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Written by Elizabeth R. Purdy, published on January 1, 2009 , last updated on February 18, 2024

Tipper Gore

Tipper Gore, former Second Lady of the United States (2009 photo, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson Gore (1948– ), known since childhood by her nickname “Tipper,” led a successful fight to have parental warning labels affixed to record albums that contained sexually explicit lyrics, portrayed excessive violence, or glorified drugs. She co-founded a group that campaigned to provide information about explicit material in music videos, television shows, and videos.


Critics say Gore’s campaigning for warning labels violated First Amendment rights


Critics saw Gore’s actions as overt violations of the free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment and mockingly referred to the labels as “Tipper Stickers.” Gore, wife of former vice president Al Gore, from whom she has been separated since 2010, said she supports the First Amendment and opposes censorship for adults. She explained her position in Raising PG Kids in An X-Rated Society (1987), insisting that the goal of record labeling was to provide parents and communities with information about what children were listening to and not to interfere with the creative process or with First Amendment rights of recording artists.


Gore founded the Parents Music Resource Center


Tipper Gore was born in Arlington, Virginia. She met Al Gore at a high school graduation dance and later followed him to Boston, where he attended Harvard University. She earned a BA in psychology at Boston College in 1970. The couple married that same year. She earned an MA in psychology from George Peabody College in 1975, while serving as a freelance photographer for the Nashville Tennessean. She shelved plans to be a child psychologist when her husband was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976. As a congressional wife, she became an active member of the Congressional Wives Task Force, which she chaired in 1978 and 1979, and which studied the effects of media violence on children.


Gore’s involvement in the task force led her, in 1985, to join with other prominent Washington wives to found the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Their chief target was explicit material that was accessible to children. Gore had become personally aware of the availability of “porn rock” when her eleven-year-old daughter, Karenna, bought Prince’s Purple Rain because she liked the song “Let’s Go Crazy.” When mother and daughter listened to another song on the album, “Darling Nikki,” which described a girl masturbating with a magazine in a hotel lobby, Gore was astounded. Her concerns were largely based on her background as a psychologist who was aware of children’s vulnerability to media influences.


Many viewed PMRC as another attack on liberalism and the First Amendment. Throughout the 1980s President Ronald Reagan’s administration had campaigned to rid the country of material classified as offensive. That effort led to attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts, public book burnings, and censorship of a wide range of tapes, CDs, and music videos. A plethora of task forces, conferences, and activities were launched to implement Reagan’s positions.


PMRC advocated for warning labels on explicit media


PMRC was instrumental in influencing the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to require warning labels on tapes and CDs containing explicit lyrics. (Explicit lyrics may refer to sexual activity, including deviant practices such as incest and rape, or to material that describes or encourages suicide, murder, illegal drug use, or alcohol abuse.) Artists ranging from hard rocker Frank Zappa to folk artist John Denver campaigned against the labels. In 1990 RIAA replaced the initial labels with stickers reading, “Parental Advisory—Explicit Lyrics.” Currently, about a third of all record companies employ the labeling system.


Recording artists were concerned that the labeling system would cause radio stations to refrain from playing their music and that stores would refuse to sell their material. Some artists released cleaned-up versions of albums simultaneously with those containing explicit lyrics. Some stores, including J. C. Penney, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Camelot, and Disc Jockey, opted not to sell labeled versions. A number of states passed legislation banning the sale of stickered material to anyone under the age of seventeen.


Gore was seen as a censor


Despite Gore’s repeated assurance that she wanted only to provide information about explicit lyrics and had no desire to ban albums, critics viewed her as a self-appointed censor. They criticized her and the PMRC for issuing the “Filthy Fifteen,” a list of artists whose works regularly included explicitly sexual or violent material. Artists on the list included AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Def Leppard, Sheena Easton, Judas Priest, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, the Mary Jane Girls, Merrcyful Fate, Motley Crue, Prince, Twisted Sister, Vanity, Venom, and W.A.S.P.


In response to the labeling system, Frank Zappa added a label to his own albums, assuring purchasers that listening to his music would not cause them to end up with the guy with the horns and pointed tail. In songs such as “Rapist (Tipper Gore Mix)” by the Flying Medallions and “PRMC Sucks” by the Gang Green, Gore and PMRC became the target of derogatory music by the very artists they sought to monitor.


Gore resigned from PRMC


When Al Gore was elected as Bill Clinton’s vice president in 1992 and 1996,Tipper Gore launched a campaign to promote the concerns of the mentally ill and was active in efforts to help the homeless and to improve education. She resigned from PMRC, which had lost its momentum as more strident groups took up the cause. During her husband’s presidential campaign in 2000, she moderated her stand on explicit material to keep from alienating the music industry.


Critics say labeling system is ineffective


Critics claim that the labeling system has been ineffective. It is left to individual record companies to determine which materials are labeled explicit, and the result is that labeling is chiefly confined to rock, rap, and hip hop. In 2001 the Federal Trade Commission reported that 90 percent of teenagers under seventeen who tried to buy a stickered CD were successful. Although the number had dropped to 83 percent by 2004, such easy access challenges the effectiveness of the system.


The ongoing technological explosion has also undermined the viability of music labeling. Many minors have unlimited access to explicit material through cable and satellite television, DVDs, videos, video games, the Internet, file sharing, iPods, and MP3 players.


This article was originally published in 2009. Elizabeth Purdy, Ph.D., is an independent scholar who has published articles on subjects ranging from political science and women’s studies to economics and popular culture.


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