Illustration by Thomas Fuchs
August 15, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Maybe Janet Jackson’s come-hither pose on the cover of ”All For You” was its own warning. But her latest album was released in April sans a ”Parental Advisory — Explicit Content” label, even though its sexually provocative songs typically contain heavy-breathing choruses like ”I just wanna kiss you, suck you, taste you, ride you, feel you, make you come, too.” Not even epithets like ”stupid bitch” and ”you greedy motherf—er” were deemed worthy of a parental shout-out.

Needless to say, there were some startled moms out there. The Wherehouse record chain affixed its own ”explicit content” stickers to Jackson’s shrink-wrap. ”We don’t think retailers should have to do that,” says RIAA president Hilary Rosen. ”That’s the label’s responsibility, and EMI [Virgin’s parent company] has assumed that responsibility.” In late July, Virgin began stickering Jackson’s by-then double-platinum album — evidence to Rosen that the system is ”self-correcting.”

Even so, the belated labeling points to what some see as hypocrisy in the parental advisory process. Nearly all hip-hop albums get stickers, but among more mainstream genres, it’s hard to find any standard. Rage Against the Machine’s Renegades featured rock versions of several profane rap songs but went unstickered — unlike those of the hip-hop acts being covered. Recent albums by Aerosmith, Nelly Furtado, the Dave Matthews Band, Macy Gray, Barenaked Ladies, and Jennifer Lopez all included the F-word, but no advisory. (In Lopez’s case, Epic has just reissued J.Lo in ”clean” [censored] and ”explicit” versions.) According to Rosen, cussing alone doesn’t merit a warning: ”There’s no one-f—, two-f—s test,” she says, alluding to the movie industry’s guidelines for what earns a PG-13 versus an R.

Sexual content is no clear barometer, either. Bob Waliszewski, who reviews albums for the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family, is incensed when teen fave Shaggy can sell 6 million unstickered copies of ”Hotshot,” in which he ”uses vivid sexual slang…and rejects a woman because she’s not a ‘Freaky Girl’ [who’s] into handcuffs, whips and chains,” among other offenses. Waliszewski says that ”for the gangstas and Korns of the world, stickers are a badge of pride,” but more middle-of-the-road acts still see them as stigmatizing — especially since Wal-Mart, which accounts for roughly 15 percent of U.S. album sales, won’t stock stickered product. The Focus exec, like Sen. Joseph Lieberman, wants a universally applied ratings system. ”How can Hilary Rosen oppose parents getting more information?” he asks.

Expanded ratings proposals draw a sigh from Rosen, fresh from another grilling before Lieberman’s entertainment-watchdog committee on Capitol Hill. ”It’s important not to have a ratings board-type system because you need that flexibility to make those decisions yourself,” she says, speaking for the record companies. Stickering judgments ”do take into account the expectations of both the audience and artist. The same themes will be in opera that are in hip-hop, but no one expects opera to be labeled.”

Who makes that decision? ”I think most companies have a centralized system,” Rosen says. But when EW contacted the major labels to confirm that, almost all refused to comment (”There is no upside to talking about warning labels,” grumbled one PR chief) or would speak only off the record. ”There’s no committee,” says one exec. ”It’s ad hoc, and often a business decision.”

Tom Corson, J Records’ marketing chief, is one exec who owns up to the labeling buck stopping at his desk, saying he and his sales head ”use what retailers are telling us as a litmus test.” Subjectivity isn’t just a cop-out: ”Somebody saying a naughty word is a lot less objectionable than the intent of the lyrics, in certain cases…. As an industry, we may have missed a couple. But we generally try to err on the side of being responsible when we run into any sticky situation.” No pun intended.

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