The rock star strolled into the courthouse like he didn’t have a care in the world. Cameras flashed and voices muttered in hushed tones as he was guided to his position, and as the thirty-year-old took his seat, all eyes were on him. With a Goldilocks mass of blonde hair, and a figure dressed head-to-toe in denim, he was no doubt quietly ridiculed as he awaited for the proceedings to begin. Pulling out a piece of paper from his back pocket, he unfolded it and laid out his speech before him on the desk. After being welcomed by John Danforth, the presiding authority figure, the long-haired musician greeted the room. ‘My name is Dee Snider,’ he announced. ‘I have been asked to come here to present my views on, ‘The subject of the content of certain sound recordings, and suggestions that certain recording packages be labelled to provide a warning to prospective purchases of sexually explicit, or other potentially offensive, content.’ Before I get into that, I would like to tell the committee a little bit about myself.’
David Snider was the product of an all-American household. Born in New York as the oldest of six children, Snider grew up in a loving, stable home. Like most children of the sixties, his first musical love was The Beatles. ‘I couldn’t be an actual Beatle, but I could be in my own rock band, and hopefully cause that same hysteria,’ he wrote in his memoir. ‘My road to becoming ‘a rich and famous rock ‘n’ roll star’ was long and arduous. The childish ideas I had on what it took, compounded by my natural procrastinating tendencies, didn’t have me actually sinking my teeth into the real process of becoming a star until I was fifteen or sixteen.’ The music of the seventies was far different from the decade that had preceded it. Both Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath sought a more aggressive blues sound that would come to form the basis of heavy metal, while the New York Dolls and the Ramones took the rock ‘n’ roll of the fifties and incorporated it into the growing punk scene of the East Coast. ‘We started Twisted Sister in New Jersey in 1972 as a direct response to the New York Dolls and David Bowie,’ explained guitarist Jay Jay French. Snider eventually joined the ranks as their enigmatic frontman, but it would take a decade before they released their debut album. By this point, MTV had started to dominate America.
Tipper Gore watched with sceptical curiosity. She had become the villain of the story, but not by design. She represented the fear of parents all across the nation of what a sleazy rock star such as this could inflict upon their children. He was hardly the boy next door, and to mothers such as this one, Dee Snider was the epitome of everything that was wrong with eighties America. He was rebellious, arrogant, and sang outrageous songs intended to shock and excite his teenage audience. She no doubt recalled her own adolescent shenanigans, but at least they unfolded with a modicum of restraint. Twisted Sister and their ilk had come to claim the children of America, and she would resist it with every fibre of her being. Both perceived the other as the enemy, and the courthouse where they now locked eyes would serve as their battleground.
Two years after the American colonies declared independence from British rule, a Bill of Rights were drafted in order to create a Constitution which would serve as the new law of the land. The First Amendment was intended to protect a citizen’s freedom to practice whichever religion they choose, and, more significantly, their freedom of speech. In essence, this gave an individual the right to express themselves in any way they desired, providing their words were not intended as an incitement of violence or lawlessness. ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,’ it dictated. The argument of censorship in the United States has long been the belief that an artist – whether it be an author, painter, filmmaker, or musician – is protected under the First Amendment to express themselves without fear of censorship or prosecution. One aspect of its clause, however, is that it must not be used to ‘distribute obscene material.’ And for Tipper Gore and her contemporaries, the likes of Twisted Sister were pure, unadulterated filth.
On a cool December afternoon Tipper Gore and her eleven-year-old daughter, Karenna, returned from a day of shopping, during which they had purchased an album they were both eager to hear. That summer it was impossible to escape the sound of Prince. His latest single, Let’s Go Crazy, had reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and Karenna was desperate to hear his best-selling album Purple Rain. Its accompanying motion picture had been described by the Hollywood Reporter as a ‘satisfying and climaxing crescendo,’ and by the end of the year America had become obsessed with Prince. The album opened with her favourite song, and the two quietly sat enjoying the upbeat melodies and sing-a-long choruses. But midway through the record something caught her mother’s attention. During one of the tracks he crooned, ‘I knew a girl named Nikki, guess you could say she was a sex fiend. I met her in a hotel lobby, masturbating with a magazine.’ Tipper Gore was horrified. How could such vulgarity be expressed in a pop song? ‘Millions of Americans were buying Purple Rain with no idea what to expect,’ she later wrote. ‘Thousands of parents were giving the album to their children, many even younger than my daughter.’
The seventies had glorified sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but with the introduction of music television, these songs of debauchery soon made their way into homes all across the country. Prince and Cyndi Lauper sang about masturbation, Mötley Crüe allegedly promoted violence, and W.A.S.P. declared that they ‘fuck like a beast.’ And as these artists appeared on magazine covers and MTV, parents were horrified by the sleaze that pop music now celebrated. ‘It started because one day my seven-year-old came in and started quoting some of Madonna’s lyrics to me, wanting to know what they meant,’ revealed Susan Baker, wife of the Treasury Secretary. ‘And I was shocked. I knew that you had to be concerned about movies and TV, but I didn’t have a clue that my seven-year-old would be exposed to inappropriate songs.’
If there is one side effect to advocating the policing of art it is that the more the public are denied a product, the more they demand it. And so in much the same way that the protests against ‘video nasties’ in the United Kingdom brought unintentional exposure to a succession of low-budget horror movies that otherwise would have been long-since forgotten, with each artist that Gore and Baker targeted they showered them with free publicity. And through the furore they created over immoral and dangerous pop music, the Parents Music Resource Centre was born. Ostensibly a pet project for the wives of government officials, the P.M.R.C. became a thorn in the side of pop and heavy metal throughout the eighties. ‘They start out with the premise that kids in America are too stupid to know what they’re listening to, and that’s really wrong,’ insisted shock rocker Alice Cooper. ‘They say bands are trying to manipulate teenage minds…but kids know they’ve been manipulated all their lives by lots of things; including teachers, the media, their own parents, and especially television.’ With the P.M.R.C., Tipper Gore, along with fellow ‘concerned parents’ Sally Nevius, Pam Howar, and Susan Baker, led the charge against the rock ‘n’ roll pornography that MTV was broadcasting into the family home.
Technology in the eighties was unprecedented. Much like with home video, cable television brought the consumer new opportunities, and if there is one tried and tested rule of commerce it is that sex most definitely sells. While MTV claimed they had strict guidelines on what the network would allow, sexual imagery had become commonplace. One of the more controversial was Hot for Teacher, a video produced in 1984 for glam metal legends Van Halen, in which the black-and-white existence of a socially-awkward teenager was punctuated by two attractive teachers clad in little more than bikinis. If there was one subject that was guaranteed to anger the moral majority, it was sexual attraction between a child and adult, but despite the video being referenced during the Senate hearing that would take place in September 1985, the focus of the P.M.R.C. was, ironically, less about what children could view and more what they heard, and so the content of lyrics became their primary concern.
‘The P.M.R.C.’s mission was to educate parents about ‘alarming trends’ in popular music,’ said Snider of his adversaries during his fight against censorship. ‘They claimed that rock music encouraged/glorified violence, drug use, suicide, criminal activity, etc., and sought the censoring and/or rating of music. I remember thinking, ‘Who would possibly listen to this inane prattling of Washington busybodies with way too much spare time on their hands?’ A lot of people did. This was the Reagan era, and ultra-conservatives were in control. That the P.M.R.C. and their coming witch trials – I mean Senate hearings – were predominantly Democratic initiatives speaks volumes about the political and societal mentality of the day. The same environment that had fostered the Decade of Decadence was now trying to put an end to it.’ Pop music, heavy metal, and the First Amendment were now on trial, and with the credo of the eighties being the breaking down of barriers, could America’s freedom of speech finally be challenged in a court of law?
In a quiet suburb in Washington D.C., a group of teenage girls gathered together in the lounge of a modest home to practice with their new band. The Wildcats were little more than a hobby, but each of them felt excited as they raced through renditions of Bob Dylan and Beatles hits. A year earlier, one of the girls was given a drumkit by her parents and began to frantically play along to Sandy Nelson records. And for a few days a week after school they gathered together to rehearse. The charts were littered with girl bands, with the likes of the Ronettes and the Shangri Las inspiring a generation of young women, but none of these groups played their own instruments. Having taken their name from her mother’s Buick Wildcat, Mary Aitcheson and her friends shared dreams of stardom. But what the fifteen-year-old would not know was that twenty years from now she would become the enemy of pop music, an advocate for decency and integrity in an era of sex, drugs, and MTV. Aitcheson’s dreams of fame and fortune would not last long, and she would instead come to find them in the world of politics.
Six years later, Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson would tie the knot at the National Cathedral in Washington. She met her future husband, Al, at the high school graduation dance. The son of an infamous Senator, Al Gore Jr. planned to follow in his father’s footsteps, and despite his aspirations Aitcheson knew almost immediately that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. The world they graduated from in the mid-sixties was fraught with tension and a need for change. Protests over the Vietnam War and Civil Rights dominated every campus, and while Gore was groomed for the government at the prestigious Harvard, Aitcheson enrolled at the University of Boston. Although her parents had christened her Mary, her mother’s love for an old Spanish ballad called Tippy Tippy Tin resulted in her family and friends calling her Tipper. Her fiancé believed that the United States should not be fighting in Vietnam, a war that had erupted following the Communist-controlled North Vietnam’s invasion of their southern counterpart, but realising that the draft was inevitable, he reluctantly enlisted in the United States Army.
Private Al Gore served his time as his father fought a bitter election, and when he returned home from Vietnam he tied the knot with Aitcheson. The two wed on 19 May, 1970, and she would be forever known as Tipper Gore. ‘I was so happy. I could have danced all night,’ she later recalled. Her husband was honourably discharged from the military the following year, and the newlyweds relocated close to his family’s home in Carthage, Tennessee. They would move to Nashville soon afterwards when Al decided to return to higher education, while moonlighting in the evening as a journalist to make ends meet. On 6 August, 1973, three years after their wedding, Tipper gave birth to their first child, Karenna. By this point, she had begun to cultivate a passion for photography. ‘I was feeling the need to do something for myself in addition to staying at home with our baby,’ she detailed in Picture This: A Visual Diary. ‘Al had given me my first real camera – a 35mm Yashica – and he and Nancy Rhoda, a good friend and professional photographer, both encouraged me to take a course in photography. I commuted one-hundred miles round trip to take a class with Jack Corn, the photo editor at the Tennessean, and learned everything from the principles of photojournalism to printing and processing pictures.’
The world of journalism proved fascinating for Al as he was hired to investigate cases of corruption. ‘For months he had picked up rumours about bribery in zoning cases coming before the Metro Council. A practice called ‘councilmanic privilege’ gave members virtual veto power over applications to rezone land in their district,’ explained biographer Bill Turque. ‘Gore kept hearing of property owners and developers shaken down for cash, to having their zoning cases placed on the council’s legislative calendar. He spend several weeks buried in public records, and one day in late 1973 he marched into [editor John] Seigenthaler’s office with a forbidding armful of documents, ready to lay out his theory.’ But as his wife earned her master’s degree, Al finally decided to enter the world of politics by succeeding a local congressman and thus joining the House of Representatives. He had resisted walking the same path as his father, but he could resist no longer. ‘It just came home to me that if I was ever going to do it, now was the time,’ he admitted.
The news came as a shock to his wife, and at the behest of the Tennessean, she took a leave of absence from her photography duties and devoted herself to his campaign. With his bid for the election a resounding success, Al and Tipper Gore moved once again, this time back home to Washington D.C. Almost four years after the birth of their daughter, they welcomed their second child, Kristin, into the world. By the end of the seventies, Al Gore had gained a reputation as a relentless-yet-dignified politician, and his protests against the Vietnam War would influence his later campaigns. ‘As a Congressman, Mr. Gore made it his business to become an authority on arms control; friends say the threat of nuclear war was the single most important issue propelling him into the Presidential race,’ wrote the New York Times in 1988. ‘And yet he has positioned himself in campaign debates as an apostle of strong defence and military activism abroad, accusing his rivals of practicing ‘the politics of retreat, complacency, and doubt.’ Even in the area of generational appeal, Senator Gore seems able to encompass conflicting constituencies without straining the loyalties of either his contemporaries or their elders.’
As the eighties began, Gore would bend his policies to appease right-wing voters. ‘During his initial Tennessee days, Gore appealed to his conservative home state by making critical statements about homosexuality,’ claimed CNN in 2000. ‘In 1981, Tennessee’s Manchester Times quoted him saying, ‘I think it is wrong,’ and then adding, ‘I don’t pretend to understand it, but it is not just another normal optional life style.’ In 1984, he said, according to the Nashville Tennessean, ‘I do not believe it is simply an acceptable alternative that society should affirm.’ Gore also said then that he opposed the Gay Bill of Rights, and that he would not take campaign funds from gay groups. Such opinions sound shocking given how strongly Gore backs gay rights now, and how supportive homosexual organisations are of him. Informed of Gore’s early comments, Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay-rights lobby, fully backed the Gore of today. ‘I have to put comments made in the seventies and eighties in perspective,’ she said.’
Towards the end of his tenure with the House of Representatives, rumours began to circulate that Al Gore had set his sights on the White House. While he would ascend to the role of United States Senator in January 1985, he already had aspirations of becoming a Democratic nominee to succeed Ronald Reagan as Commander-in-Chief at the next election. ‘Gore is the first baby-boom Presidential candidate,’ said Time in a 1988 article. ‘As yet, he is not drumming up any generational excitement. His campaign could have been the first with a Big Chill soundtrack, yet Gore somehow seems to be outside his own generation. He does not want to seem youthful, and at that he succeeds. He comes across instead as a young fogey. He is what grandparents call a nice young man; Al Gore is not so much a good ole boy, as just a good boy.’
It had almost been ten years since Al Gore decided to dedicate his life to politics, and in that decade Tipper had been relegated to the role of dutiful wife. Her dreams of playing drums with the Wildcats now seemed like a distant memory, a foolish fantasy of a teenage girl. ‘I mean, was there ever an all-girl group from the sixties that made it?’ she later asked. By the mid-eighties, her own ambitions seemed to have been cast aside in favour of her husband’s political destiny. But when she was exposed to the lyrics to Darling Nikki from the latest Prince album, her eyes were opened to the filth that was being sold to the children of America, and now she finally had a new purpose. ‘Gore recalls she got mad when she tried to return Prince’s Purple Rain to the store where she bought it,’ claimed NPR. ‘The retailer wouldn’t take the record back because it had been opened and played. Gore says she surveyed the music landscape and found everything from ‘bubblegum’ pop to heavy metal, to songs about violence against women, and killing police officers.’
Located on the corner of North 1st Avenue and North 7th Street in the central district of Minneapolis stood a large dark building known as First Avenue. Behind its imposing doors, patrons crossed the smoke-filled hall towards the stage in anticipation for the act that is about to emerge from the darkness. Enthusiastic cheers filled the air as a slender, unimposing figure stepped out and took its place centre-stage, as its accomplices collected their instruments and waited for their cue. What none of those present were aware that Wednesday evening was that they were witnessing history in the making. A morose church organ rang out across the venue as the diminutive man took hold of the microphone, and suddenly announced his arrival to the room. ‘Dearly beloved,’ echoed his voice through the night. ‘We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.’ Joyous screams filled the air. The atmosphere was palpable, something significant was about to take place. Everyone could feel it. ‘In this life, you’re on your own!’ The club erupted with flashing lights as Prince Rogers Nelson strutted across the stage with guitar in-hand, and over the next eighty minutes the drunken crowd of this Minnesota bar would be the first to hear a selection of songs that would soon become staples of radio stations around the world, culminating with his fifteen-minute epic Purple Rain. By the time the encore came to an end, a new star was born.
‘My dreams have changed,’ Prince once told The Face. ‘I don’t have nightmares. Demons to me are when you can’t figure something out, and then you run to vice to sort yourself out: recording too much, women, a glass of wine, because you’re looking for love.’ Considered by many to be the personification of raw sexuality, Prince first courted stardom in the early eighties with the Platinum-selling album 1999, and as MTV remained steadfast to their unofficial ruling against the inclusion of African-American artists, it would be Prince, side-by-side with Michael Jackson, who would burst this bubble. ‘Michael Jackson and I both came out at a time when there was nothing,’ he told the Guardian. ‘MTV didn’t have anyone who was visual. Bowie, maybe. A lot of people make great records, but dressed like they were going to the supermarket.’ But arguably more than any other artist, Prince was flamboyant, sexual, and yet something of an enigma.
Much like his closest contemporaries, Michael Jackson and Madonna, Prince was single-minded in focus and unwilling to allow his vision to be compromised by outside influence. As a result, his music videos, as with his motion pictures, were the product of his own imagination. ‘I produced most of Prince’s video between 1980 and 1990,’ said Simon Fields, whose other collaborations included Rod Stewart and Bryan Adams. ‘He hardly talked to me for the first year; he was very shy. Then he grew to trust me. Which sometimes meant having to fire directors before they’d even started. We’d fly in a director and Prince would whisper in my ear, ‘Get rid of him.’ So I would, and Prince would direct the video himself. I hired Larry Williams to direct When Doves Cry. Before the first shot, Prince said to me, ‘He doesn’t have to be here.’ So I gave Larry some magazines, and he sat outside and did some reading.’
Prince would demonstrate dedication to his art throughout the eighties with such musical projects as The Revolution, The Family, Madhouse, and The Time. ‘Prince is a good writer and entertainer, but he’s not as cool as we are,’ laughed Morris Day, who would front the latter. 1999 had failed to chart upon its initial release, but Warner Bros. were convinced the song – and its parent album – were meant for a wider audience, and so allowed Prince a second chance in the hope of appealing to other demographics. ‘At the black level, if I can just get good rotation as a recurrent, it’s going to help us sell a lot of albums,’ insisted marketing vice president Russ Thyret. ‘We’ll be working all the stations that played it the first time to see if we can get them to play it again.’ As a result, 1999 broke the Top Twenty in the United States, while its follow-up, Little Red Corvette, climbed to number six. America were starting to take notice of Prince, but soon so would the world.
‘What people perceive as arrogance is…using what God gave me,’ declared Prince. Purple Rain would prove to be the watershed of his career, the moment Prince transformed from a popular artist into a legend. The album would boast two number one singles and two Top Ten hits, while the record would ultimately achieve Diamond status. Its accompanying motion picture, in which Prince portrayed a fictionalised version of himself, became a box office success. ‘I like the fact that in the film we were separate to his craziness, which we are,’ said Wendy Melvoin, who would form the pop duo Wendy & Lisa with bandmate Lisa Coleman. ‘But at the end of the film, where he plays our song, Purple Rain, we didn’t have that kind of glory in real life.’ In much the same way that Thriller had launched Michael Jackson into the stratosphere the previous year, 1984 would be the year of Purple Rain and Prince. ‘Everyone had to look like Prince and the Revolution,’ recalled Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, whose own group were forced to undergo a sexualised makeover in order to appeal to the MTV market.
Like many other stars, Prince was unprepared for the wave of criticism that followed mainstream success. ‘You have a few choices when you’re in that position,’ he said. ‘You can get all jacked-up on yourself and curse everybody, or you can say this is the way life is, and try to enjoy it. I’m still learning that lesson. I think I’ll always be learning that lesson.’ The phenomenal success of Purple Rain would be something of a double-edged sword, as Prince struggled to make the same impact a second time. His follow-up, Around the World in a Day, left critics underwhelmed, while Parade and its big-screen counterpart, Under the Cheery Moon, failed to strike the same note with the public. ‘No doubt he will take more false steps – there can be no experimentation without them,’ explained the New York Times. ‘Sometimes, like Stevie Wonder, he’ll put out second-rate music, and sometimes he’ll seem sentimental and dopey. But as a source of vernacular musical invention and deserving pop hits, he’s as good as we have.’
In 1987, Prince defied all expectations once again by creating what many considered his masterpiece, a multi-genre double-album called Sign o’ the Times. But the sexual content of his music continued to anger concerned parents. ‘Well, there are many topics to explore, but everything is sex anyway,’ he told Rolling Stone. ‘If you go back to the beginning, it’s about union and interaction. Again, a word like ‘sex,’ how many different ways has it been misused, right? It’s almost hard to sing now, you can’t even sing a word like that and make it sound like anything…that you want it to be. But I can take you out there and hit this guitar for you, and then what you’ll hear is sex.’
The notoriety that Prince would receive with Darling Nikki, and its association to the P.M.R.C., would cement his reputation as a purveyor of sexual expression. ‘Responsible parents object to the notion that their children should be introduced to the subjects of masturbation, intercourse, or sexual sadism by singers like Prince and Sheena Easton, or groups like Mötley Crüe and W.A.S.P.,’ claimed Tipper Gore. ‘It is a quantum leap from the Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand to Prince singing, ‘If you get tired of masturbating…If you like, I’ll jack you off.’ It’s a long way from the Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together, which drew protests in its day, to Sheena Easton’s Sugar Walls: ‘You can’t fight passion when passion is hot. Temperatures rise inside my sugar walls.’ When Elvis sang Little Sister about his attraction to his girlfriend’s younger sister, Prince now sings Sister: ‘My sister never made love to anyone else but me…Incest is everything it’s said to be.’ Even the most tolerant and liberal among us are tested by these developments in the public domain. Attitudes towards sexuality are a matter of private and individual taste.’
While many outside of the media circus that the P.M.R.C. created felt that the hysteria was ridiculous, there were two incidents during this time that would cause the parents of America to feel that modern music, particularly heavy metal, proved a very real threat to their children. On the afternoon of Sunday, 1 July, 1984, officers at the Northport Village Police Department in a small coastal community on Long Island, New York, responded to a phone call advising that a body had been found in the nearby woods. Almost two weeks earlier, a seventeen-year-old with a history of drug use and antisocial behaviour failed to return home, and as investigators began to retrace the teenager’s last steps, all evidence would lead them to a disturbed young man of the same age, one who had dropped out of high school, and had recently been institutionalised after his parents discovered his penchant for digging up corpses. Allegedly under the influence of angel dust, he had repeatedly stabbed the victim to death and carved out his eyes, but when the incident was exposed by the national media, the perpetrator claimed that the Devil had ordered him to commit the gruesome crime.
By the time that the suspect, Richard Kasso, took his own life while in police custody, it was revealed that the perpetual drug user was a fan of heavy metal, specifically the Australian rock group AC/DC, and once again rock ‘n’ roll was singled out by the press as public enemy number one. ‘In addition to the debate over drugs, the killing has also renewed discussion over the influence of so-called heavy metal rock groups whose music, garb, and publicity cultivate Satanic imagery,’ claimed the New York Times. ‘When arrested Thursday, Mr. Kasso was wearing a shirt bearing a devil’s picture and the logo of AC/DC, a popular heavy metal rock group with a Satanic image, whose rendition of Hells Bells on an album entitled Back in Black proclaims, ‘Satan’ll get ya!’ and, ‘You’re only young but you’re gonna die!” The death of Gary Lauwers at the hands of Kasso is not the only tragedy linked to AC/DC, as the following year, in the wake of a murder spree that gripped Los Angeles in terror, it was revealed that the man responsible, twenty-five-year-old Richard Ramirez, was also a fan of the group. But AC/DC were not the only rock band to come under fire for their negative influence on the youth of America.
On 23 December, 1985, in the Nevada city of Sparks, eighteen-year-old Raymond Belknap placed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, dying almost instantly. Moments later, James Vance, who was two years his senior, attempted to fulfil their suicide pact, but would survive, eventually passing away three years later after falling into a coma. ‘After Belknap killed himself, there was blood everywhere,’ recalled Vance. ‘I was going to shoot myself. It was like I had no control over it. I didn’t want to die. But I shot myself.’ Despite their drug use prior to the incident, the media’s attention would instead focus on their mutual love of Judas Priest, and the fact that the two friends had been listening to the metal group prior to the tragedy. This would soon reach the public’s attention when a subsequent legal trial claimed that one song, a reworking of Spook Tooth‘s Better by You, Better Than Me, had contained the subliminal message ‘do it,’ which had convinced the two youths to try to take their own lives.
‘Judas Priest, and CBS Records, the band’s record company, have denied using subliminal messages. Attorneys for the band have argued that the youths’ deaths were prompted by social and psychological problems, attributed to unstable family environments,’ reported the Los Angeles Times during the trial. ‘The suicide case brought against British stars Judas Priest ended last week with prosecution evidence rapidly turning into farce,’ declared Kerrang! in an August 1990 issue. ‘Lawyers for Judas Priest, and CBS Records, countered that the boys had been brought up in deprived and violent circumstances, had failed at school, and had been taking drugs and drinking on the day of the suicide pact.’ Yet while the case would eventually be dismissed in favour of the group, the stigma that had surrounded heavy metal fans since the incident would remain for years to come, and for teenagers during the eighties, this would often result in them being portrayed as devil worshippers. ‘These two boys were massive Priest fans,’ recalled frontman Rob Halford to Rolling Stone thirty years after the incident, ‘and that made it even more heart-wrenching that this terrible combination of the night, and the drugs, and the booze, and their state of mind, turned into something quite terrible.’
Following the controversy surrounding the P.M.R.C. and the suicide pact of two heavy metal fans, the rock ‘n’ roll scene came under fire for its corruptive influence. As a result, on 1 November, 1985, the Recording Industry Association of America announced that ‘Parental Advisory’ labels would be featured on the covers of albums with questionable content. ‘People had more fun in the old days,’ stated Alice Cooper, an artist who generated considerable notoriety early in his career. ‘There was no pressure on me and they realised it was only rock ‘n’ roll. The whole PMRC thing is about politics. It’s really not a moral issue. Tipper Gore’s husband is running for President, and was at the time she came out with the whole P.M.R.C. thing. It actually hurt him because there are too many people out there of voting age, thirty-to-forty, who are rock ‘n’ roll fans. They thought they were going to nail the teenagers. They forgot there are now people fifty-years-old, who listened to Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, and Alice Cooper. So they bit off something more than they could chew. If you live in the United States, the rules are that you can’t censor. That’s what we fought for, and what the whole country is about. If you start censoring, then it’s not a free country.’
The eighties represented the ultimate American dream. Wannabe stars would rise from the gutter, reach the heavens, and the come crashing down to earth when the sex and drugs overtook the rock ‘n’ roll. And nowhere was this more prevalent than the glam metal scene. In the wake of Mötley Crüe’s success at the beginning of the decade, a generation of fans were grabbing their guitars and lipstick and making their way to the nearest venue in search of stardom. It was a scene often dismissed as preposterous and vapid, but the fans could not get enough. ‘Hair metal isn’t a guilty pleasure or a joke,’ insisted LA Weekly. ‘It’s as indispensable a part of rock and roll history as proto-punk, sixties garage, or the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Those who laugh at it only show the world how ignorant they are about what makes for good rock and roll.’
During the late seventies, the Los Angeles club scene was dominated by the likes of Van Halen and Quiet Riot, with patrons filling the Roxy, Whisky a Go Go, and the Troubadour to catch their latest shows. When Van Halen were signed to Warner Bros., their rise to fame was more than enough to convince others to follow the rock ‘n’ roll dream. Their immediate successor had already gained a reputation for their hedonism and self-destruction. ‘When Mötley Crüe came on the scene, it was less as a band than as a gang,’ admitted frontman Vince Neil in the group’s memoir The Dirt. ‘We’d get drunk, do crazy amounts of cocaine, and walk the circuit in stiletto heels, stumbling all over the place. The Sunset Strip was a cesspool of depravity. Prostitutes in spandex and needle-thin heels walked up and down the streets, punks sat in clusters all over the sidewalk, and huge lines of new wavers wearing black, red, and white stood in block-long lines outside each club.’ But for those who made it, Hollywood was the land where dreams were made, and nightmares born.
The glam metal scene would arrive just in time for the Golden Age of MTV, and with their long hair, feminine visage, and outrageous theatrics, they were just what video directors were looking for. And those young musicians looking for a break had no reservations about whoring themselves to record executives. ‘Well, after Van Halen got signed, then all of a sudden you see these bands like Mötley Crüe and Poison, and geez, what’s the common thread between all these bands?’ Van Halen bassist told authors Richard Beinstock and Tom Beaujour. ‘All their singers had bleach-blonde hair, they all wanted to be David Lee Roth. But, you know, we did not wear make-up. And I don’t know where they got that part of it from. One of those bands probably started doing it, and then they all started.’
The role that make-up played in the so-called hair metal scene of the eighties had evolved from the glam rock of the seventies, with David Bowie lending an androgynous element to the music with his Ziggy Stardust persona. In the United States, Alice Cooper, the New York Dolls, and KISS had all utilised make-up in order to create unique appearances, while in England T.Rex led the glam rock revolution. Mötley Crüe’s earlier make-up had incorporated elements of cyberpunk, until the influence of Finland’s Hanoi Rocks prompted a feminine reinvention with their 1985 album Theatre of Pain. The following year, Poison arrived on the scene. While the home of hair metal was undoubtedly the streets of Los Angeles, groups from other corners of America soon found themselves spraying their hair and painting their lips. The most successful of these would be Bon Jovi, and it was the surprise success of You Give Love a Bad Name and Livin’ on a Prayer that launched them into the mainstream.
As glam metal began to infiltrate MTV, and in turn produced Platinum-selling albums, other artists were wager to capitalise on this new trend. Def Leppard first made a name for themselves as part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the early eighties, but through the influence of producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, they began to incorporate a commercial sound. ‘We always had this inner demon of pop wanting to come out,’ confessed vocalist Joe Elliott. But High ‘n’ Dry (Saturday Night), the title track to their 1981 sophomore album, would soon incur the wrath of Tipper Gore and the P.M.R.C.. ‘Focusing on the darker, violent side of life, this brand of music was first played in England some twenty years ago as a vehicle for countercultural rebellion,’ claimed Gore. ‘The music took on an even darker turn and explored subjects like devil worship and the occult, sadistic sex, murder, rape, and suicide.’ As a result, the P.M.R.C. decided to draft a list of offending titles they felt were morally irredeemable and branded them the ‘filthy fifteen.’ And much like with the video nasties witch-hint that was occurring simultaneously in Great Britain, the moral majority and artistic freedom declared war on one another.
Twenty-year old Madonna Ciccone stepped out of LaGuardia Airport in the New York borough of Queens in the summer of 1978 with stars in her eyes and $37 in her pocket. Born and raised in Michigan, Madonna had never been outside of her native state before she made her way to the hustle and bustle of Times Square. She had no master plan, but was convinced that fame and fortune awaited. Wandering along the sordid sidewalk of 42nd Street, she gripped tightly to her purse as she passed by the prostitutes and drug addicts that congregated outside the Cameo and Avon theatres. She had never felt so alone as she navigated her way through the decadent circus, her eyes darting from one porno house to the next as menacing faces attempted to lure her in. All her belongings lay in a suitcase she struggled to hold by her side, and as she wandered aimlessly amidst this sea of depravity, she tried to convince herself she had not made a mistake. Leaving behind the normalcy of family life, she had ventured to one of the most dangerous cities in the country in search of her destiny, but the streets were already awash with thousands of dreamers in search of their big break, so why should her story be any different?
The Rockefeller Centre stands proudly at the heart of Manhattan, just blocks from the Deuce she had once called home. The doors to the Radio City Music Hall open out to greet the more respected clientele of the neighbourhood, and on one September afternoon six years after her arrival in the city, Madonna was about to introduce herself to the world. As the lights of the auditorium slowly faded, all eyes turned to a giant cake that dominated the stage before them. A delicate figure emerged from the shadows, a young woman adorned in a wedding dress, and as she slowly stepped down the side of the cake she casually kicked off her shoes. Those present expected just another forgettable performance, something the day’s event had been littered with, but over the following three minutes the audience watched on in fascination as the bride crawled and gyrated her way across the stage. The reaction from both the press and public was a mixture of disgust and excitement, and in that moment she became a phenomenon.
For Madonna, the road to this moment, which heralded the MTV Video Music Awards as the event of the year, has been a painful journey. She had struggled through poverty, homelessness, and depression, but now all that suffering had culminated in triumph. Madonna was no longer some wannabe star drunk on her own delusions; overnight she had become a superstar. ‘I want to rule the world,’ she once declared. Seamlessly blending the swagger of Cher, the glamour of Debbie Harry, and the defiance of Stevie Nicks, Madonna would become a symbol of strength and success for young women in the eighties, her popularity rivalled only by Michael Jackson. And as MTV rose to become the dominant force of the decade, so too would Madonna.
While Michel Jackson was groomed as a star from a young age by a dominating father, Madonna was emblematic of the American dream: to arrive in the Big Apple with very little money, and yet through hard work and determination she would become rich and famous. But when she relocated to New York City in the late seventies, female pop stars were manufactured and denied the independence and artistic control that she demanded. Success would not come easily, and like every other young hopeful she worked hard to find her big break. ‘At one point, I was living in New York and eating out of garbage cans,’ she later revealed. Madonna would not wait for success to come to her, however, as she posed nude to pay the rent, took a role in a no-budget exploitation picture, and played drums in a local band; whatever it took for the world to notice her.
And when fame and fortune finally came for her, Madonna was ready. Almost overnight, she became a star. The eighties were littered with young, attractive celebrities, but not since Beatlemania in the sixties had an artist provoked such a reaction. With her debut album being certified multi-Platinum in less than a year, and its singles boasting three Top Twenty hits, she had created her own Madonnamania. ‘I’ve been working my ass off for seven years,’ she insisted in the mid-eighties. ‘I’ve worked for everything that I’ve got, and I worked long and hard so when I got it, I thought I deserved it. I always knew that it would happen.’ By the release of her third album, True Blue, in 1986, Madonna had already graced the covers of Rolling Stone, Penthouse, Time, Spin, and Playboy, and as the promos for Borderline and Like a Virgin received heavy rotation on MTV, it was impossible to escape her image.
The arrival of Madonna as cultural phenomenon took place on 14 September, 1984, when she performed at the first ever MTV Video Music Awards. Singing her new single in a wedding dress, Madonna peeled off her veil and threw her bouquet into the crowd before rolling provocatively for the cameras. ‘I’d come down the wedding cake and my shoe fell off. I was like, ‘Oh shit, I can’t dance in one shoe.’ I was like, ‘How am I gonna play this out?’’ she told DJ Howard Stern. ‘So I just dove for it on the ground, and when I dove for it my dress went up and my butt was showing. Everyone’s showing their butt now, but back then nobody saw anyone’s butt. I didn’t know my skirt was up. So I proceeded to sing the song laying down on the ground. I was just making the best of a situation, which is what I do…I’m hardwired to just keep going. After I got offstage during that performance, my manager was as white as a ghost, and he looked at me and said, ‘Do you know what you just did?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I sang a song and I lost my shoe onstage.’ And he’s like, ‘No, your butt was showing for the entire song. Your career’s over!’ I felt really bad, but I didn’t do it on purpose…I wasn’t that apologetic. I was like, ‘Fuck it, I made a mistake.’’
Despite the controversial appearance on MTV, and Susan Baker’s concerns over her questionable lyrics, it would not be Like a Virgin that fell foul of the P.M.R.C.’s filthy fifteen list. After work on the album was completed, she was presented with a song entitled Dress You Up. Composed by writing duo Andrea LaRusso and Peggy Stanziale, Madonna’s producer initially dismissed the track, but seduced by its lyrics Madonna finally overruled his decision. It would be these lyrics that would anger the P.M.R.C.. While far from her most offensive offering, the song offered vague sexual references such as, ‘Gonna dress you up in my love, all over your body.’ Dress You Up was less suggestive than Like a Virgin, or as successful as Crazy for You, but it was her most recent release, and therefore on MTV every hour of the day. But for Madonna, the P.M.R.C. was just one more moment of controversy in a career that has revelled in notoriety, and the criticisms of Gore and Baker were ignored by the young star.
Four years later, she raised the bar even further with the promo video for Like a Prayer, prompting accusations of blasphemy. A reaction to the guilt she felt from her Catholic upbringing, she wanted to delve deep into a taboo subject that was guarantee to anger the moral majority, and so turned her attention to racism. The religious symbolism contained in the video, which depicted an African-American man in the deep south wrongfully arrested for the attack of a Caucasian woman, angered many church leaders and critics. ‘I had my own ideas about God, and then I had the ideas that I thought were imposed on me. I believe in God, I believe that everything you do comes back to you,’ she declared. ‘The video was very…I think it had a very positive message. It was about overcoming racism, and overcoming the fear of telling the truth.’ The truth to Tipper Gore was that this new breed of pop stars, such as Madonna, Prince, and Cyndi Lauper, had become irresponsible in the way they glorified sin to their young fans, and as more government figures began to take notice of the P.M.R.C., a Senate hearing was called so that both the music and its artists could finally answer for their crimes.
Shortly before ten o’clock on the morning of Thursday, 19 September, 1985, Senators representing seventeen of the fifty states gathered together in the hearing room of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington D.C. to discuss the proposition of labelling potentially offensive records with warnings of explicit content. Al Gore took the Tennessee chair as he rallied in support of his wife’s pet cause, the Parents Music Resource Centre, which had brought to light the dangers that modern music imposed on its young listeners. John Danforth, in his ninth year as the Senator for Missouri, acted as the chairman for today’s discussions, and members of both the P.M.R.C. and music industry would present their cases for the court, both in favour of, and against, censorship. Danforth would give his opening statement to the room, before each side were allowed the opportunity to make their argument. It was a media affair, and each publication had already made its decision of which side of the debate their loyalties lay. As everyone took their seat and awaited their chairman to commence the hearing, Tipper Gore could never have guessed that her crusade would come this far.
What the P.M.R.C. had proposed was unprecedented in the history of the United States. They sought to challenge the First Amendment under the pretence that, in the case of modern pop and heavy metal music, artistic freedom could lead to dangerous influences being inflicted upon the children of America. ‘Our goal in the beginning was just to alert people,’ claimed Susan Baker. ‘We just said, ‘Well, we’ll start this group and see if we can get some labelling or some ratings. Kind of like movies.’ Within the ﬁrst ﬁve or six months, we talked to Stan Gortikov, head of the [Recording Industry Association of America]. So we were working with him, and within a year they agreed that they would do something. One year afterwards, they really weren’t doing much of anything.’
While Baker claimed no action was taken, behind the scenes the R.I.A.A. were trying to accommodate this new protest group without imposing its will on musical artists. ‘Within moments, Edwards O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasts, wrote letters to forty-five-hundred commercial radio stations, implying that if they broadcast songs with explicit lyrics, they would risk losing their licenses,’ wrote experimental musician Frank Zappa. ‘As this frenzy for self-mutilation developed, people within the record and broadcast industry debated amongst themselves as to what the most ‘prudent course of action’ might be – in other words, they were all in such a hurry to bend over for these harpies, that the only details left for them to decide were: When to bend over. How far to bend over. When we bend, do we spread?’
But the P.M.R.C. remained adamant that the music industry had refused to comply with them. ‘Pam Howar of the P.M.R.C. urged the industry to ‘create a uniform standard to be used to define what constitutes blatant, explicit lyric content,’’ explained Tipper Gore. ‘We thought the ideal solution would be a label (or some symbol) to advise the consumer about explicit lyrics in a particular album. Printed lyrics would also enable the consumer to make an informed decision appropriate for their child’s age. Since most albums would not concern parents, there had to be some way to flag those that might. As our critics were quick to note, some album covers are explicit enough themselves to show they are unsuitable for children. But many albums with inoffensive covers include explicit lyrics.’
On this summer evening on Capitol Hill, Senator John Danforth looked out across the court and greeted his guests, before providing a summary for the day’s events. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this hearing is on the subject of the content of some – and I want to underscore the word some, not all – rock music, which, it has been pointed out by a number of people, as having really broken new ground as to the content of music, and the lyrics that are used in music,’ he announced. ‘There have, I suppose, always been cases of songs that are suggestive in one way or another. However, certain rock music now being sold deals very explicitly with sexual subjects. Some music glorifies violence in various forms; sexual violence. Some music advocates the use of drugs, drug abuse, and so on. And so, the reason for this hearing is not to promote any legislation. Indeed, I do not know of any suggestions that any legislation be passed. But to simply provide a forum for airing the issue itself, for ventilating the issue, for bringing it out in the public domain.’
It was clear from the outset that each of the seventeen Senators shared the same opinion on the issue at hand as they presented their individual statements. Pop music, and by extension heavy metal, is undoubtedly influential on the young, and therefore the industry had a responsibility to their consumers. ‘More than two-thousand, three-hundred years ago, Plato recognised that music is a powerful force in our lives, that music forms character, and therefore plays an important part in determining social and political issues,’ claimed Virginia’s Senator Paul Trible, Jr. ‘Perhaps Daniel O’Connell, the eighteenth-century Irish nationalist, expressed it best when he said, ‘Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.’ Our culture powerfully affects individual character. When we are constantly confronted by that which is coarse, we become coarsed. Repeated exposure to song lyrics describing rape, incest, sexual violence, and perversion is like sandpaper to the soul.’
This statement would be followed by Al Gore. While many had applauded his stance on the issue, others criticised his role in challenging an artist’s right to express themselves freely, and a consumer’s right to enjoy such art. ‘Because my wife has been heavily involved in the evolution of this issue, I have gained quite a bit of familiarity with it, and I have really gained an education in what is involved,’ he told the room. ‘The two most important things I have learned which have changed my initial attitude to this whole concern are, number one; the proposals made by those concerned about this problem do not involve a government role of any kind whatsoever. They are not asking for any form of censorship, or regulation of speech, in any manner, shape, or form…The second thing I have learned over the past several months is that the kind of material in question is really very different from the kind of material which has caused similar controversies in past generations. It really is very different, and I think those who have not become familiar with this material will realise that fact when they see some of the examples that involve extremely popular groups that get an awful lot of play, some of the most popular groups around now.’
As Tipper Gore had indicated, the lyrical content of a song were not the only concern being discussed by the Senate that day, as explicit and suggestive artwork was also called into question. Senator Paula Hawkins, representing Florida, used her time at the Russell Senate Office Building to highlight a selection of album covers that she felt carried dangerous messages. These included Def Leppard’s Pyromania, which depicted an office building on fire, and Wendy O. Williams semi-naked in bondage attire on her debut record WOW. ‘The wealth of a nation is measured by its children,’ she insisted. ‘We decided as a Committee in the last eighteen months to hold a hearing discussing the role of the media in drug abuse, and prevention, and education. There we learned that by the fourth grade, children have already decided whether or not to take drugs. We asked the question, does the media behave responsibly in portraying values to our children? In the second hearing, on the issue of alcohol advertising in the broadcast media, we weight heavily the First Amendment considerations involved when the media portrayed bad behaviour, which many Americans find objectionable. Today, we are raising the question how far should society go to keep young children from being exposed to images and words which may run counter to parents’ values and beliefs.’
The artwork was presented before the court. The lurid photograph displayed a close-up of a crotch covered with a steel codpiece, and running between the legs a circular saw. Blood ran down the fingers that were situated at the waistband, and along the bottom of the image were the words Animal (Fuck Like a Beast). The respectable middle-aged audience watched on in horror as the picture was held up high for all to see, a prime example of what happens to popular music when it goes unchecked. The authors of this depravity, a heavy metal group from Los Angeles called W.A.S.P., had already gained a vile reputation for their habit of throwing raw meat into their audience, and so when the P.M.R.C. began to draft their filthy fifteen list, it was inevitable that these would have pride of place. Prince sang blatantly about sex, and Madonna flaunted it in her act, but W.A.S.P. took both to their extremes. What made matters worse was that they were signed to a major label, which meant their influence reached far and wide. While one could argue against the lyrical interpretation Gore and her associates had made against some of the selections, there was no ambiguity to a song such as Fuck Like a Beast.
W.A.S.P. are a theatrical horror show inspired by such extreme theatre as the Grand-Guignol, which depicted alleged acts of real-life barbarism onstage, that emerged from the Hollywood club scene of the early eighties. Despite their gruesome performances and shocking lyrics, they soon attracted the attention of several record labels, finally signing with Capitol in 1984. During the recording of their eponymous debut album, the band decided to release Animal as a single. ‘In that first album was what was later to be regarded as maybe the most controversial song we’ve ever done, called Animal,’ explained frontman Blackie Lawless in 1987. ‘Animal was a song that, because of its highly-controversial lyrical content, it was a song that people said would never get a lot of attention. We got a Gold disc for it.’
Although W.A.S.P. would not be as famous as Madonna or Prince, they were arguably the most outrageous act to be targeted by the P.M.R.C. ‘Blackie Lawless is anything but typical of rock musicians. Yet his disturbing message is a sign of the times. While Lawless and others like him may think they are merely entertaining impressionable youth with their shocking rituals, the country is witnessing more and more reports of youth violence and sexual assaults,’ insisted Gore. ‘Past performances have included the simulated attack and torture of a woman. Reportedly, in the act, lead singer Blackie Lawless wore between his legs a codpiece adorned with a circular saw blade. He pretended to beat a woman who was naked, except for a G-string and a black hood over her head, and as fake blood cascaded from under the hood, he seemed to attack her with the blade. As Adrianne Stone reports in the January 1985 edition of Hit Parader, ‘[W.A.S.P. are] the deranged demons who bind a loincloth-clad female onto a ‘rack,’ then ‘slit’ her neck until she shakes and convulse into oblivion. The cover of the W.A.S.P. twelve-inch single record Fuck Like a Beast shows a close-up of a man holding his bloody hand on his thighs, with a bloody circular saw protruding from his genital area. Although imported from England, this album was for sale in record stores throughout the U.S.’
During her own testimony, Susan Baker would also single out Animal, along with other pop and rock songs, as public enemies. ‘The material we are concerned about cannot be compared with Louie Louie, Cole Porter, Billie Holliday, et cetera,’ she claimed. ‘Cole Porter’s, ‘The birds do it, the bees do it,’ can hardly be compared with W.A.S.P., ‘I F-U-C-K Like a Beast.’ There is a new element of vulgarity and violence towards women that is unprecedented. While a few outrageous recordings have always existed in the past, the proliferation of songs glorifying rape, sadomasochism, incest, the occult, and suicide by a growing number of bands illustrates this escalating trend that is alarming. Some have suggested that the records in question are only a minute element in this music. However, these records are not few, and have sold millions of copies, like Prince’s Darling Nikki, about masturbation, sold over two-million copies. Judas Priest, the one about forced oral sex at gunpoint, has sold over two-million copies. Quiet Riot, Metal Health, has songs about explicit sex, over five-million copies. Mötley Crüe, Shout at the Devil, which contains violence and brutality to women, over two-million copies.’
The first artist presented on behalf of the music industry was Frank Zappa. One of the most prolific and unpredictable artists of the twentieth century, Zappa first emerged during the psychedelic sixties with his group The Mothers of Invention and their influential debut Freak Out!, before embarking on a solo career in 1967 with Lumpy Gravy. Refusing to conform to any specific scene or genre, Zappa was one of the most respected musicians of the seventies, collaborating with the likes of John Lennon and Captain Beefheart, before enjoying commercial success in Europe with 1979’s Bobby Brown. An indictment against misogyny and sexual repression, the controversial song boasted such passages as, ‘Let her do all the work, and maybe later I’ll rape her.’ The song managed to escape the attention of the P.M.R.C., and three years later he enjoyed a taste of the mainstream with his theme to teen comedy Valley Girl. ‘Mr. Zappa was a quintessential twentieth-century American composer, a maverick within popular music and an outsider among classical composers,’ acknowledged the New York Times following his passing in 1993. ‘His huge body of work – more than sixty albums since 1966 – embraces doo-wop, big-band suites, heavy metal, jazz-rock, blues rock, orchestral music, and every pop fad he decided to mock.’
While not the subject of the P.M.R.C., Zappa had volunteered to appear before the Senate in order to offer his defence on an artist’s right to free expression. With cropped hair and dressed in a suit fitting for the occasion, Zappa debated with several of the Senators regarding their proposal to police the music industry. ‘I testified before the Senate committee, along with John Denver and Dee Snider,’ he recalled in 1989. ‘One of the best lines of the afternoon came from Senator James Exon of Nebraska – not exactly a liberal guy – who asked, ‘I wonder, Mr. Chairman, if we’re not talking about federal regulation, and we’re not talking about federal legislation, what is the reason for these hearings?’ This received great applause, but was not carried by the network news. Exon also pointed out that these hearings were better attended by audience and media (thirty-five TV feeds, fifty still photographers) than any other legislative procedure he had been involved in, including hearings on the budget and Star Wars.’
Dismissed by Washington Senator Slade Gorton as ‘boorish’ and ‘insensitively insulting,’ Zappa was ready to state his case to the board. ‘The P.M.R.C. proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design,’ he declared. ‘It is my understanding that in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the P.M.R.C. demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation. No one has forced Mrs. Baker or Mrs. Gore to bring Prince or Sheena Easton into their homes. Thanks to the Constitution, they are free to buy other forms of music for their children. Apparently, they insist on purchasing the works of contemporary recording artists in order to support a personal illusion of aerobic sophistication. Ladies, please be advised: The $8.98 purchase price does not entitle you to a kiss on the foot from the composer or performer in exchange for a spin on the family Victrola. Taken as a whole, the complete list of P.M.R.C. demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of toilet training programme to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few. Ladies, how dare you?’
The inclusion of Sheena Easton on the list of filthy fifteen would be a curious addition as this would result in two compositions from Prince being targeted by the P.M.R.C. Having already scored a major hit in 1980 with 9 to 5 (Morning Train), during the recording of her fifth album, A Private Heaven, in 1984, the Scottish singer was introduced to Prince, then preparing for the release of Purple Rain. ‘It was such a great groove, even in the demo,’ she explained of her first impressions of Sugar Walls. ‘I was just focused on the music.’ On further listening, however, she uncovered the sexual connotation that was apparent from its chorus, in which she was to announce, ‘Come spend the night inside my sugar walls.’ Written under the pseudonym of Alexander Nevermind, Prince presented the song to Easton, who was only too eager to include it on her latest release. But its sexual metaphors would not be lost on the P.M.R.C.. ‘Times are changing, though, because recently Sheena Easton’s Sugar Walls, which is a fairly graphic song about female genital arousal, has been on the charts, and it is played ten-to-twelve times a day,’ claimed Baker. ‘That is one of our concerns, that this is becoming more and more mainstream, and we feel this is the time to talk about it.’
The second artist called forth to present their case to the Senate was country singer John Denver. Raised an army brat at Roswell in New Mexico, Henry Deutschendorf Jr. would embark on a professional musical career in the mid-sixties as a member of the Mitchell Trio, John Denver found success the following decade with his signature tune Rocky Mountain High. While an acclaimed musician, Denver would also be lauded for his humanitarian work and political activism, and so was eager to express his opinions to the Senate. One subject that he wished to address was that of lyrical interpretation. ‘I have had in my experience two encounters with this sort of censorship,’ he revealed to the room. ‘My song Rocky Mountain High was banned from many radio stations as a drug-related song. This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains, and also had never experienced the elation, celebration of life, or the joy in living that one feels when he observes something as wondrous as the Perseids meteor shower on a moonless, cloudless night, when there are so many stars that you have a shadow from the starlight, and you are out camping with your friends, your best friends, and introducing them to one of nature’s most spectacular light shows for the very first time. Obviously, a clear case of misinterpretation.’
The very fact that the P.M.R.C. were able to bring this debate before the Senate has often been questioned, as only a group with close political ties could accomplish such a feat in less than a year. ‘Five of the P.M.R.C.’s husbands sit on the Senate Commerce, Technology, and Transportation Committee, which hosted the highly publicised ‘porn rock’ hearing,’ noted Maximum Rocknroll the following year. ‘Pillow talk did these women well. The Committee had no pertinent legislation under consideration. In fact, none of the questions raised that day fall under the jurisdiction of that Committee. But as Senator John C. Danforth, the wealthiest member of the Senate, a P.M.R.C. husband and chairman of this Committee, noted, ‘The be-all and end-all of everything is not legislation.’ In his opening address, Danforth stated that the purpose of the hearing was to provide a forum so that the issue could be brought to the attention of the American public and, indeed, with the dozens of video cameraman and hundreds of reporters jockeying for a spot in the crowded galleries that day, this much was guaranteed.’
An all-American family sit around the dinner table enjoying a nice quiet meal until the father breaks the silence by demanding that one of his five sons pass the carrots. Tensions are high in the household as his wife sits uncomfortably at the far end, grimacing as she allows one of her children to be excused from the room. They continue to struggle through the awkward unspoken hostility until the sound of heavy metal starts blasting out from above. Angered by his son’s defiance, he charges up the stairs and bursts into a bedroom where he finds his rebellious offspring strumming his electric guitar while listening to I Wanna Rock by Twisted Sister. His father begins to chastise him for his rebellious ways, much to the amusement of his brothers who listen to the commotion from the dining room. Unable to contain his frustration any longer, the father begins to scream at his son for his insubordination, but when he demands, ‘What do you want to do with your life?,’ the teenager responds by declaring, ‘I wanna rock!’ He strums his guitar, sending his father hurtling out of the window and onto the lawn below. Then as if by magic, the boy is transformed into Dee Snider, a rock ‘n’ roll animal, and Twisted Sister’s latest anthem of teenage rebellion, We’re Not Gonna Take It, finally begins.
It was never meant to be taken seriously. With a father presented like a pantomime villain, and violence so slapstick it bordered on ridiculous, the music video had no aspirations of being viewed as a deep work of art. Instead, it pandered to the demands of MTV: make a video that was loud, obnoxious, and fun. ‘Atlantic Records had signed a Long Island band they didn’t know what to do with, Twisted Sister,’ recalled filmmaker Marty Callner, then best known for his work with Stevie Nicks and Laura Branigan. ‘They had a song, We’re Not Gonna Take It, and because of my comedy and music background, they seemed like the perfect hybrid for me. We’re Not Gonna Take It is based on the rebellious nature of Road Runner cartoons. I wrote the spoken-word part at the beginning. And we cast Mark Metcalf, who had just come from a hot movie, Animal House. We’re Not Gonna Take It was big, it was bright, it was colourful, it was funny, it was rock ‘n’ roll.’
With Frank Zappa and John Denver having spoken out on behalf of the music industry, the Senate then called forth the only guest who was on trial by the P.M.R.C. Among the many accusations levelled at Twisted Sister was that We’re Not Gonna Take It was an incitement of violence. ‘The P.M.R.C. has made public a list of fifteen songs of what they feel are some of the most blatant songs, lyrically. On this list is our song We’re Not Gonna Take It, upon which has been bestowed a V-rating, indicating violent lyrical content,’ Dee Snider told the Senate. ‘It is no secret that the videos often depict story-lines completely unrelated to the lyrics of the song they accompany. The video We’re Not Gonna Take It was simply meant to be a cartoon, with human actors playing variations on the Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote theme. Each stunt was selected from my extensive personal collection of cartoons. You will note when you watch the entire video that after each catastrophe our villain suffers through, in the next sequence he reappears unharmed by any previous attack, no worse for the wear. By the way, I am pleased to note that the United Way of America has been granted a request to use portions of our We’re Not Gonna Take It video in a programme they are producing on the subject of the changing American family. They asked for it because of its ‘light-hearted way of talking about communicating with teenagers.’ It is gratifying that an organisation as respected as the United Way of America appreciates where we are coming from.’
Several years before they were the target of a lawsuit over a double-suicide, Judas Priest found themselves on the P.M.R.C.’s list of filthy fifteen. Much like with W.A.S.P., the lyrics to Eat Me Alive were undoubtedly of a sexually-aggressive nature, and a passage from the song was recited before the Senate by a consultant for the P.M.R.C. called Jeff Ling. ‘I will be covering the themes of violence and sexuality. Bear in mind that what you are about to see and hear is a small sample of the abundant material available today. Today, the element of violent, brutal erotica, has exploded in rock music in an unprecedented way,’ he explained. ‘Judas Priest sings of violent rape in their song Eat Me Alive, from their Columbia Records-released Defenders of the Faith. ‘Squealing in passion as the rod of steel injects. Gut-wrenching frenzy that deranges every joint. I’m gonna force you at gun point to eat me alive.’’ While Madonna and Prince were mainstream artists, one can only wonder how members of the P.M.R.C. discovered songs such as this.
In his memoir Confess, Judas Priest‘s Rob Halford briefly discussed his band’s involvement with the P.M.R.C. and the organisation’s mission to label offensive albums with warning stickers. ‘The P.M.R.C. drew up a list of fifteen songs they found particularly disgusting – the filthy fifteen. It was, to say the least, eclectic,’ he wrote. ‘Categorised as ‘too sexual’ (is that possible?!) were Madonna’s Dress You Up, Cyndi Lauper’s She Bop, and the Mary Jane Girls’ In My House. I could see Prince was overtly sexual, but…Sheena Easton? Really? Unsurprisingly, heavy metal charted high on the filthy fifteen. Black Sabbath were there, of course, as were Twisted Sister, W.A.S.P., Def Leppard, AC/DC, Venom, Mötley Crüe, Mercyful Fate…and Judas Priest. It seemed that Eat Me Alive, the song I had written falling-down drunk and pissing myself laughing in Ibiza, had aroused their ire. Apparently, Tipper and the other Washington wives didn’t feel that violent blow-jobs, enforced at gunpoint, are a terribly good idea. They are quite right, of course, but…our song was a joke. The lyrics were on the level of a graphic comic. When we heard we were in the filthy fifteen, we didn’t know whether to be angry or to laugh. It was just ridiculous, and part of a political agenda that didn’t concern or interest us.’
As highlighted by Snider during his statement, lyrical interpretation is in the eye of the beholder and is not an accurate or fair manner in which to judge a piece of art. Much like a painting, what one person sees in the image can differ to everyone else, and so why should an artist be judged on another person’s interpretation of their work? ‘We’re not religious in the sense of Devil worshippers, or Christians, or Catholics. We’re just a rock ‘n’ roll band,’ explained Mötley Crüe songwriter Nikki Sixx, whose album Shout at the Devil was repeatedly referenced throughout the Senate hearing. ‘The Devil could be, to a sixteen-year-old girl, her mother; or to a twenty-one-year-old guy, his boss. We’re saying shout at whatever is holding you back from what you want to do, and the American dream for us, we’re street kids, and the dream for us was to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band, to be successful. We achieved it and we’re saying go for it!’
The Senate hearing would be both a victory and failure for the Parents Music Resource Centre. ‘The co-founders of the P.M.R.C. went into it thinking, ‘Well, why can’t we have a rating system like the movie industry?’’ revealed the organisation’s former executive director, Jennifer Devlin. ‘Once we started engaging with the industry, we began to see that the rating system for the [Motion Picture Association of America] would be too unwieldy, that there was too much product coming out, too many interpretation issues. ‘Is this sex? Violence?’ It would have created a bureaucratic nightmare. The compromise was that there would be a generic label that would cover any range of issues.’ In a 1992 article published by the Baltimore Sun, Devlin’s successor, Suzie Talaat, discussed the issue further. ‘There are a lot of misperceptions about the P.M.R.C.. That’s just the result of people’s negative perception of what we do,’ she claimed. ‘We’re presenting the whole spectrum of information, whether it be accepted by the right, or accepted by the left. We’re letting them take the information and make their own decision, and I think that what we’re doing is right in the format that we’re doing.’
The P.M.R.C. would succeed in their mission of convincing the music industry to adopt the ‘Parental Advisory’ label to warn consumers of explicit lyrical content, although this had already been subverted by Frank Zappa when a disclaimer on his box-set Thing-Fish announced, ‘In some socially-retarded areas, religious fanatics and ultra-conservative political organisations violate your First Amendment rights by attempting to censor rock ‘n’ roll albums. We feel that this is un-Constitutional and un-American.’ Elsewhere, in 1991 Guns N’ Roses included a sticker on their Use Your Illusion albums which said, ‘This album contains language which some listeners may find objectionable. They can F?!* off and buy something from the New Age section.’ This would, however, provide a small victory for Tipper Gore. The Parental Advisory sticker eventually came into effect in 1990, almost five years after the Senate hearing, and long after the P.M.R.C. ceased to be relevant. The music industry would once again fight back. ‘On 16 November, Priority Records will release Parental Advisory: Explicit Rap, compiling ten cuts by hardcore rappers Ice Cube, Ice-T, 2 Live Crew, N.W.A., Eazy-E, Geto Boys, Too Short, and M.C. Choice,’ revealed the Washington Post in October 1990. ‘A portion of the royalties will go to the Right to Rock Network/Rock and Roll Confidential, which battles censorship efforts aimed at rock, rap, and pop.’
But, Gore maintained, their goal was never to censor pop music or heavy metal. ‘We do not advocate censorship,’ claimed Tipper Gore during a 1987 appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. ‘I am talking about pervasive messages that are available to kids of any age that are explicit and violent, and parents have a right to know that. Parents in this country right now aren’t tuned in, they are not aware of what their kids are seeing on television and listening to, and they really need to so that they can nurture their child and protect their child. It’s education for parents, and we want to create mechanisms for choice in the marketplace, not censorship.’ She would reiterate this in her book Raising P.G. Kids in an X-Rated Society, published the same year. ‘Censorship is not the answer,’ she claimed. ‘In the long run, our only hope is for more information and awareness, so that citizens and communities can fight back against market exploitation, and find practical means for restoring individual choice and control. As parents and consumers, we have the right and the power to pressure the entertainment industry to respond to our needs.’
As Extreme once declared, there are three sides to every story; yours, mine, and the truth. So what was the truth regarding the P.M.R.C. and the Senate hearing that threatened to bring the music industry to its knees? To music fans it seemed inconsequential, but to those artists that created the music that was now under scrutiny, this violated their right to express themselves freely. And once music becomes corporate, it loses its soul and is merely reduced to a product. ‘Most rock fans were completely apathetic,’ recalled Dee Snider. ‘They didn’t understand what the big deal was. So what if there’s a warning on the records? It would help them know which records were cool! They didn’t understand that any infringement on our First Amendment rights could open the door to greater, future censorship.’ More than three decades have passed since the P.M.R.C. took on the music industry, and all these years later Tipper Gore still maintains the same stance she took in 1985. ‘In this era of social media and online access, it seems quaint to think that parents can have control over what their children see and hear,’ she told Rolling Stone in 2015. ‘But I think this conversation between parents and kids is as relevant today as it was back in the eighties. Music is a universal language that crosses generations, race, religion, sex, and more. Never has there been more need for communication and understanding on these issues as there is today.’