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The Rise of Explicit Music: A Statistical Analysis.
When did explicit songs emerge, and how to they differ from other music?
Intro: Tipper Gore and the Washington Wives
Before Tipper Gore, there was no "explicit music." Those unaware of Tipper Gore (or her political activity) may be surprised to learn that Al Gore's wife (Tipper) once launched a national campaign to curtail the distribution of obscene music. Why, you ask? Well, Tipper Gore made the mistake of listening to Prince's "Darling Nikki" in the company of her 11-year-old daughter. For those who haven't heard "Darling Nikki," the song details the musician's encounter with a so-called "sex fiend."
Tipper was so enraged that she and several other wives of politicians, known as the "Washington Wives," formed the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) to advocate for a music rating system that would inform parents about explicit content. After two months of congressional hearings, the PMRC and the music industry agreed on an "Explicit Lyrics: Parental Advisory" label for obscene albums. Thus, the concept of "explicit music" was codified.
Since then, and despite Tipper Gore's best efforts, explicit songs have become a mainstay in popular music. So today, we'll explore the rise of explicit music, the artists and genres most responsible for producing explicit works, and the musical composition of mature content.
The Rise of Explicit Songs in Popular Music
In August 1985, 19 prominent music labels agreed to use "Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics" tags to warn consumers of explicit lyrical content. It would be five years until mainstream records widely employed these stickers.
Since introducing advisory labels, music denoted as "explicit" has significantly expanded its cultural footprint, from ~0% of Billboard Hits in 1990 to almost 40% of songs in 2021. This rapid rise can be attributed to the increasing popularity of rap music and liberalized attitudes toward obscene language.
Examining the rising tide of explicit works, we also see a noteworthy uptick in profane Billboard songs in the mid-2010s, likely driven by the introduction of music streaming. Streaming platforms, such as Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube, allow artists to bypass traditional gatekeepers like record labels and enable younger consumers to circumvent censorship efforts from regulators and parents. The days of asking your parent's permission to buy a CD or vinyl are long gone.
Which Music is Explicit?
Unsurprisingly, a disproportionate share of explicit content could be characterized as rap music. Since 1990, rap music has accounted for 69% of explicit content on the Billboard charts. Meanwhile, non-explicit music is dominated by pop, rock, and country music.
And, also unsurprisingly, our list of the most prolific explicit content creators is composed entirely of rappers.
Looking at this list, you have to admire Drake's ability to craft mature content that appeals to mainstream tastes. He's like the Tom Brady of suggestive themes and swear words.
Sure, Drake and other rappers are the most abundant creators of risque music, but do their songs have the most significant cultural impact? Some of the biggest Billboard hits—explicit songs that graced number one on the charts—are pop songs with a single swear word or mildly suggestive lyrics that play to a broader audience.
While many pieces on this list could be considered rap songs, some of these works are decidedly not rap music, like James Blunt's "You're Beautiful," Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl," and Meaghan Trainor's "All About That Bass."
Personally, I remember "You're Beautiful" as the go-to slow dance song for our middle school dances. We (that is a gymnasium full of slow-dancing pre-teens) would brace for the random f-bomb in that song to see if the DJ somehow forgot to edit the track. And yet the DJ always remembered to use the edited version (thanks to Tipper).
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Music Composition: Explicit Songs vs. Non-Explicit Songs
At face value, an explicit song is characterized by profane themes and lyrics—though there is more to this content than a few swear words. Music, after all, is both an art form and a commodity. We consume a particular song because of how it makes us feel, or we hear it in a specific environment (like department stores or bars) and absorb it through osmosis.
So what typifies an explicit piece of music? Comparing explicit and non-explicit song characteristics, we find many dissimilarities between the two categories.
According to our data, explicit music scores higher on danceability. While mature content doesn't inherently lend itself to dancing, suggestive music often plays in dance-focused spaces catering to adult audiences. Genres like rap, hip-hop, and pop music often involve themes of nightlife, romance, or adult experiences—content that performs well in clubs and dance festivals. These same themes do not perform well in, say, shopping malls, convenience stores, bar mitzvahs, and elevators.
Our data also reveals explicit music to be less positive than non-explicit works. This evaluation isn't simply the product of a few curse words. Rather, artists often use explicit content to explore difficult subject matter or portray certain aspects of life realistically. Consider Ice Cube's "Today Was a Good Day," a song about a single day of peace and satisfaction in the rapper's otherwise chaotic life in South Central LA. Ice Cube's music very explicitly details the ever-present threat of violence, even while the protagonist enjoys a day free from brutality, drama, and struggle. Ice Cube's masterpiece is not an upbeat song (by any means), though it effectively portrays life in an underprivileged part of the United States.
Final Thoughts: The Forbidden Fruit Phenomenon
N.W.A's "Straight Outta Compton" was the first album to receive a "parental advisory" tag, primarily driven by the controversy surrounding the song "F**k the Police." Despite the label's initial intent, the warning sticker unintentionally functioned as a form of marketing, with kids seeking out the record to understand the fuss surrounding its content. Over time many have come to see the "Tipper sticker" as a failure, as the tag has allegedly fostered a forbidden fruit effect (people want what they can’t have).
Growing up, I remember the parents in my town were overly concerned with preventing their children from listening to Eminem. I had not heard of Eminem before a classmate complained of his CD being confiscated. So, like any curious kids, my friends and I procured an Eminem CD, explicit label and all. I remember the "explicit" sticker and the sense of danger that came with owning that album. My friends and I would secretly play the CD, giggling at swear words we knew we weren't supposed to hear.
To this day, Eminem's "The Eminem Show" remains one of my favorite albums. Sure, some songs are juvenile, but the music exposed me to a new art form (rap) and a different way of thinking—it was a wondrously formative experience for a sheltered suburbanite.
Younger audiences will always seek out prohibited content as they search for cultural artifacts that provide something different or controversial. Thankfully, Tipper Gore made this forbidden fruit easier to find.
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