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  5. 35 years ago the Senate held hearings on rock lyrics. It was a First Amendment showdown for the ages.

35 years ago the Senate held hearings on rock lyrics. It was a First Amendment showdown for the ages.

Anthony L. Fisher   

35 years ago the Senate held hearings on rock lyrics. It was a First Amendment showdown for the ages.
  • It's become known as the "PMRC Senate hearing," or the "Tipper Gore-Frank Zappa hearing," or the "rock-porn hearing."
  • It was September 19, 1985, smack dab in the middle of the Reagan era. Moral panics were the order of the day.
  • Sen. Al Gore's wife, Tipper, was upset that a Prince album she bought for her daughter had risque lyrics. She literally made a federal case out of it.
  • As politicians and their wives implicitly threatened the music industry and the First Amendment, the unlikeliest trio of musicians — avant-garde composer Frank Zappa, hair-metal howler Dee Snider, and safe-as-milk singer-songwriter John Denver — passionately defended artistic freedom before the federal government simply because it needed to be done.
  • But in the end the censors got what they wanted. "Objectionable" records received a warning label, and rappers — not heavy-metal bands — were the most likely to be labeled.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

It's become known as the "PMRC Senate hearing" or the "Tipper Gore-Frank Zappa hearing" or the "rock-porn hearing."

To me, they'll always be the hearing where Al Gore sarcastically asked Twisted Sister's Dee Snider if his band's fan club, the "Sick Motherf------ Fans of Twisted Sister," was a Christian group.

It was September 19, 1985, smack dab in the middle of the Reagan era. Moral panics — including claims that heavy-metal music and Dungeons and Dragons were somehow the root cause of real issues like child sex abuse and teen suicide — were the order of the day.

The hearing on "objectionable" rock lyrics was one of the most widely publicized committee hearings in Senate history. But rewatching the nearly five-hour hearing now, it seems more like a DC satire about puritanical censorship, farcical conflicts of interest, and members of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body clutching their proverbial pearls over a Prince record.

As politicians and their wives implicitly threatened the music industry and the First Amendment, the unlikeliest trio of musicians — avant-garde composer Frank Zappa, hair metal howler Dee Snider, and safe-as-milk singer-songwriter John Denver — passionately defended artistic freedom before the federal government, simply because it needed to be done.

Despite the absurdist trappings, the PMRC hearings deserve a revisit on their 35th anniversary as a reminder that there's always societal tension between the principles of free expression and the limits of acceptable discourse.

These hearings show how people with power can determine certain forms of expression to be vile, antisocial, and beyond the pale. History has proved these particular censors wrong, but history often repeats itself. That's why it's so crucial to always hold the line on defending the right to express unpopular speech.

The first 'OK, boomer' moment

It all started when Tipper Gore bought her 11-year-old daughter a copy of Prince's "Purple Rain." The smash-hit album was also the soundtrack to a widely publicized R-rated film.

Both the film and soundtrack were controversial for their sexual content. "Darling Nikki," a song whose first verse contains a lyric about female masturbation, so mortified Mrs. Gore in the presence of her adolescent daughter that she took action.

In short order, the Parents Music Resource Council, or PMRC, was formed. Its members included other wives of senators, wives of cabinet members, and wives of prominent DC businessmen.

In her 1987 book, "Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society," Gore wrote an opening sentence that unintentionally revealed the folly of her crusade.

"Like many parents, I grew up listening to rock music and loving it … but something has happened since the days of 'Twist and Shout,'" Gore wrote, referring to the oft-covered early rock-and-roll song.

The selection of "Twist and Shout" is odd because while somewhat more coy in the manner of most early-'60s songs, the idea behind it is clearly sexual. The Beatles performed arguably the most popular rendition of the song, in which a primally ecstatic John Lennon shreds his vocal cords beckoning a woman to "come on, come on, come on, baby, now." The song climaxes with the entire group harmonizing on a drawn-out musical orgasm: "Ah, ah, ah, ah, wow!"

In essence, Tipper Gore gave us the original, literal "OK, boomer" moment: a liberal boomer making a federal case out of pop-music lyrics and album covers.

It was not "censorship," the members of the PMRC would repeatedly insist. It was merely helping parents make informed decisions about the music they allowed their children to listen to.

Like the rating system used by the Motion Picture Association of America, the PMRC wanted the Record Industry Association of America to have records, tapes, and CDs labeled for their objectionable content.

Critics pointed out that music and movies were vastly different forms of media. In 1985 the Motion Picture Association of America rated about 350 movies a year. By contrast the RIAA estimated 25,000 songs a year were released, as well as thousands of album covers. The volume of music was simply too massive to rate like the MPAA did movies.

To helpfully narrow it down for America's parents, the PMRC put out the "Filthy Fifteen," a list of songs that were part of what Gore called "the twisted tyranny of explicitness in the public domain."

Hard rockers of note (AC/DC, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, Def Leppard), and metal bands of little note (Venom, Mercyful Fate) made the list. So did mainstream pop singers Cyndi Lauper, Sheena Easton, and Vanity.

Also making the list of songs supposedly infecting the youth of America was Madonna's "Dress You Up," which in 1999 would be featured in the ultimate in mainstream advertising, a Gap commercial.

The record industry, meanwhile, had good reason to stay on the good side of the PMRC.

The RIAA lobbied hard for a tax on blank cassettes, arguing that tape dubbing was eating into the industry's profits. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation happened to be the venue where that legislation would be considered. Coincidentally, committee members Sen. Al Gore (D-TN), Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-SC), and chairman John Danforth (D-MO) were all married to PMRC members.

Given the financial threat, the RIAA was willing to throw basic principles of free expression under the bus if it meant Congress was going to vote their way, quickly, on the blank-tape tax.

When the committee called for hearings on problematic music lyrics, PMRC members, child-health experts, and religious figures were invited to testify. It's unclear which popular musicians were invited, but the only ones to show up and tell the government this was none of their business were Zappa, Snider, and Denver.

The hottest committee hearing in town

The room was packed with reporters, so many that one senator called it "the largest media event I've ever seen."

Although Gore claimed she and the PMRC neither wanted nor asked for a Senate hearing — and both the PMRC and the committee's members would repeatedly insist that the hearing was not about censorship or any government action — Sen. Hollings gave the game away in his opening comments about "porn rock."

"If I could find some way to constitutionally do away with it, I would," Hollings said. Another senator supported record labeling as "moral suasion," not censorship.

Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-FL) broke with the typical Reaganite conservative orthodoxy of preaching "personal responsibility" by lamenting that parents whose kids take drugs or commit violence have been unfairly held responsible for their children's behavior. When it came to the pernicious influence of rock lyrics, for Hawkins, personal responsibility was too much to ask. She literally waved off concerns about artists' rights of free expression under the First Amendment.

Hawkins also repeated the canard about how much more explicit rock had become in the 30 years since Elvis Presley's televised hips scandalized the previous generation of puritanical parents.

"Subtleties, suggestions, and innuendo have given way to overt expressions and descriptions of often violent sexual acts, drug taking, and flirtations with the occult," Hawkins said.

Just as Tipper Gore did when invoking "Twist and Shout," Hawkins' nod to the seemingly more "innocent" era of Elvis revealed an ignorance of musical history that wouldn't have been be such a big deal had she not been using her Senate bully pulpit to argue the value of one type of music versus another.

The "innocent" rock of 1950s Elvis was directly inspired by artists who sang about flirtations with the occult, alcohol abuse, and murder. Elvis at times covered those artists, or ripped them off, depending on who you ask.

Among the most influential songwriter-performers to inspire the future King of Rock and Roll were two bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta — the capital of the blues and Elvis' birthplace.

Robert Johnson sang of selling his soul to the devil, while Lead Belly wrote one of the most chilling murder ballads of all time. Indeed, he would serve time in prison for murder.

As popular music has grown even more explicit in its content since 1985, the youth of America are still humming along, with lower rates of teen pregnancy than ever before.

A 2012 study by Elizabeth Langdon at Cleveland State University found that music has indeed grown more explicit in its sexual content, but "the sexual attitudes and behaviors (and related outcomes) of adolescents do not appear to be following suit at the national level," which should serve "to dispel perceptions or concerns of large-scale negative media effects."

When it came time to make their case before the government, Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, wife of then-Treasury Secretary James Baker, testified on behalf of the PMRC, as did Reverend Jeff Ling, a pastor at a local Virginia church, who read salacious lyrics about bondage, incest, and "anal vapors."

A child psychiatrist testified that the notorious "Son of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz was known to listen to Black Sabbath, once fronted by the most frightening-to-parents avatar of '80s metal, Ozzy Osbourne.

Suggestive album covers were displayed. The campy — even for its time — Twisted Sister music video for "We're Not Gonna Take It" was played as evidence of violence in rock.

Then the defense took the stand.

Parental Advisory: Read the Constitution

The first witness for the First Amendment was Frank Zappa, who sought to cut through the bullshit pretense that this hearing was anything other than a government action toward regulating protected speech.

"I've heard some conflicting reports on whether or not people on this committee want legislation. I understand that Senator Hollings does," Zappa said before being cut off by Sen. Danforth, who admonished him to focus on his own testimony and not ask the senators any questions.

Sen. James Exon (D-NE) jumped in at that point, telling Zappa that he might be willing to support legislation that makes the music industry "voluntarily" clean up its act.

Zappa muttered, "OK, so that's hardly voluntary," before launching into a masterpiece of speaking truth to power:

"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 interpretation and enforcement 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."

Zappa said the PMRC's complete list of demands "reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of toilet-training program to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few."

He took dead aim at the inherent conflict of interest in senators hosting a group comprising their wives while debating "a tax bill that is so ridiculous the only way to sneak it through is to keep the public's mind on something else: 'Porn rock.'"

Zappa said the whole issue was a cover for "trade-restraining legislation, whipped up like an instant pudding by the Wives of Big Brother."

The senators were not impressed. Sen. Slade Gorton (R-WA) called Zappa "boorish" and said he'd give the First Amendment a bad name, if he had any understanding of it.

Next up was John Denver. The same John Denver whom Dee Snider later described as the "mom-American-pie-John-Denver-Christmas-special-fresh-scrubbed guy."

Denver was an openly devout Christian, the kind of person who fit the profile of someone who'd be outraged by rock lyrics poisoning the minds of the youth.

In his statement, Denver said clearly that a government-policed record-labeling system would "approach censorship," which he unequivocally opposed.

He spoke firsthand of his experiences with censorship and the absurdity of authority figures determining the value of song lyrics.

One of Denver's signature songs, "Rocky Mountain High," was banned from some radio stations, supposedly because of drug references. But there were no drug references. The song was about the "elation" and "joy of living" that comes from spending a "moonless and cloudless night" in the Rocky Mountains, according to its author.

"What assurance have I that any national panel to review my music would make any better judgment?" Denver asked the senators.

Denver referred to a "self-appointed moral watchdog" as something counter to the ideals of a democratic society. He even likened the suppression of words and ideas to Nazi Germany.

Then, dramatically, Denver excused himself from the hearing because he had a previously scheduled meeting with NASA in an attempt to get himself sent into space on the space shuttle Challenger.

The last to testify was Twisted Sister's Dee Snider. Now 65, he's the only rock star to testify that day who is still alive. Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993, at the age of 52, while Denver died when an experimental plane he was piloting crashed in 1997. He was 53.

"I believe the PMRC — or the senators whose wives were in the PMRC — invited me to make a mockery out of me in front of the world," Snider told me via Skype from his home in Belize in July.

Zappa brought two of his kids, Moon Unit and Dweezil — both preteen Twisted Sister fans — to DC for the hearing. Snider brought his father, a cop and veteran.

When Snider sat down before the committee, his appearance alone was jarring. While Zappa and Denver were short-haired and suit-clad, the over-6-feet-tall Snider showed up in jeans, a tank top, sunglasses, and some of the biggest blond '80s rock hair you're likely to ever see.

Perhaps more shocking was his opening statement, which led off with a declaration that he's a married father, a Christian, and neither drinks nor does drugs.

In his testimony he called some of the statements made about his music "character assassination" and addressed Tipper Gore personally for what he says was a misrepresentation of his song "Under the Knife."

The PMRC had interpreted its lyrics as being about sadomasochism, bondage, and rape. The guy who wrote them says they're about fear of surgery and that the only objectionable content existed "in the mind of Mrs. Gore."

Of the violence in the "We're Not Gonna Take It" video that had scandalized senators, Snider said that it was comical, and directly inspired by Roadrunner–Wile E. Coyote cartoons.

"The beauty of literature, poetry, and music is that they leave room for the audience to put its own imagination, experience, and dreams into the words," Snider testified, adding that the "supposedly well-informed adults" in the PMRC had completely and unfairly misinterpreted the lyrics, demonstrating plainly the folly of regulating rock lyrics.

"There is no authority who has the right or the necessary insight to make these judgments. Not myself, not the federal government, not some recording industry committee, not the PTA, not the RIAA, and certainly not the PMRC," Snider said.

Sen. Gore opened his questioning of Snider by asking what the initials S.M.F. — Twisted Sister's fan club — stood for.

"It stands for the Sick Motherf------ Friends of Twisted Sister," Snider testified.

"Is this also a Christian group?" Gore asked, to a smattering of laughter.

"I don't believe profanity has anything to do with Christianity," Snider said.

Thirty-five years later, Snider recalled the moment.

"This was the Reagan years. Conservatives were reigning, and Al Gore was very much a conservative Dem," Snider said. "He changed his cloak when he started with [Bill] Clinton, and suddenly he was Mister Hipster."

"There was a point when I was doing my testimony — I think I said his wife had a dirty mind — if he could have me taken out and shot, he would have. His eyes were so hostile and infuriated because I was taking them at every turn. No matter what they tried to throw at me, I had an answer for it — except for the name of the fan club."

Snider decided to just answer plainly about SMF and not make excuses for it.

He recalled what he described as Gore's condescending questions as part of "that self-righteous bullshit that he just exuded then."

When it was said and done, it's unlikely that many minds were changed by the hearing. Although, despite the protestations to the contrary, quite a few senators and witnesses had explicitly argued in favor of government action.

As Sen. Exon put it at one point that day: "Mr. Chairman, if we're not federal regulation and we're not talking about federal legislation, what is the reason for these hearings in front of the Commerce Committee?"

'The Wives of Big Brother' get results

This "private action" of the PMRC-Senate hearings produced swift results.

The RIAA agreed to work with the PMRC on labeling objectionable content with a sticker reading "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics."

Tipper Gore, who always insisted she was anti-censorship, in her book exhorted readers to file petitions with the FCC to "request inquiries into the license renewals" of TV and radio stations that broadcast "excessively violent" content.

Huge retailers like Walmart would not sell "labeled" records, period, cutting out a huge slice of the marketplace for "labeled" artists. Some smaller stores were threatened with eviction if they stocked "labeled" records.

The city of San Antonio barred "labeled" artists from performing. Maryland and Pennsylvania debated bills that would require retailers to personally label objectionable content and keep it in an "adults-only" area of their shops.

Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra was prosecuted in California over "Distribution of Harmful Material to Minors." The PMRC released a statement in support of putting the punk-rock singer in jail over his album cover. According to Eric Nuzum, the author of "Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America," Tipper Gore personally took credit in interviews for Biafra's prosecution. The case was eventually dismissed by a judge.

Though groups like 2 Live Crew and N.W.A. were about to spark their own free-speech controversies, in 1985, hardcore gangsta rap was still in its very earliest stages.

And while the PMRC hearings mostly focused on heavy metal and sexually suggestive pop songs, according to Nuzum, a 1994 survey found 8% of all CDs wore the "Parental Advisory" sticker. Of these just 13% were heavy metal records, while rap represented 51% of "labeled" content.

Censorship by any other name

The collapse of the record industry, which began over 20 years ago, has made "Parental Advisory" labels quaint. But the threat posed by the ideas that inspired them remains.

Censorship stigmatizes art and the artist. It makes transgressive ideas less available and turns arbitrary authority to unelected and unaccountable actors.

Diving into this 1985 time capsule is instructive in showing just how fevered arguments over the boundaries of free expression almost always are. These hearings also demonstrate how moral panics cause wild overreactions, ill-advised and damaging government action — always conducted with a sense of altruistic moral superiority.

It's no coincidence that in the years since Congress has held hearings on the supposedly society-destroying influence of rap lyrics, video games, and the TV show "Beavis and Butthead."

It's kind of ridiculous that Zappa, Denver, and Snider proved to be the common-sense civics experts in a room full of people at, or adjacent to, the levers of power. But these were the heroes we needed at the moment: the scary rocker, the gentle folkie, and the smartass weirdo composer.

An illustrative punctuation mark of the PMRC hearings came with the release of Zappa's 1987 album, "Jazz From Hell," on which a chain of Pacific Northwest department stores slapped an "Explicit Lyrics" warning label.

The album is entirely instrumental.


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