What Does Explicit Content Mean In Music?

You may have noticed how some music has been marked “explicit,” and the reasons are even obvious.

But the standard can seem nebulous at times, with relatively innocuous-sounding music being marked “explicit,” and far more suggestive music not being marked explicit at times.

So, what does explicit content mean in music? When is music considered explicit? We’re here to answer all your questions.

Explicit Content Meaning – Quick Answer

Explicit content in music refers to any music or accompanying artwork containing some or all of the following:

  • Curse words or offensive language.
  • Artwork that’s sexual, violent, or offensive.

According to these rules, if one track on an album is considered “explicit” in nature, the entire album will be marked as explicit.

When artists or labels release music, it’s up to them to decide whether to mark their content as explicit, but if it is deemed explicit by a provider like Apple Music and hasn’t been marked as such, the release may be hidden from the public.

What Makes Music Explicit?

You’ve probably listened to the occasional song that used a couple of curse words but noticed that for some reason it was never marked explicit.

Or you may have seen album artwork that contained nudity but again, noticed that the release wasn’t marked explicit.

This may seem a little confusing. Shouldn’t all music containing certain lyrics or imagery be considered explicit? Well, the logic is this:

For a song or album to be considered explicit, it must be overtly so. Its message must be direct. It cannot be implied or assumed.

As you’ve probably noticed, lyrics are often poetic and there are times when a song is more metaphorical than literal. Music that falls under this category may not be marked explicit.

Additionally, album artwork containing nudity isn’t offensive in itself – it must be sexual. Though, to be fair, some artwork was censored retroactively (The Black Crowes’ Amorica, Blind Faith’s Blind Faith, Chumbawamba’s Anarchy, among many others) for less than innocent reasons.

Also, over the years, our cultural definition of what’s offensive has loosened considerably, making the occasional use of terms like “s**t” mostly irrelevant to the average listener.

Of course, culture is a paradoxical thing, because while we have become less uptight in some ways, we have also become more sensitive in other ways (which has made many older songs offensive by today’s standards).

There are still conservative listening audiences who would be offended and choose not to listen to music containing offensive language in any capacity, however.

Examples Of Explicit Content In Music

As noted earlier, songs or albums are marked “explicit” for different reasons, and the following three songs illustrate the point. So, let’s take a look.

“Paint the Town Red” by Doja Cat

A recent Top 40 hit by the unmistakable Doja Cat, “Paint the Town Red” is marked with an “E” on Spotify.

Not that any Doja Cat song requires much by way of commentary to illuminate why it’s controversial, but no doubt here are some of the reasons “Paint the Town Red” had to be marked explicit:

  • The repeated use of the term “b***h,” as well as terms like “d**k” and “s**t.”
  • References to violent sex.
  • Repeated references to devils and being a demon lord.

Sometimes I think Doja Cat likes being controversial and shocking for the sake of it. But everyone’s career has to be built on something.

“Jaded” by Miley Cyrus

From her clean-cut Disney days to her scandalous twerking in front of millions days, as soon as she cut ties with adolescence, Miley Cyrus basically embraced controversy.

One of her recent hits, “Jaded,” features a laid-back retro vibe and very played-out lyrics (how many songs are there about being jaded?). Why is it marked explicit, though?

Well, in this case, it would be for her use of the word “f**k,” but aside from that, the song is a relatively tame breakup tune.

This is an example where the song is skirting the line between clean and explicit somewhat.

“Bongos” by Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion

If you’re not sure why a Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion track might be marked explicit, you obviously haven’t been paying attention to Top 40 music lately.

There’s no mystery as to why this song is considered explicit. Let’s just say the sexual content is way over the top.

Overall, “Bongos” is one of the more extreme examples of explicit content in recent music.

When Did Parental Advisory Stickers Come About?

Decades ago, music was considered a relatively free medium of expression. Think of the 60s bacchanalian culture. In those times, music was released on vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs, and other physical media.

But with the advent of the 80s, MTV, the growing popularity of rap, Madonna, and music touching on suicide, incest, and sensitive religious issues, parents began to think twice about letting their children listen to just anything.

After all, conservative crowds were already plenty scared of 70s heavy metal bands like KISS, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and others whom they deemed satanic (though they may seem innocent by today’s standards).

Outspoken groups, like the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), started putting a lot of pressure on the music industry to respond.

The industry’s response to parental demands was the Parental Advisory sticker, originally introduced by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 1987. This sticker let parents know that the album contained explicit material, so they could decide for themselves whether to let their children listen to it.

Of course, this didn’t always protect impressionable minds from explicit content. Sometimes teens would get their older siblings to buy music for them, and sometimes they would get away with purchasing it themselves when their parents weren’t around.

The Parental Advisory sticker was an important step for the music industry, but we would be naïve to think it protected everyone from explicit content.

While considerably less popular than they used to be, many artists still sell CDs and other physical media, and if their releases are considered explicit, they will have the Parental Advisory sticker on them.

Of course, nowadays most listeners have moved over to streaming services, where albums and tracks are simply marked “E” if they are considered explicit.

What Are Some Of The Most Offensive Or Problematic Songs Of The 80s?

You may have seen my references to the rise of MTV and explicit content in the 80s and asked yourself, “What exactly was so offensive about the 80s?”

It’s important to remember that culture has changed considerably in the last four decades or so. So, songs that were originally accepted in their time may be perceived as unacceptable or problematic today.

That said, many would still consider the following some of the most offensive tracks of the 80s:

  • “Money For Nothing” by Dire Straits for its repeated use of the term fa***t. Dire Straits frontman, songwriter, and guitarist Mark Knopfler says he never intended this lyric to be homophobic. The term he used wasn’t a term of endearment, certainly, but you know how sometimes old friends greet each other by saying, “What’s up, you son of a b***h” and no ill will is intended? It’s kind of like that.
  • “Girls” by Beastie Boys because in the lyrics Ad-Rock assumes a girl is gay when she doesn’t like him back. There are also some incriminating sexist lyrics in the final chorus. The Beastie Boys amended their ways, however, and would later express their total respect and appreciation for women. It hasn’t stopped radio stations from keeping “Girls” in rotation though, and it’s just as cheesy today as it was upon its release.
  • “F*** Tha Police” by N.W.A. This one barely needs any explanation. The song, however, is ultimately a rallying cry against police brutality, a social issue that does require attention.

Much was changing with the music industry as well as television in the 80s, so it’s no surprise that both the industry and listening / viewing audiences would ultimately need to adapt.

How Is Explicit Content Marked On Streaming Services?

While it may differ from service to service, likely you’ll see that offending tracks are marked with a capital “E” for “Explicit” on popular streaming services.

On Spotify, parents can restrict their younger ones from listening to explicit content if they have a Family plan. Spotify Kids, by default, does not include any content marked “explicit.”

Like the Parental Advisory sticker, it’s not a perfect system, but it’s better to have than not.

Does Explicit Content Make Music Bad?

Parental advisory sticker

There are plenty of perspectives on this, and none of them are necessarily right or wrong. It mostly depends on your values and beliefs and what type of music you enjoy.

Here are a few different “camps” I’ve observed, though I have no doubt plenty of people move between differing opinions throughout their lives. So, I’m not here to suggest you belong to one camp or another, or because you do, you’re right or wrong. Just so we’re clear.

Those With A Religious Or Conservative Background

Traditionalists may not appreciate the use of certain words, especially if used repeatedly in the same song. References to sex, hate, violence, alcohol, drugs, crimes, excess, and related subjects may also be perceived as offensive by those with a religious or conservative background.

This is not a statement of judgment, however, as we respect anyone from any walk of faith. I grew up in a very conservative home myself. There’s no reason to actively listen to or watch anything you’re uncomfortable with.

The Intellectual / Critic

There were (and probably still are) those who say that anyone who has to use curse words to express themselves in music isn’t very articulate.

There may be some truth to that, but of course, there is a worthy counter, which is that the depth of some emotions, tragedies, and difficulties, simply can’t be expressed without the use of curse words.

There’s excess for the sake of excess, and then there’s getting a message across.

Floridian post-grunge band Creed patterned themselves after bands like Collective Soul and were quite open about their faith in the early going. Yet, they did drop an F-bomb in one of their songs, which remains more controversial than you might assume.

Teens In The 90s

Before the days of music streaming, when you still had to buy music, there were plenty of rebellious teenagers looking to get their hands on explicit music, and by their standards, the offensive material is what made the music “dangerous” and “awesome.”

While there are plenty of 90s songs that would be considered offensive by today’s standards – Sublime’s “Wrong Way,” Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” and Snoop Dogg’s “Ain’t No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None)” – I found most kids were turning to Rammstein, nu metal like Limp Bizkit or Kid Rock, and of course, rap, and called it “explicit” whether it was or not.

Anything “dangerous” will always hold a certain appeal to teens.

Overall

Explicit content doesn’t make music bad. It can sometimes make the music controversial, however. Even so, we seem to be moving into a new era where many so-called “taboos” no longer exist. Most if not all artists either know not to cross certain lines or know exactly what lines they’re crossing when they do.

Music will likely remain at the forefront of cultural evolution and personal expression. As such, it will always be pushing the envelope, just as the likes of Madonna, Marilyn Manson, and Lady Gaga have. That said, it’s worth asking – is there anything new under the sun that hasn’t already been done?

What Does Explicit Content Mean? Final Thoughts

And now you know how explicit content works. Remember that music is a very broad world, encompassing all cultures, belief systems, and people from every walk of life. As such, it should not come as a surprise that some music is harder to understand or doesn’t necessarily match your tastes.

Not all explicit music is necessarily aggressive or hateful. So, this is one of those instances where knowledge is certainly power.

P.S. Remember though, none of what you've learned will matter if you don't know how to get your music out there and earn from it. Want to learn how to do that? Then get our free ‘5 Steps To Profitable Youtube Music Career' ebook emailed directly to you!

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