The 1980s were a dark time for artistic freedom and consumers eager for something alternative to the mainstream. Whilst horror fans in the UK faced the dreaded ‘Video Nasties’ controversy, in which movies were confiscated by the police and banned from retailers and filmmakers faced prosecution, the music industry in the United States faced a similar fate with the birth of the Parents Music Resource Center, more commonly referred to as the PMRC. Music with a sexual or violent content, which had become commonplace with the rise of heavy metal in the late 1970s, had been deemed morally offensive and potential dangerous to the minds of the young and many musicians were forced to justify their art in front of a committee.
Although heavy metal would become the main target of the PMRC the catalyst for the subsequent controversy would be a track 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.
Several months later 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 sexual and violent music. Amongst those present that day were Susan Baker, whose husband was then the Treasury Secretary and Sally Nevius, wife of the Washington City Council Chairman. The principal goal of the PMRC included offensive covers to be kept out of view of the public and to introduce a rating system similar to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
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 even Cyndi Lauper’s She Bop. 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). The PMRC also stated that several bands had contained subliminal messages within their music that, if played in reverse, contained hidden and dangerous statements.
On September 19th 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, of Twisted Sister, read from his statement: “I would like to tell the committee a little bit about myself. I am 30 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.”
Frank Zappa, whose music had not been targeted by the PMRC, also took to the stand at the hearing: “The first thing I would like to do, because I know there is some foreign press involved here and they might not understand what the issue is about, one of the things the issue is about is the First Amendment to the Constitution, and it is short and I would like to read it so they will understand. It says: ‘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.’ That is for reference. These are my personal observations and opinions. I speak on behalf of no group or professional organization. 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 demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.”
Due to pressure from the PMRC on November 1 1985 the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) stated that simple labels would be attached to albums and singles that featured objectionable material that would state ‘Parental Advisory.’ As a reaction to the behaviour of both the PMRC and Tipper Gore many artists released songs that either spoofed or condemned decisions made against musicians during the mid-1980s. One of the more famous was a sticker that was 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.’
Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About The Music Your Parents Never Wanted You To HearBelieve it or not, music censorship in America did not begin with Tipper Gore's horrified reaction to her daughter's Prince album. The vilific