the county reportedly ceased selling the album. On March 16, 1990, Skywalker Records filed suit against Broward County Sheriff Nicholas Navarro, who himself in turn filed suit to seek legal determination whether the Nasty record was obscene.

The Skywalker Records trial was held June 6, 1990 at the District Court of Ford Lauderdale, Florida, to determine whether the album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was legally obscene as a matter of Florida civil law, or whether the actions of defendant Navarro involved unconstitutional prior restraint (Skywalker Records v. Navarro, 1990). District Court Judge Jose Gonzalez ruled on the album’s obscenity by applying the so-called Miller test, first developed in Miller v. California (1973), to determine if the music appealed to the “prurient interest,” was “patently offensive” by “contemporary community standards,” and lacked “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” (Skywalker Records v. Navarro, 1990, p. 587).

Judge Gonzalez ruled that the relevant community in this case was comprised of the counties Palm Beach, Broward, and Dade, the standards of which he himself could determine because he was a long-time resident of Broward County. Applying the Miller test, Gonzalez ruled the Nasty album to be obscene because it constituted “an appeal directed to the ‘dirty’ thoughts and the loins, not to the intellect and the mind” (Skywalker Records v. Navarro, 1990, p. 591). On May 7, 1992, the United States Court of Appeals reversed the decision, ruling that Gonzalez could not alone determine relevant community standards and should have relied on expert witnesses (Luke Records v. Navarro, 1992).


The legislative efforts and litigation cases on loudness, incitement, and obscenity have in the literature not been discussed in connection with the cultural climate of the moral panic debate on popular music in the 1980s and early 1990s. That oversight is all the more surprising given that there was a very lively jurisprudential debate on these matters among legal scholars writing their opinions in law reviews. The following overview will show that the First Amendment was a central concern in these legal discussions, especially following the Senate Hearing on Record Labeling and the 2 Live Crew obscenity trial.

Music Labeling and the First Amendment

A substantial part of the jurisprudential debate on the control of music took place soon after the Senate Hearing on Record Labeling was held. Various technical and constitutional problems associated with the ratings of records were discussed, such as: the increased costs involved with administering and policing the ratings system; the possibility of reduced album sales due to decreased air play; the risk that children would be lured into buying obscene records precisely because they were labeled; and a possible chilling effect on the distribution of labeled music (Block, 1990, pp. 826-829; Butler, 1991, p. 379; Goodchild, 1986, pp. 166-171). The labeling of records was also considered practically unfeasible because of the enormous amount of music being released every year and the ambiguous nature of music lyrics as well as ineffective at best inasmuch as labeled records would still be for sale (Kaufman, 1986, pp. 245-247; Scheidemantel, 1986, pp. 505-507; Berry & Wolin, 1986, p. 615).

Some legal scholars argued that the PMRC proposed voluntary labeling as a form of private action purposely to enable a form of control to come about which state or federal authorities could never justify (Scheidemantel, 1986, pp. 494-504). The proposal for so-called voluntary restraint would thus amount to an abuse of private power that foregoes the restrictions of state and federal action. Other legal commentators went further and asserted that there were ties between private and public action in the case of the PMRC (Lazarus, 1987, pp. 434-435). Given the general condemnatory atmosphere and the marital affiliation of PMRC affiliates with high-ranking politicians, the Senate debates were argued to have brought about an impermissible influence of the state in the final (formally private) agreement between the RIAA, the PMRC, and the NPTA.

Legal scholars also argued that the labeling of records poses serious First Amendment issues because of the chilling effect the system might have as a de facto form of censorship, which might eventually lead to legislation regulating certain kinds of music (Berry & Wolin, 1986, p. 619; Roldan, 1987, pp. 247-252). Legal commentaries following the 1985 Senate Hearing that considered the possibility of music being criminalized through legislation argued that such laws could never be upheld in a court of law (Kaufman, 1986, pp. 237-239; Lazarus, 1987, pp. 504-519). Interestingly, all legal scholars writing before the 2 Live Crew trial were unanimous that music could never be ruled to be legally obscene (Coletti, 1987, pp. 427-438; Goodchild, 1986, pp. 177-180; Holt, 1990, pp. 61-67; Kaufman, 1986, pp. 254-257; Scheidemantel, 1986, pp. 479-482).

Loudness, Incitement, and Obscenity

Reviewing the relevant debates among legal professionals, the central issue of the loudness case of Ward v. Rock Against Racism (1989) was the fact that the Supreme Court had explicitly ruled that music is protected speech under the First Amendment, a decision that was fundamental, no doubt, but also so uncontroversial that it produced almost no legal debate at all (Sorondo, 1990). The incitement trials likewise did not bring about much legal commentary because the rulings in the Osbourne and Judas Priest trials were agreed upon to have been decided correctly, because music can always be argued to have artistic value (Block, 1990, pp. 796-803; Houser, 1990, pp. 333-337). 

In sharp contrast to the loudness and incitement cases, the obscenity trial of the 2 Live Crew led to a very large number of commentaries in law reviews in the early 1990s. Yet, while extensive, this legal debate was also straightforward in that legal scholars consistently argued against each and every aspect of the decision (Beatty, 1991, pp. 637-641; Campbell, 1991, pp. 192-237; Clark, 1990, pp. 1522-1530; Furer, 1991, pp. 472-494; Friedland, 1991, pp. 132-157; Gordon, 1991, pp. 517-524; Morant, 1992, pp. 28-29; O’Gallagher & Gaertner, 1991, pp. 113-121). Among other arguments, it was claimed that the Judge’s determination of the relevant community standards was highly subjective and that the criteria of the Miller test were not met. Judge Gonzalez was also said to have ignored the specific cultural values expressed in rap music. Whatever the more and less professional reasons for legal scholars to write about obscenity and music, such legal debate is part of, rather than an analysis of, the moral panic debate on popular music, because it treats the matter within the context of legality and constitutionality.


Analyzing the ways in which claims and counter-claims on popular music were mobilized in the music labeling and legal debate of the 1980s and early 1990s highlights the many institutions and actors that were involved in the debate. Also brought out are alliances among various groups, even when some of them otherwise represent diverging interests. Following the framework of a moral panic as a cultural struggle between conflicting actors, I will argue that cultural factors were most determinant in shaping these debates.

Strategies of Control and Resistance

An all too conventional account of the formation of the PMRC and the way in which it attracted allies and made enemies would place primary emphasis on the political conditions of the times. Such an approach, I argue, would miss more than it would hit. To be sure, one cannot ignore the political climate at the time of the Senate Hearing and the PMRC’s rise to infamy (Gray, 1989b, pp. 12-13). U.S. President Ronald Reagan was serving his second term in the White House, the debate on family values that had sprung up received support from conservative politicians, and in the wake of economic depression and a continued Cold War climate, the abortion controversy had partnered with growing concerns over the AIDS epidemic. In this generally conservative climate, the PMRC could receive support for its cause, and even formal court cases on music’s role in incitement and obscenity could be held.

Aside from the political context, however, there is more to the creation of a moral panic as sentiments in the community cannot be affected without all due organization and mobilization surrounding some issue. In that sense, it should be examined in which manner particular actions were taken and strategies adopted to rally around a particular cause such as the control of music, whether pro or con. At the concrete level of social movement formation and the objectives that are pursued from within community organizations, the PMRC stands out as a peculiarly effective group. Despite its noteworthy connections to the world of politics, the PMRC did much of its work at the grass-roots level, asking parents to monitor radio and TV shows and write letters of protest to record companies, broadcast stations, and elected representatives (McDonald, 1988, p. 305).

The PMRC strategy of sending out letters to express concern appears to have been very effective. Eddie Frits of the National Association of Broadcasters, for example, wrote over 800 letters to radio and TV stations warning against pornographic record lyrics (U.S. Senate, 1985, p. 133). Other mobilization means included television appearances and book publications. Tipper Gore published a manifesto in which she sought to demonstrate the relationship between new forms of rock music and a general decline in morality (Gore, 1987). Dee Snider, lead singer of Twisted Sister, in response wrote a book on adolescents and music (Snider & Bashe, 1987), and Frank Zappa devoted two chapters in his autobiography to music censorship (Zappa, 1989, pp. 261-313). Zappa, on the one hand, and Gore and other PMRC representatives, on the other, appeared on a host of late-night talk shows on U.S. television, advocating passionately for their respective opinions.

The PMRC was also effective in establishing coalitions with other organizations, such as the NPTA and the National Education Association, to form a broad front (Coletti, 1987, p. 426). Other PMRC allies included The Beach Boys, which donated $5,000 to the group, and brewing magnate Adolph Coors IV, whose company provided the PMRC office space in Arlington (Nuzum, 2001, p. 19). Some PMRC allies came from unexpected places. Jesse Jackson’s PUSH organization, for instance, supported a record rating system because there would be a correlation between music lyrics and the teenage pregnancy rate in the African-American community (Berry & Wolin, 1986, p. 596).

While I argue that political conditions cannot be held accountable for the origin and course of this moral panic in the world of popular culture, this does not mean that politics played no role. The opposite is true, but only inasmuch as social movement organizations were effective in appealing to politicians, rather than the reverse. The organization of the Senate Hearing on Record Labeling in this respect stands out as a peculiar achievement, one that would have been unlikely without proper connections.

The PMRC and its allies were also successful in soliciting the support of politicians to participate in the debate on record labeling and the potential dangers of popular music. Then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, for example, at some point condemned the record industry for selling pornography (Coletti, 1987, pp. 427). Shortly after the Senate Hearings, on October 9, 1985, Reagan stated that the music business was exposing children to a “glorification of drugs and violence and perversity” (cited in McDonald, 1988, p. 304). In 1987, at a symposium organized by the PMRC, then U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Everett Koop argued that many music videos involve “a combination of senseless violence and senseless pornography to the beat of rock music” (quoted in Gow, 1990, p. 2). As a result of such accomplishments in forging political alliances, it has been argued that the PMRC can be regarded as an extremely successful public interest group (Fontenot & Harriss, 2010).

The PMRC and its allies represented only one side in the music labeling debate. There were also a large number of protest voices, counter-claiming the values of popular music, in more or less organized fashion. The list of organizations opposed to the PMRC’s actions counted at some point at least about 100 voluntary groups of different size and level of organization explicitly speaking out against music censorship. Many of these organizations were created expressly as a result of the PMRC’s success, although it is also striking to note how rapidly they disappeared over the years, not rarely because of a lack of support and finances. Among the most successful anti-PMRC efforts was Rock and Rap Confidential, originally named Rock ‘n’ Roll Confidential, a private group of concerned citizens that was nationally organized and published a newsletter with up-to-date information on censorship. Other organizations objecting to the PMRC goals included grass-roots groups such as Parents for Rock & Rap, the National Association of Record Manufacturers (Gray, 1989a, p. 155), and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Tellingly, musicians were generally absent from the debate, possibly because of a feared backlash that would hurt their commercial interests. Among the few exceptions of musicians publicly voicing their concerns was the late Frank Zappa, who at the time often appeared on TV to speak about the issue, set up a telephone hotline, and distributed an anti-censorship package (“Z-Pack”) with information on attempts to control music that he had collected, in those pre-internet days, from printed newspapers. Along with the actions of anti-censorship groups, then, it can be seen that the campaigners opposed to the control of music relied on tactics similar to those used by the PMRC. They were generally, however, not only reactive, but also less well organized and less effective.

Crusading Institutions: Police and Academe

It would be a tremendously impoverished perspective from a scholarly viewpoint to examine a moral panic only from the viewpoint of the moral entrepreneurs. The debate on music labeling in the late 1980s and early 1990s involved a wide participation of diverse cultural groups and agents of control and professional expertise, even when they were not always formally aligned in any specific way in cooperation with or opposition against the PMRC. Most interesting from a criminal justice viewpoint, in particular, is the manner in which formal court proceedings and police actions from official law enforcement agencies intersected in the demonization of popular music with experts from the academic world.

As police scholars know all too well, law enforcement activities do not necessarily just involve an enforcement of law. The case of the 2 Live Crew, as discussed above, was instigated by independent police actions before any legal order was issued. On an earlier occasion in 1987, a record store clerk in Florida had already been charged with a felony for selling a cassette of the 2 Live Crew album Is What We Are to a 14-year old girl (Jones, 1991, p. 78). Similarly, on June 29, 1988, Tommy Hammond, co-owner of a record store in Alexander City, Alabama, was arrested for selling a copy of the 2 Live Crew’s album Move Somethin’ to an undercover police officer. Hammond was brought before a jury trial on a misdemeanor charge, convicted in Municipal Court, and fined $500 (O’Gallagher & Gaertner, 1991, pp. 105-106). The decision was later overturned, but in October 1988 a Lee County, Florida, judge ruled that probable cause existed that the Move Somethin’ album was obscene (Beatty, 1991, p. 628). Likewise predating legal actions, one of the concerts organized by Rock Against Racism in 1984, well before the Supreme Court ruling on loudness, had been shut down by police, an action that ironically “caused the audience to become unruly and hostile” (Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 1989, p. 2750).

The most extensive police actions against popular music during the era took place in response to records released by N.W.A. and Body Count. Offended by the song “F*** tha Police” by rap group N.W.A., FBI agent Milt Ahlerich sent a letter to the N.W.A. record distributor claiming that the band’s album Straight Outta Compton “encourages violence against and disrespect for the law-enforcement officer” (quoted in Laurence, 2015). A network of police messages distributed by fax machines tracked N.W.A. during their 1989 tour, urging law enforcement to stop the band’s live concerts. Sporadically, other such independent police actions were reported, such as in 1990 when members of the heavy metal band GWAR were arrested by officers of the Charlotte Police and the North Carolina State Alcohol Law Enforcement Division for simulating anal intercourse during their live show. The band was fined as part of a plea bargain and banned from performing in North Carolina for one year (Crane, 1993).

The song “Cop Killer” by the heavy metal band Body Count fronted by rapper Ice-T provoked widespread scandal, even inserting itself in the presidential elections of 1992 (Hamm & Ferrell, 1994; Shank, 1996). Although there was no formal judgment on the legal status of the song, several representatives of police organizations as well as politicians vehemently criticized the song’s message and its presumed incitement to violence. In June 1992, a group of law enforcement officials in Texas called for a boycott of Time Warner, the company that had issued the song. To avert further trouble, Ice-T agreed to voluntarily withdraw the song from the Body Count album.

Play video for a 20/20 report on heavy metal from 1987.
In the case of police, authority relies on the threat of force, but authority can be based on other professional means as well. An interesting example hereof in the case of music labeling is the involvement of academic professionals who claim scientific expertise. Already at the 1985 Senate Hearing, several academic scholars were represented. Defending the position of the PMRC, music professor Joe Stuessy of the University of Texas at San Antonio argued that heavy metal lyrics often contain explicit references to “extreme violence, extreme rebellion, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and perversion and Satanism” (U.S. Senate, 1985, p. 117). Child and adolescent psychiatrist Paul King in turn warned about heavy metal’s associations with drugs, sex, violence, and the powers of evil (Ibid., p. 130). At the obscenity trail of the 2 Live Crew’s Nasty as They Wanna Be album, famed African-American studies professor Henry L. Gates provided testimony on the cultural meaning and value of hip-hop music (Powell, 1991, p. 249).

With the moral panic surrounding popular music in full force following the 1985 Senate Hearings and the rise of the PMRC, many academics partook in the debate, eager to defend their viewpoints on the dangers or value of music. Social-science studies were devoted to analyzing the impact of music and estimating the validity of the assertions made by the moral crusaders, especially on the relationship between certain forms of music and violence (e.g., Epstein & Pratto, 1990; Prinsky & Rosenbaum, 1987; Walker, 1985). The music labeling sticker quickly became the subject of effectiveness studies (Christenson, 1992; Davis & Dominick, 1991). The results of such research were later found to be inconclusive at best (Kubrin & Weitzer, 2010).


This historical analysis of the music labeling debate in the United States in the mid 1980s and early 1990s has revealed the various institutions and actors involved in this morally framed struggle and the manner in which they contributed to the formation of a moral panic. The debate can be conceived of as a moral panic as it involved an exaggerated or disproportional reaction to a problem that is believed the threaten the moral order, whether it be based on parental rights or free speech. The issue was mediated to the public by key players representing various sides in the debate and involving a multitude of institutions, including community, law, police, academe. As a moral panic, the debate died down rather rapidly after a warning sticker was developed that is still used today.

Using moral panic as a sensitizing concept, my approach sought to avoid some of the pitfalls of earlier research, primarily by adopting a historical and hence more detached approach. Against conventional moral panic perspectives, the case of music labeling indeed revealed that the matter did not involve a linear progression of stages, as identified in the processual model of Cohen (1972), from the identification of a threat over its representation in the media towards a coherent set of societal controls. Instead, the music labeling debate was an essentially contested arena with strongly divergent perspectives, each representing different moral concerns, whether children’s well-being, as argued on the part of the PMRC, or free speech and creative expression, as defended by anti-censorship groups.

The moral panic of the music labeling debate existed essentially in the conflict that unfolded between rivaling groups and institutions. This viewpoint goes against the so-called attributional model of moral panics associated with the work of Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda (2009), who argue that a moral panic relies on “at least a certain minimal measure of consensus... that the threat is real” (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009, p. 38). While Goode and Ben-Yehuda acknowledge that this consensus can be challenged by counter claims makers, they do not properly recognize that it is only a strategy of the participating groups in a moral panic to present their side as something to be consensually agreed upon. The case of music labeling shows that dissent rather than consensus was a defining characteristic of the moral panic. The emphasis is therefore not only on the actors that articulate and defend one perspective in a moral panic, but attention must also be paid to those players in the conflict that seek to oppose the panic from being defined in those terms and that, instead, argue for another side to the debate which they likewise justify in moral terms.

The moral panic on music labeling in the 80s and 90s existed not in the promulgation of a particular problem (‘porn rock’) but in a conflict between opposing camps. The only consensus that existed among the participants in the debate was, at an abstract level, the notion that something important was going on, be it the lyrical content of popular music or the efforts to control it. Rejecting an elite model of moral panics (Deflem & Chicoine, 2011), anti-censorship groups must be acknowledged to have contributed to the moral panic over popular music as much as did the PMRC. The debate is what the moral panic embodies, the platform for which was provided by the media giving voice to dissenting groups (McRobbie & Thornton, 1995). The blame for the moral panic, so to speak, rests with Tipper Gore as much as with Frank Zappa. Absent an opposition of forces, conversely, a moral panic may be less likely to develop, even when other conditions, such as the appearance of powerful moral entrepreneurs, are favorable (Wozniak, 2016).

From this viewpoint, it is also striking to observe how relatively quickly the issue died down and faded from the public consciousness and from additional control and regulation. Although a moral panic approach is less geared towards explaining how a contested issue disappears (Rohloff & Wright, 2010), it can be noted that the RIAA quickly, following the Senate Hearings in 1985, agreed to the PMRC demands for voluntary labeling (despite the obvious implied contradiction in terms) as the organization sought to maintain its commercial interests in what was at that time an enormously profitable industry. Yet, lest one would too readily adopt a political-economy model, it is important to consider that popular music is not only commercially marketable (involving substantial monetary profit) but also, in the literal sense, popular and thus relates to a multitude of tastes and opinions. The public consists not only of consumers, but also constitutes a community more or less engaged in participating in culture and entertainment. The panic over music labeling died precisely because and when it was recognized as such.

Additionally offering complexity to the examination of a moral panic is to acknowledge that its various participants may come from a variety of institutional domains with divergent objectives and strategies. The music labeling debate involved a range of voluntary groups and private citizens as well as formal legal institutions, jurisprudence, police, and academe. A well-organized mobilization of concerns and forces on some particular problem will also lead to invoke an opposition, which ironically may be considered an achievement on the part of the group that instigated the debate. When a moral panic is essentially about dissent among different institutions and actors, it is also less than useful to place the media in a symbiotic relationship with the state and formal agencies of law and crime control, at least not a priori before empirical research establishes any such connections (McRobbie & Thornton, 1995). In the case of music labeling, the media (much like other institutions of American democracy, such as hearings before the U.S. Senate) functioned not as a monolithic voice, but as an arena where the plural voices of the conflict could be articulated.

The debate on a music rating sticker and the court cases on music in the same period have in the available literature not been sufficiently analyzed in conjunction with one another. This failure to bring out critical elements of the broader cultural climate of the control of music in those days is in itself an indication of the a-historical nature of the otherwise considerable amount of debate that took place, especially among legal scholars. Yet, what is important about these discussions in the world of professional jurisprudence is that they cannot be seen as scholarly reflections on, but instead are part and parcel of, the debates surrounding popular music at the time. As such, these works share a characteristic with those moral panic studies that, intended or not (Cohen, 2011), lapse into normative judgments about a temporal problem (Rohloff & Wright, 2010). Such research is situated within an additional institutional domain of the broader constellation of the moral panic on popular music and its purported threat to community values. It is telling of these discussions in the world of law that the number of articles written, most clearly in the obscenity case of the 2 Live Crew, correlates inversely with the degree of jurisprudential difficulties involved in the matter.

Heightened controls from government agencies and other institutions are not a necessary result of the moral panic, for at least two reasons. First, the moral panic debate can lead to different forms of reaction. The PMRC’s success, by example, was ultimately defined narrowly in terms of a sticker, which would ironically become a badge of honor for artists who wanted to be known as risqué and worthy of such stigmatization. Second, formal legal and police actions on the purported immorality of music took place before, and were thus constitutive of, the debate rather than a mere result thereof. The actions of Judge Gonzalez and the police in the obscenity case are striking to note in this respect. These police actions show that policing cannot be considered as a mere response to crime or deviance (which Gary Marx [1981] once called a “trampoline” model of social control), but can take on a constitutive role in the social control process.

As the central representatives of formal criminal justice, agents of law enforcement by definition conduct activities that have a high degree of authority. In having authority, police and science share a central characteristic. The professional expertise of academicians at the time of the moral panic debate on music, this analysis showed, did not involve independent reflections on, but formed an intimate part of, the debate that was raging so intensely. Most of these academic efforts, strikingly, were not very influential in shaping the outcome of the discussions.

The relative inability of social-science research to insert itself successfully in the music labeling debate at the time it was still going on, despite the elevated status of university and academe, supports the notion that criminological research on moral panics must have a measure of distance from the subject matter to adequately reflect on its course and outcome. The criminology of popular culture as such faces a special challenge in that culture may also affect the conditions of scholarship itself. This finding strengthens the notion that a moral panic is essentially a cultural issue and that criminologists and criminal justice scholars must take culture seriously to further their scholarly interests.


This paper presented a historical account of the moral panic surrounding popular music in the mid 1980s and early 1990s. From the viewpoint of a criminology that is sensitive to the relevance of culture, I have shown that various players were involved in maintaining the moral panic surrounding popular music and its control. The case of music labeling that was instigated by the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985 at the nexus of social movement mobilization and law, involving various judicial decisions and police actions, indicates the relevance of the formation of alliances and the strategic use of various means to promote various sides of the debate. The socio-legal field of music labeling thereby not only constitutes the rules that regulate these conflicts, it also provides the avenues to challenge those rules and practices when cultural values are claimed not to be represented by law. Despite attempts to keep formal, legal and governmental control out of popular music, the fact that social movements aspire to constitutional principles, mainly First Amendment protection, places them squarely in the middle of law. Ironically, the right to be left alone inevitably entails appeals to those who have the authority to interfere.

Responding against the charge that traditional moral panics scholarship lacks an attention to culture and agency (Garland, 2008; Reed, 2015), this analysis showed the role of highly active participants in social movement mobilization and the representatives of various institutions of law and social control as well as professional expert cultures in the creation, maintenance, and direction of the moral panic discourse. The moral entrepreneurs of music labeling were thereby seen to be confronted by likewise active, if largely reactive, opponents of control. Once resolved in the form of a sticker, the debate died down in a fashion that made the matter appear as unremarkable as it had been spectacular when still alive. Today’s media devote relatively little attention to popular music as a morally problematic field, despite the fact that some of today’s music is far more explicit in nature than what was available in the 80s and 90s. What does occasionally receive contemporary media attention is the moral panic on music that took place at that time. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Senate Hearing in 2015, for instance, the issue was discussed as a rather amusing curiosity from the past (Grow, 2015; Schonfeld, 2015a).

From a scholarly viewpoint, the historical perspective of this paper served to properly analyze the conditions of this moral panic discourse that initially affected social-science research when an overabundance of media reports and legal commentaries were devoted to the issue. Because of its detachment, historical research has a critical advantage over contemporaneous studies that may, inadvertently, be caught up in the moral panic it focuses attention to but ultimately can only condemn, not properly study (Rohloff & Wright, 2010).

Play video for an interview on the PMRC.

As culture is pervasive throughout society, community organizations as much as legal professionals, musicians and music industry insiders, police, and academics will all be somehow affected by the intensity of a moral panic. The focus on culture as an important context of research on deviance and social control therefore also brings out the relevance of age and race in this debate in the United States. Initial concerns were raised in terms of the protection of youth from rock and heavy metal in the 1980s, but soon shifted towards rap and hip hop in the early 1990s. Whether intended or not, the effects of this shift along racial lines were and are real in their perceptions. Until today it is true that negative public perceptions associated with rap music are informed by media reports that demonize and, at times, literally criminalize rap and its culture (Kubrin & Nielson, 2014; Schneider, 2011), even when research has shown that participation in music can be a way out of a life of crime (Parker, Marturano, O’Connor, & Meek, 2018). With race a pervasive part of the American cultural condition, it would have caused more surprise had race not been a factor in the debate.

The moral panic discourse on popular music that began in the mid 1980s involved a multitude of controversies, community efforts, legal commentaries, police actions, and academic speculations, which now, some three decades later, are difficult to understand in their intensity and the passionate manner with which the issue was once approached. The emergence of an intense social problem, argued to relate to the very foundations of society, followed by its relatively rapid disappearance from public discourse is a characteristic that typically marks moral panics. The discussions will come and go, though things will not be the same as before. Since its introduction in 1985, music labeling has remained a fact of popular music today. And although its effects remain uncertain, the issue now arouses little if any debate. Much like once was the case for such problems as the menace of margarine (Ball & Lilly, 1982) or madness-inducing reefer (Stringer & Maggard, 2016), most all of popular music in today’s internet age has normalized, even when its control has remained intact. Music labeling is now accepted as normal as well.

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See also: Doing Gender in Heavy Metal: Perceptions on Women in a Hypermasculine Subculture (co-authored with Anna S. Rogers). Published by Anthem Press in paperback, eBook, and hardback.

See related writings on popular culture. moral panic music censorship PMRC