AP National Writer
Until this summer, few people outside the R&B music scene knew who Robin Thicke was. Then came his new song "Blurred Lines" and an unrated online video to promote it.
"You the hottest b---- in this place!" Thicke sings, as topless models playfully dance around him.
The video has stirred a debate, with detractors complaining that it's too racy and degrading to women.
Thicke insists he meant no offense -- and the song, meanwhile, has become the No. 1 hit of the summer.
Certainly in pop culture, pushing the limits of what's considered appropriate is hardly new. Back in the roaring 1920s, young women of the "flapper" generation raised eyebrows. In the 1950s, Elvis gyrated and caused a ruckus.
In the 1970s, comedian George Carlin joked about "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," quickly listing them in a social commentary about the pitfalls of censorship.
Singling out those few words seems almost quaint in an era when just about any kind of uncensored content is easily accessible from a mobile phone, a tablet, or on less regulated cable and Internet TV or satellite radio. Media experts say broadcast TV and mainstream radio have, in turn, tried to keep up by airing saucier content to try to retain dwindling audiences. Many see this free flow of content as progress -- a victory for freedom of expression in an uptight society.
But for many parents, it also can be difficult to try to keep their kids from pop culture offerings they don't consider age appropriate.
Do they filter it as best they can? Laugh it off? Use it as a teachable moment? Demand more limits?
And if they do the latter, who gets to decide what those limits are, anyway -- since what's appropriate to one person might not be to another?
"It's a conundrum," says Kirsten Bischoff, a mom in Springfield, N.J., who's also co-founder of HatchedIt.com, an online social network for families
Bischoff recalls wincing during a car ride last year as her then 13-year-old daughter and a young friend belted out the song "Whistle" by rapper Flo Rida. The girls had no idea the song was about fellatio.
Mom decided to say nothing so they wouldn't ask questions. But she later fretted about her decision on her online blog, where other parents told her they'd faced similar dilemmas.
"Lord, I'm turning into Tipper Gore," Bischoff later joked, fearing people would compare her to the former second lady, who campaigned to get the music industry to put warning labels on content with explicit lyrics.
Gore got some support but became the object of ridicule and a few protest songs, including rapper Ice T's 1989 song "Freedom of Speech" in which he, too, used the b-word to refer to Gore and other profanities to make his point.
It's true that those who question any kind of content risk being called a prude, or a censor. That's partly because history has shown that efforts to curb allegedly "indecent" content can fail, or look misguided in hindsight, says Susan Mackey-Kallis, an associate professor of communication at Villanova University.
In 1930, Hollywood adopted the Motion Picture Production Code, a list of moral standards for the film industry.
Among other things, the code -- which was abandoned in the 1960s for the current rating system -- forbade showing interracial sexual relationships, scenes of childbirth, "in fact or in silhouette," or anything about sexual hygiene or sexually transmitted diseases. It also was implied that gay content should not be shown.
"Looking at a list like this today, it is amazing to think how far we have come," Mackey-Kallis says.
While religious or political figures have often weighed in with moral arguments, today a decision to limit content is as likely to be a business decision.
Credit card companies and the banks that oversee their transactions use web-crawling and other investigative techniques to search for questionable content. They do not, for instance, allow payments for goods or services that are related to any illegal sexual acts -- or that might even depict rape or exploitation of a minor. But beyond clearly illegal acts, they also reserve the right to steer clear of any content they feel reflects poorly on their brands.
Ultimately, however, it is the courts that determine what is obscene, a term reserved in the legal system for sexually explicit content that meets certain criteria.
The U.S. Supreme Court has based its definition of obscenity on "community standards" and these three factors: