Tuesday, May 21

When will they come for the music?

It is often remembered as the “PMRC Senate hearing” or the “Tipper Gore-Frank Zappa hearing”—or more luridly, the “rock-porn hearing.” But to me, it will always be the hearing where Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, with a sardonic gleam in his eye, asked Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider if his fan club, the “Sick Motherf—— Fans of Twisted Sister,” was a Christian group.

The date was September 19, 1985, nestled snugly in the Reagan era. This was a time ripe with moral panics, a period when the nation, gripped by puritanical fervour, sought to exorcise the perceived demons of heavy metal music and Dungeons & Dragons, blaming them for grave societal ills like child abuse and teen suicide.

This hearing, ostensibly about “objectionable” rock lyrics, became one of the most publicized committee hearings in Senate history. Yet, revisiting the nearly five-hour spectacle today reveals it as a grotesque pageant of bible bashing, farcical conflicts of interest, and the collective gasp of the Senate’s ostensibly wise members as they clutched their pearls over a Prince record.

In this theater of the absurd, politicians and their spouses veiled threats against the music industry and the First Amendment. Defending artistic freedom before this federal inquisition were three unlikely champions: avant-garde composer Frank Zappa, the boisterous Dee Snider, and milquetoast troubadour John Denver.

The genesis of this uproar was remarkably banal. Tipper Gore bought her 11-year-old daughter a copy of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” unaware that the album, a soundtrack to an R-rated film, contained “Darling Nikki,” a song with explicit lyrics about female masturbation. The horror Mrs. Gore felt upon hearing these lyrics set off a chain reaction, leading to the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a coterie of senators’ wives and other influential figures from D.C.’s upper echelons.

In her book, “Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society,” Gore’s nostalgia for rock’s innocent days was laid bare. She referenced “Twist and Shout,” a song whose sexual innuendo was as plain as day, thus inadvertently spotlighting the flawed basis of her crusade.

The PMRC’s refrain was a denial of censorship; they claimed merely to want to aid parents in making informed choices, much like the Motion Picture Association of America’s film ratings. Critics, however, noted the vast discrepancy: the MPAA rated about 350 films annually, while the RIAA faced the Herculean task of assessing 25,000 songs and innumerable album covers each year.

To assist America’s beleaguered parents, the PMRC produced the “Filthy Fifteen,” a list of songs they deemed most offensive. This eclectic list featured both mainstream and heavy metal acts, and included Madonna’s “Dress You Up,” which ironically appeared in a Gap commercial years later.

The PMRC’s demands found eager ears in the Senate. Members such as Al Gore, Ernest Hollings, and John Danforth—all married to PMRC members—had vested interests. The RIAA, angling for favourable legislation on blank cassette taxes, acquiesced to the PMRC’s labelling requests, principles of free expression be damned.

As the hearings unfolded, PMRC advocates, religious figures, and child-health experts made their case. Yet, it was the musicians—Zappa, Snider, and Denver—who eloquently championed the First Amendment.

Frank Zappa, the first to testify, excoriated the PMRC proposal as a “sinister toilet-training program” designed to control composers and performers. His biting critique laid bare the absurdity of the proceedings. John Denver, the emblem of wholesome American music, unequivocally rejected censorship, recounting his own experiences with misinterpretation. Dee Snider, expected to be an easy target, disarmed the senators with his articulate defense, rejecting the PMRC’s characterizations of his work.

Al Gore’s sardonic query about Snider’s fan club epitomized the self-righteousness pervading the hearing. Snider’s calm retort—that profanity has no bearing on Christianity—highlighted the absurdity of the entire affair.

In the end, the PMRC achieved its goal: the RIAA agreed to label explicit content. This victory led to tangible consequences—censored albums, restricted sales, and legislative debates on free speech.

All this asks the question as to why music has escaped the notice of today’s would-be censors – the woke? Possibly because their goal isn’t the de-sexualisation of society and rock n roll will always be an expression of sexual desire. But that isn’t to say music lovers can rest assured. Censorship is a hungry beast and, once gorged on what’s on the table, will be back out in the field looking for new prey.