People around the world have been trying to regulate music for centuries, but in the 1980s, Tipper Gore launched the first campaign to rate albums. Here's the story of how a vice-president's wife took on graphic lyrics in music and won ...sort of.
In 1984, Tipper Gore, wife of then-senator Al Gore, bought Prince's Purple Rain album for her 11-year-old daughter Karenna. They put on the VD and Gore liked it ...until she got to "Darling Nikki," a very sexually explicit song, and one Gore thought was inappropriate for an 11-year-old. Had she known, she never would have bought the album.
Gore did some more "research" on the level of vulgarity in popular music -she watched MTV for a few hours and found more songs that troubled her, including Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher," and Mötley Crüe's "Looks That Kill." "The images frightened my children, they frightened me," she said. "The graphic sex and the violence were too much for us to handle."
She started talking to some friends -wives of prominent Washington businessmen and politicians- and decided to use her influence to do something about it. With Susan Baker (wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker) , Pam Howar (wife of powerful realtor Raymond Howar), and Sally Nevius (wife of Washington City Council chairman John Nevius), Gore formed the Parents Music Resource Center, or PMRC, in 1985.
PMRC's stated goal: to raise parental awareness of "the growing trend in music towards lyrics that are sexually explicit, excessively violent, or glorify the use of drugs and alcohol." The group even suggested that the increase in some crimes in the previous 30 years directly correlated with the popularity of rock music -rape was up 7% since 1955 and teenage suicide was up 300%.
PMRC TO RIAA: X, V, D/A, O!
In early 1985, the PMRC sent a letter to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA, the music industry trade organization) and asked it to stop releasing sexually explicit or violent recordings, or at the very least, give albums a rating so parents could judge for themselves if the music is appropriate for their child. "Exercise voluntary self-restraint," the letter read, "perhaps by developing guidelines and/or a rating system, such as that of the movie industry." Gore actually had a very specific labeling program in mind. Sexual content would be marked with an "X," violent content would be marked with a "V," drug and alcohol mentions got a "D/A," and promotion of occult themes got an "O." The letter, signed by the wives of over 20 Washington politicians and businessmen, was sent to 62 record companies as well. Only seven responded and all refused to implement any changes.
THE LINK BETWEEN MUSIC AND HEARING LOSS
In 1985, using their clout (i.e. their husbands), the PMRC convinced the United States Senate to hold hearings on the alarming content of popular music. The PMRC testified, detailing their concerns about the harmful effects of sex and violence in music. Several major musicians testified against the PMRC. John Denver said he was "strongly opposed to censorship of any kind," partially because censors often misinterpret music. (In 1973, when the government was in the midst of an anti-drug crackdown, the FCC asked many radio stations the refrain from playing Denver's song "Rocky Mountain High," even though the song is really about enjoying nature.) Dee Snider of the band Twisted Sister argued a similar point: Gore said his song "Under the Blade," which Snider said he wrote about an upcoming surgery, was about bondage and rape. "Mrs. Gore was looking for sadomasochism and bondage, and she found it. Someone looking for surgical references would have found those as well."
But Frank Zappa gave the most pointed commentary. "The proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes on the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years with the interpretational problems inherent in the proposal's design."
Zappa went so far as to suggest that the RIAA and Congress had made a deal: The RIAA would agree to some meaningless, superficial labeling (to look good in the public eye. In return, Congress would pass a bill that the RIAA was strongly lobbying for: the Home Recording Act, which would outlaw copying music onto blank tapes (the RIAA said unauthorized copying had cost them billions in sales).
CENSORSHIP? OH, BE QUIET
Gore repeatedly assured the Senate and the public that what she was trying to do was create accountability, and let parents know what kind of music their kids were listening to -that it definitely not censorship. But was it? While the PMRC's most talked-about goal was the labeling system, it actually had some other demands, too. They wanted to:
* establish a rating system for albums and concerts
* require song lyrics to be printed on album covers
* have albums with explicit cover art kept under store counters
* make record companies break contracts with performer who engaged in violent or sexually explicit onstage behavior
* pressure radio and television not to air objectionable artists
Some of those points were unrealistic (it would be impossible to print an entire album's worth of lyrics on the cover of a CD or cassette), but politicians ultimately found themselves having to agree that forcing record companies or radio stations to ban any musicians the PMRC found offensive would violate the artists' First Amendment rights.
DID IT STICK?
On November 1, 1985, before he hearings were even over, the RIAA bowed to the pressure of the PMRC (and growing public sentiment -a national poll said 75 percent of Americans favored a labeling system). Ultimately the RIAA agreed to place stickers reading "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics" on albums deemed offensive. Record companies would do so (and determine what albums get stickers) at their own discretion. Every objectionable album would get the same sticker, not a specific label as Gore had initially proposed. The "Parental Advisory" sticker would have no legally binding effect on stores. It didn't prevent stores from selling stickered albums to minors, nor did it require them to keep offensive albums behind the counter, unless they wanted to. Wal-Mart opted not to carry stickered albums at all (a poicy that still stands).
THE OPPOSITE EFFECT
So did labeling curb "offensive" music, or at least get kids to stop listening to it? Probably not. In fact in Heavy: The Story of Metal, a documentary about 1980s hard rock, members of the bands Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot, and Poison all claim their album sales went up after getting stickered. "The sticker almost guaranteed your record would be bought by rebellious kids," said Mötley Crüe's Nikki Sixx.
___________________The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music.
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