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Bad Facts Make Bad Law – Artistic Freedom vs. the PMRC

‘This is one senator that might be interested in legislation and/or regulation to some extent, recognising the problem with free right of expression,’ declared J. James Exon, U.S. Senator and former Governor of Nebraska, during a Senate Hearing on Washington’s Capitol Hill. The date was 19 September 1985 and the committee was called to order following growing concerns in the media and government over the lyrical content of modern pop and heavy metal songs, highlighted through the press by the newly-formed Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC).

‘I really believe that the suggestion made by the original panel, some kind of an arrangement for voluntarily policing this in the music industry, is the correct way to go,’ he continued in response to questions raised by acclaimed musician Frank Zappa, who was one of several artists invited to read statements in defence of artistic freedom. ‘So if it will help you out in your testimony, I might join Senator Hollings or others in some kind of legislation and/or regulation, unless the free enterprise system, both the producers and you as the performers, see fit to clean up your act.’

The 1980s were a dark time for creative freedom and consumers eager for something alternative to the mainstream. While horror fans in the UK faced the dreaded ‘video nasties’ controversy, in which graphic movies were confiscated by the police and filmmakers threatened with prosecution, the music industry in the United States faced a similar fate with the birth of the PMRC. Music with a sexual or violent content, which had become commonplace with the rise of heavy metal in the 1970s, had been deemed morally offensive and potentially dangerous to the minds of the young and thus many musicians were forced to justify their art.

Although metal would become the main target of the PMRC the catalyst for the subsequent controversy would be a song by pop artist Prince. Darling Nikki, taken from his 1984 hit album Purple Rain, opened with the lyrics ‘I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess you could say she was a sex fiend, I met her in a hotel lobby, masturbating with a magazine.’ Horrified by the music that her eleven-year old daughter Karenna had purchased Tipper Gore, wife of Senator Al Gore, saw the filth that MTV would show during the daytime to young, innocent viewers and grew concerned that the moral fabric of the country was under threat.

Gore herself had once dreamed of life as a successful musician but in a world far-removed from the excessive sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the 1980s. Born Mary Aitcheson, Gore had grown up in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s during the era of Beatlemania and Motown and while still a sophomore in high school formed an all-girl group called the Wildcats. ‘It was basically three guitars and drums and a girl who really sang well,’ she confessed to Entertainment Weekly in 1992. ‘We practiced at my house ’cause I had the drums and whenever we had to move them, we had to borrow one girl’s convertible and it would have to not be raining.’

To many it would seem somewhat ironic that a person who would come to advocate for censorship against artists that she considered amoral had once performed in a band whose limited set-list had consisted of covers of such artists as the Beatles and Bob Dylan, both of whom had courted their own fair share of controversy during the brief time that the Wildcats had existed. But Gore would not be the only concerned parent who would decide to take a stand against the corruptive influence of heavy metal and pop music.

‘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,’ Susan Baker, whose husband was the Treasury Secretary, told Newsweek. ‘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.’ Along with Gore, whose husband Al was the Senator for Tennessee, Baker formed the Parents Music Resource Center in May 1985 with the participation of two other influential wives, Sally Nevius and Pam Howar.

‘We do not advocate censorship,’ claimed Tipper Gore during a 1987 appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show to promote her recently released book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society. ‘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.’

Several months after first hearing Darling Nikki, Gore had organised a meeting at St. Columbia’s Church in Washington, D.C., in which she had expressed her thoughts on the new wave of shocking music. Amongst those present that day were Susan Baker and Sally Nevius, wife of the Washington City Council Chairman. The principal goal of the PMRC included shielding the public from offensive artwork and to introduce a rating system similar to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which would serve to educate the consumer as to how explicit the content may be.

‘The recording industry today agreed to place warning labels or print lyrics on album covers to aid parents who want to know if their children are buying songs with explicit references to sex or violence,’ revealed an article in a November 1985 issue of the Los Angeles Times. ‘The inscription will read ‘Explicit Lyrics – Parental Advisory.’ The record companies will decide what constitutes explicit. There are no guidelines.’ This method would be similar to the home video rating system that was introduced in the United Kingdom around the same time, with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) given the authority to rate each release in an effort to advise the public on which titles were suitable for family viewing.

The PMRC, in much the same way as the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had done with video nasties, published a list of offensive tracks that they dubbed the ‘filthy fifteen.’ These included songs of a sexual nature: Judas Priest‘s Eat Me Alive, W.A.S.P.‘s Animal (Fuck Like a Beast), AC/DC‘s Let Me Put My Love Into You and Cyndi Lauper’s She Bop, the latter of which would be another song allegedly about female masturbation. Other causes for concern were tracks that focused on violence (Mötley Crüe‘s Bastard and Twisted Sister‘s We’re Not Gonna Take It), occultism (Venom‘s Possessed) and drug abuse (Def Leppard‘s High ‘n’ Dry (Saturday Night) and Black Sabbath‘s Trashed).

‘Ironically, most of the heavy metal songs that they listed at the time were virtually unknown to the public,’ recalled radio personality Cerphe Colwell , who would be one of several who would address the Senate hearing. ‘Heavy metal as a music format hadn’t really blossomed. I truly believe to this day that one of the reasons that metal took off so much in the 1980s as a successful format is that the PMRC brought attention to what they thought was unacceptable and of course that made it very much in the spotlight.’

In September 1985 musicians were brought in to testify in front of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee regarding the actions of the PMRC and the concerns over sexual, violent and offensive content in modern music. Dee Snider, frontman of the shock rock glam metal group Twisted Sister, read from his statement, ‘I would like to tell the committee a little bit about myself. I am thirty-years-old. I am married. I have a three-year-old son. I was born and raised a Christian and I still adhere to those principles. Believe it or not, I do not smoke, I do not drink and I do not do drugs.

‘I do play in and write the songs for a rock ‘n’ roll band named Twisted Sister that is classified as heavy metal and I pride myself on writing songs that are consistent with my above-mentioned beliefs. Since I seem to be the only person addressing this committee today who has been a direct target of accusations from the presumably-responsible PMRC, I would like to use this occasion to speak on a more personal note and show just how unfair the whole concept of ‘lyrical interpretation’ and judgment can be and how many times this can amount to little more than character assassination.’

Twisted Sister had first emerged in 1982 with the release of their debut album Under the Blade but it would not be until their third album, which would arrive two years later, that the band would begin to gain exposure both through the rock press and MTV. In particular, the tracks We’re Not Gonna Take It and I Wanna Rock, both of which were accompanied by elaborate promo videos that incorporated an anti-authoritive subtext through the use of comic violence, brought the group to the attention of both rock fans and the PMRC. With Snider not only the frontman but also principal songwriter he would be the sole member of Twisted Sister who would address the committee.

‘Led by the caricature-like spouses of notable Democratic and Republican senators, it was hard to take these Stepford Wives seriously,’ explained Snider years later in an article written for the Huffington Post. ‘Yet their mission to clean up the music industry by putting ratings on rock records garnered huge media attention and created the illusion of an equal amount of public support. Far from being the ‘moral majority,’ this ‘bullying minority’ made a lot of noise. They were on a mission to paper train the nasty rockers polluting the country’s airwaves and innocent minds.’

Frank Zappa, whose music had not been targeted by the PMRC, also took to the stand at the hearing. ‘The PMRC 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. It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment Issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC’s demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.’

Over the course of his career Zappa had proved to be both a prolific and controversial artist, refusing to adhere to the expectations of the mainstream media. Initially emerging in the mid-1960s as a member of the Mothers of Invention, Zappa would release more than a hundred albums during the course of his lifetime, with further records issued posthumously following his death in 1993. Zappa had remained an advocate for artistic freedom and it would be this agenda that would result in his appearance in front of the committee.

Another group targeted by the PMRC but not represented at the committee were Mötley Crüe, whose third album Theatre of Pain had been released three months earlier. One of the most popular metal acts on the Los Angeles live circuit during the early 1980s, their elaborate and theatrical performances were matched only by their reputation for rock ‘n’ roll excess but it would be the lyrics to several of their songs, written by bassist Nikki Sixx, that would come under scrutiny. During the hearing several passages were read from their songs, most notably 1983’s Bastard (itself included on the ‘filthy fifteen’) and Too Young to Fall in Love.

‘We’re not religious in the sense of Devil worshippers or Christians or Catholics. We’re just a rock ‘n’ roll band,’ explained Sixx when asked during an interview in January 1984 about the lyrical content of their recently-released song Shout at the Devil. ‘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!’

Along with Zappa, another artist who would speak at the hearing was John Denver, best known for his 1972 classic Rocky Mountain High. ‘These hearings have been called to determine whether or not the government should intervene to enforce this practice. Mr. Chairman, this would approach censorship,’ he read in his statement. ‘The suppression of the people of a society begins in my mind with the censorship of the written or spoken word. It was so in Nazi Germany. It is so in many places today where those in power are afraid of the consequences of an informed and educated people.’

While the primary issue raised in the wake of the hearing was the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (‘the people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments’), two years later the PMRC released a half-hour video entitled Rising to the Challenge, which served to highlight the dangers to parents of the shocking lyrical and visual content explored by pop and metal musicians in the modern world.

‘I recognise that there are a lot of positive and helpful things being communicated in music,’ stated Robert DeMoss Jr., executive producer of the video, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. ‘Likewise, there are those who are very exploitive in their attempt to sell products and I think some of the social behaviour that’s the theme of a lot of their material, such as necrophilia or suicide, are something that most children are not given helpful insight on how to deal with. Not that every kid that hears a song like that’s gonna go out and kill themself or have sex with a dead person.’

Three decades later and Baker is still convinced that the actions taken by the PMRC were in the best interest of educating parents and protecting children. ‘Our goal in the beginning was just to alert people. 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 RIAA. So we were working with him and within a year they agreed that they would do something. One year afterward they really weren’t doing much of anything. When they were putting labels on things, they were real small and you couldn’t read them. We had a big-time meeting with him.’

Although it would only be Snider, Zappa and Denver who would attend the Senate Hearing to speak out against the actions of the PMRC, other rock stars would comment on the threat that government censorship would have on both free speech and rock ‘n’ roll. ‘There was this wonderful organisation that cropped up called the PMRC,’ explained W.A.S.P. frontman Blackie Lawless in 1988’s Videos…In the Raw. ‘It’s, in effect, an organisation which is now defunct as we speak. They’re an evil organisation in the sense that whenever you dictate to someone how they live their lives between now and twenty years ago things should be left to the individual as to what they think they should or should not listen to.’

Due to pressure from the PMRC on 1 November 1985 the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) stated that simple labels would be attached to albums and singles that featured objectionable material that read ‘Parental Advisory.’ As a reaction to the behaviour of both the PMRC and Tipper Gore many artists released songs that either spoofed or condemned the decisions made against musicians during the mid-1980s. One of the more famous was a sticker included on both parts of the 1991 Guns N’ Roses album Use Your Illusion which stated ‘This album contains language which some listeners may find objectionable. They can F?!* OFF and buy something from the New Age section.’

While he may have taken a stand against the PMRC, Snider has since confessed that he felt disillusioned by the lack of support that his contemporaries gave during the hearing. ‘Here I thought I was gonna lead the rock and roll army into battle and I was abandoned,’ he would admit to Loudwire in 2018. ‘Some of them actually went after me. I remember Ronnie Dio going after me and saying, ‘Who decided you were gonna speak for us?’ And I said, ‘The first thing I said was, ‘I can’t speak for my peers. I can only speak for myself.’ That was the opening line…They didn’t realise that this was censorship and it was significant and the importance of it.’

Talking with Rolling Stone in September 2015, exactly thirty years after the Senate hearing, Gore looked back on the impact that her organisation made in the mid-1980s and how its influence can still be felt today. ‘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. But I think this conversation between parents and kids is as relevant today as it was back in the ‘80s. 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.’

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