30 Years Ago: Rockers Testify in the Parents Music Resource Center Senate Hearings
A trio of musicians spoke before a senate subcommittee on Sept. 19, 1985, arguing that Freedom of Speech trumped the government's right to decide what was appropriate for children. And in that moment, Frank Zappa, Dee Snider and John Denver became spokesmen for those fighting against a rating system for music as the industry capitulated to other demands from a new group called the Parents Music Resource Center.
Founded by a group of politically connected wives, including the spouse of Senator Al Gore, the PMRC was born with the clout to leverage of public hearing on Capitol Hill. Gore and his fellow senator Paula Hawkins also spoke before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, but it was a musician's comments – as articulate as they were passionate – that ended up resonating that day.
“I did welcome the opportunity to show the PMRC and the senate subcommittee how you should not judge a book by its heavy-metal cover," Snider recalled in an interview with the Huffington Post in 2015. "Their indignant reactions to my ’80s rock-star look and their dropped jaws when I proceeded to take every one of their arguments apart were priceless.”
Zappa sprinkled his own constitutional argument against the Parents Music Resource Center's new rating system with a rapier wit. "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," Zappa said that day. "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."
Snider countered that the proposal would put the issue of deciding what constituted objectionable material into the minds of bureaucrats who would hear what they wanted to – specifically targeting Gore's wife, Tipper. A chance encounter with Prince's song "Darling Nikki" had reportedly sparked her desire to form the Parents Music Resource Center. Ultimately, the PMRC compiled a list of songs that it recommended be banned for such content, dubbed the "Filthy Fifteen." Before long, Snider argued, Tipper was hearing untoward things where they didn't exist before.
“The raw hatred I saw in Al Gore’s eyes when I said Tipper Gore had a dirty mind for interpreting my song ‘Under the Blade’ as being about sadomasochism and bondage (it was actually written about my guitarist’s throat operation) was a joy to behold," Snider told the Huffington Post. "They really should have vetted me better before allowing me in to speak.”
Record companies eventually agreed to a standard parental advisory warning sticker, rather than an individualized rating system. The effectiveness of this plan remained the topic of fierce debate, with some arguing that the stickers actually encouraged fans to seek out material deemed inappropriate.
As time went on, however, it didn't matter. Advisory stickers became an anachronism anyway. The industry moved toward downloads and streams, and production of physical copies went into steep decline. Then there was W.A.S.P. frontman Blackie Lawless and Vanity. Two figures who once appeared on the PMRC's "Filthy Fifteen" who have since become born-again Christians. Tipper Gore, after disparaging Madonna's song "Dress You Up," later praised "Papa Don't Preach." As musicians like Cyndi Lauper – whose "She Bop" also made the "Filthy Fifteen" – became parents themselves, their perspectives changed too.
"Words are indeed powerful," Lawless told Vulture in 2010. "They are either tools or they are weapons. ... 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."
Meanwhile, Zappa's widow, Gail, has said that Tipper Gore and Frank Zappa made amends before his 1993 death. She maintains that Tipper's involvement in the PMRC amounted to a misguided attempt to gain attention for her husband as a presidential candidate. Snider actually went further. "I was the poster boy for everything wrong with society," he argued in 2010. "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."
The Parents Music Resource Center's 'Filthy Fifteen'
This Day in Rock History: September 18