looking back

25 Years After Tipper Gore’s PMRC Hearings, the Opposing Sides Aren’t So Far Apart

Twenty-five years ago yesterday marked the beginning of the infamous PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) Senate hearings, in which Tipper Gore and a group of concerned “Washington Wives” petitioned to have warning labels put on records or singles that explicitly (and not-so-explicitly) referenced drugs, violence, and/or sex; testifying against the PMRC — and labeling their goals “censorship” and an effort to trample First Amendment rights — was the unlikely trio of Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and John Denver. In the end, the RIAA offered to place labels on releases with potentially offensive lyrics, and Wal-Mart and some other stores refused to sell any albums that featured these “Parental Advisory” stickers. And from that moment on, no youngster ever heard anything filthy again.

Oh, wait: One of the big songs of this summer was called “Fuck You.” Sorry, cancel that last conclusion.

So it wasn’t so black and white. And when we checked in with some of the participants in the divisive debate 25 years later, we found that their opinions weren’t quite as rigid as they once appeared, either; in fact, with time, many of them had become surprisingly understanding of the other side. Take, for an example, Blackie Lawless, front man of the metal band W.A.S.P., whose modest little ditty “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” was named as one of the PMRC’s “Filthy Fifteen,” a list of songs they found most objectionable. (It also included Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” Sheena Easton’s “Sugar Walls,” and Mötley Crüe’s “Bastard.”) The W.A.S.P. song was not just targeted for its title, but also because of the cover, which pictured a bloody codpiece with a saw blade attached. Now, however, Lawless is a born-again Christian who has not played “Animal” in years. “Words are indeed powerful,” he declares. “They are either tools or they are weapons.” In fact, he now says he agrees with the PMRC’s logic, if not their motivation. “I honestly believe anything that gives parents a heads up with what is going on in the lives of their kids has to be helpful,” says Lawless. “Remembering my later teenage years, I can safely say it’s astonishing that any of us survived to tell about it. All that said, my problem with [the PMRC] was they were never about trying to genuinely promote parents’ awareness concerning the music their kids were buying. They were about one thing, elevating the profile of their [future] presidential candidate, Al Gore.” (Tipper Gore, who started the group with Susan Baker, wife of then-treasury secretary James Baker, declined comment for the story.)

Cyndi Lauper, whose song “She Bop,” a cloaked ode to masturbation, also made the Filthy Fifteen, says that while she is staunchly against censorship, parenthood has made her more sensitive to raunchy lyrics. She’s now bothered by the songs her 12-year-old son listens to on the radio: “It’s one thing to make that kind of stuff,” she says. “But if they’re going to play it on the radio, that’s another story, isn’t it? They’re selling sex because sex sells.”

Pastor Jeff Ling of Virginia’s Clear River Community Church, who represented the PMRC in the hearings and on TV talk shows, implies that Lauper has basically come around to his way of thinking. He says he wasn’t encouraging censorship, as he was accused of doing; he simply wanted parents to know what their kids were listening to. “They were hollering First Amendment, [but] it was not a First Amendment issue,” he says. “It was a dollar issue, period. No one was censoring anybody. No one was saying that you can’t release these records or can’t write songs about certain subjects. Write whatever you want to write. That’s your freedom.” He now maintains that he and his group were unfairly framed as hard-liners thanks to shows like Crossfire, on which he later appeared in 1987 with Frank Zappa. “The discussion on Crossfire was inflamed and distorted from the get-go by the conservative host [Peter Gemma] raising the specter of AIDS, which was new at that time, in connection with the argument,” asserts Ling. “I was frustrated right from the top. The liberal guy [Michael Kinsley] quoting inane lyrics from the past, the conservative talking about AIDS and, yes, he leaned a bit toward a more censorious view, it was really ridiculous. No wonder Frank looked as bored as he did. Unfortunately, my role there was to rep for the PMRC. Had it not been, I may have walked out.” (Ling, a Beatles and Bob Dylan fan, also adds that he deeply regrets that his only quote that exists in the Congressional Record has him quoting pornographic lyrics by the Mentors, a shock-metal band with such songs as “My Erection Is Over,” “Herpes Two,” and “Clap Queen.”)

Gail Zappa, widow of Frank, has not wavered in maintaining her husband’s position on the PMRC, even 25 years later, and she’s still dismissive of Ling. “At the time, [Ling] was obsessed with being able to say that stuff [lyrics] and get access to the media for doing so,” she says. “Even in his own life he would never be able to say that stuff. It’s like the dirty pamphlets in your dad’s drawer that you look for when you’re a kid because there’s always somebody that can find those things.” Interestingly, she became friendly with Tipper Gore shortly after her husband’s death in 1993; she says that she believes that Tipper’s involvement was a misguided attempt to get attention for her husband’s presidential aspirations. “We always believed that she and the Gores were somewhat naïve and were getting really bad advice about how to get visibility for him through this effort, and that they might’ve been taken advantage of by people like Susan Baker,” she says. (Indeed the Zappas believed that the reason the hearings happened at all were because the record industry was lobbying for a blank-tape tax at the time — which was later passed — and the PMRC’s leaders used that request as a way to push their agenda forward.) Gail Zappa has just released a CD of her late husband’s testimony, called Congress Shall Make No Law … , and is concerned that it might hurt Tipper. “I don’t know how she’s going to feel about this record coming out,” admits Zappa. “It might dredge up sad and difficult memories for her, but I admire her greatly. She’s an artist herself.” (Dee Snider isn’t quite so sensitive to Tipper Gore’s feelings: When asked recently about the PMRC on The Wendy Williams Show, he recalled how going to Washington, “I was the poster boy for everything wrong with society. Let’s cut to 25 years later: I’m still married. None of my kids have been busted for drug possession. Can Al and Tipper Gore say the same thing? I don’t think so.”)

While memory (and talk-show YouTube moments) recall the battling sides as entrenched poles with irreconcilable positions, it seems less so today. Dr. Joe Stuessy, author of Rock and Roll: Its History & Stylistic Development and professor and director of the division of music at the University of Texas at San Antonio at the time he testified for the PMRC, says that he respected Frank Zappa and the musician’s suggestions on ways to print lyrics on every album; Frank saw it as a fair, open, and proud reveal of what the music contained. “I think he came off rather well,” says Dr. Stuessy. “I thought Zappa made a lot of sense.”

Ultimately, after the RIAA agreed to place these “Parental Advisory” stickers on select albums, the industry did not topple. Metal sales, and sales in general, remained strong and were booming by the nineties. Labels started putting out clean and explicit versions of albums to widen their retail reach. And the stickers probably helped sell more records to kids who were enticed by the idea of listening to something that would shock or offend their parents. Now, the music industry is crumbling, not because of lyrics, but because of illegal downloading, and many current hits make “Darling Nikki” seem as bawdy as Paul Lynde. In retrospect, both sides of the advisory issue are probably looking back fondly to the mid-eighties: record companies because of the money they used to make, and PMRC vets because what seemed so shocking then seems tame now. Dr. Stuessy says that he and his wife recently joked, “We were wondering if we were going to live long enough when in some nice restaurant or some elevator they were nostalgically playing ‘Me So Horny’.” Give it a few months.

25 Years After Tipper Gore’s PMRC Hearings, the Opposing Sides Aren’t So Far Apart