In 1984, Tipper Gore, wife of then-senator Al Gore (they’ve since divorced) started one of the biggest freedom-removing campaigns in musical history – the attempt to take down any music that contained explicit lyrics, described violent actions and described anything that was related to sexual activity, drugs and alcohol – most notably of all, religious themes that had “the occult” issue.
Gore did some more “research” on the level of vulgarity in popular music – she watched MTV for a few hours and found more songs that troubled her, including Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” and Mötley Crüe’s “Looks That Kill.”
“The images frightened my children, they frightened me,” she said. “The graphic sex and the violence were too much for us to handle.”
Mrs Gore began conversations with friends – namely wives of prominent Washington businessmen and politicians – and decided to use her powers to take action. With council chairmen and realtor wives, Gore formed the Parents Music Resource Center, or PMRC, in 1985. PMRC’s stated goal was to increase parental cognizance of “the growing trend in music towards lyrics that are sexually explicit, excessively violent, or glorify the use of drugs and alcohol.”
The PMRC also came to the ridiculous conclusion that the increase in crime in the previous 30 years directly connected with the popularity of rock music. The statistics she used to back up her claims? Well since a decade or so after World War II – Rape cases reported was up 7% since 1955 and teenage suicide was up 300%.
In 1985, the PMRC referred a memo to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA, the music industry trade organization) and asked the multi-squillionaire corporation to stop releasing sexually explicit or violent recordings.
The letter read, “Perhaps by developing guidelines and/or a rating system, such as that of the movie industry.” And with her labeling policy proposition “Sexual content would be marked with an “X,” violent content would be marked with a “V,” drug and alcohol mentions got a “D/A,” and promotion of occult themes got an “O.”
The letter gained little response; it was signed by the wives of over 20 Washington politicians and businessmen and posted out to 62 record companies. All 62 of the recipients refused the proposition. “That’s not good enough”.
In 1985, using their influence (pretty much their powerful husbands), the PMRC won over the United States Senate and convinced them to hold hearings on the alarming content of popular music. The PMRC appeared, detailing their concerns about the harmful effects of sex, drugs and violence in music.
Numerous key musicians testified against the PMRC. John Denver said he was “strongly opposed to censorship of any kind,” partly because censors often misinterpret music, an issue Denver had run into previously. (In 1973, when the government was in the midst of an anti-drug crackdown, the FCC asked many radio stations the refrain from playing Denver’s song “Rocky Mountain High,” even though the song is really about enjoying nature and literally about being high on life and climbing mountains.)
Significantly, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister argued a similar point: Gore said his song “Under the Blade,” which Snider had written about an upcoming surgery, was about bondage and rape. “Mrs Gore was looking for sadomasochism and bondage, and she found it. Someone looking for surgical references would have found those as well.”
Musical legend Frank Zappa gave the most piercing commentary. “The proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes on the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years with the interpretational problems inherent in the proposal’s design.”
Zappa went so far as to suggest that the RIAA and Congress had made a deal: “The RIAA would agree to some meaningless, superficial labeling”. Really, this statement accused the RIAA of wishing to look good in the public eye. In return, Congress would pass a bill that the RIAA was strongly lobbying for: the Home Recording Act, which would outlaw copying music onto blank tapes as prior to all of this, the RIAA alleged unauthorized copying had cost billions in sales. Sound familiar at all?
Gore frequently guaranteed the Senate and the community that what she was trying to do was create responsibility, and let parents know what kind of music their kids were listening to. She stated “it definitely is not censorship”.
While the PMRC’s major goal was the labelling system (after they were told banning the music altogether was not going to be a reality) they brought up other demands.
They wanted to:
- establish a rating system for albums and concerts
- require song lyrics to be printed on ALL album covers (no, not in the booklet, on the actual cover for all to see)
- have albums with explicit cover art kept under store counters
- force record companies to terminate contracts with performers who either engaged in violent or sexually explicit behavior (onstage)
- pressure radio and television providers not to air objectionable artists
The points were plausible, but some were logically unrealistic and far-fetched – for instance it would be impossible to print an entire album’s worth of lyrics on the cover of a CD and this being the 80’s – a cassette or vinyl.
On November 1, 1985, before these hearings were even over, the RIAA bowed to the pressure of the PMRC. Ultimately the RIAA agreed to place stickers reading “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” on albums deemed offensive. Record companies would do so (and determine what albums get stickers) at their own discretion. Every disagreeable album would get the same sticker, not a specific label as Gore had proposed to begin with. The “Parental Advisory” sticker would have no legally binding effect on stores. It didn’t prevent stores from selling stickered albums to minors, nor did it require them to keep offensive albums behind the counter, unless they wanted to. Wal-Mart opted not to carry stickered albums at all (a policy that actually still stands to this day). Countries like New Zealand are also known for large retail chains with objection to the stickered albums with the claim that “the consumer’s responsibility is to have researched the purchase beforehand”
So did this work out in the PMRC’s favour? No, actually it had almost the opposite effect. Members of Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot, and Poison all suggest that their album sales went up after getting stickered. “The sticker almost guaranteed your record would be bought by rebellious kids,” said Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx. Dee Snider was in full support of the sticker claiming “kids are going to see this album cover, they suddenly know this is going to have references to fucking chicks, drinking booze and kicking ass! – of course they’re gonna’ buy it”
Historically, this is a laughable time in music – typically the RIAA got what they wanted (the enforcement of piracy laws against home recordings of copyrighted content) and the notification that music would be obscene and ‘too hot for TV’.
Nowadays to consider Twisted Sister or Mötley Crüe as an offensive band would be over the top with the top-ten charts easily allowing lyrics like “let me check your pipes, oh, you’re the healthy type. Well, here goes some egg whites. Now gimme that sweet, that nasty gushy stuff”