Rock Censorship: Big Brother Meets Twisted Sister - Rolling Stone
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Rock Censorship: Big Brother Meets Twisted Sister

Music’s biggest names fight the government, Tipper Gore, and the PMRC’s lyrics ratings

Dee Snider, Twisted SisterDee Snider, Twisted Sister

Dee SNIDER and TWISTED SISTER, Mark Mendoza, AJ Pero, Dee Snider, Eddie Ojeda and JJ French,United Kingdom, July 1st, 1982

Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty

Frank Zappa brought his lawyer, not to mention a copy of the First Amendment. John Denver spoke of Nazis and censorship. Dee Snider, sweating through his Twisted Sister muscle shirt, complained of being slandered by a housewife. The distinguished senator from South Carolina, Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, demanded that somebody, by God, rescue “the tender young ears of this nation from this” — he paused as if the words tasted foul — “this ROCK PORN.”

But first, of course, the senator’s colleagues, three rock stars, two wives of powerful politicians, a rock & roll-loving minister and a lady from the PTA, had to try to interpret, on this morning of September 19th, lyrical references to masturbation, bondage, rape, sodomy, incest, orgasm, anal vapors, codpieces and buzz saws. It was a fine show. When it was over, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hadn’t recommended any legislation, but it had familiarized itself with arguably the fifteen or so raunchiest rock albums in all the land.

That a Senate committee which normally presides over such esoteric issues as trade reciprocity should be interpreting the lyrics of Bitch’s Be My Slave album is not surprising, given the committee’s members. The wife of its chairman, Senator John Danforth (R-Missouri), is affiliated with that champion of purified rock lyrics, the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC). So, too, is the wife of Senator Hollings. Mary Elizabeth “Tipper” Gore, wife of committee member Senator Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tennessee), is a PMRC cofounder. Another cofounder, Susan Baker, is married to James A. Baker, who happens to be the very conservative secretary of the treasury.

The committee hearing was, in fact, the culmination of a long summer’s work by the women of the PMRC. In less than five months, the wives of some of Washington’s most powerful men took their campaign against explicit rock lyrics from a church meeting to the national media to Capitol Hill. In the process, they pressured twenty-four record companies — over eighty percent of the music industry — into agreeing to place a PG warning label on all albums with lyrics deemed to be sexually explicit or promoting violence, suicide, rape, the occult or drug abuse.

Thanks to the women of the PMRC, the first albums marked PARENTAL GUIDANCE: EXPLICIT LYRICS are now on view for parents at record stores. The record companies believed the PG label would satisfy the PMRC’s expressed desire to alert the parents of young children who paw through record racks. It did not. The PMRC now wants the PG label upgraded to R on the theory that PG has been watered down by too many PG movies. The group also wants a panel of industry types and consumers to draw up guidelines for what constitutes an explicit lyric, rather than entrusting that chore to the very people who make dirty records.

Mrs. Gore and Mrs. Baker say they won’t be satisfied until questionable lyrics are printed on albums and tapes, until rock concerts are rated for content, until albums with objectionable covers are racked separately or sold in plain brown wrappers, until MTV “brackets” certain videos for late-night viewing only, and until lyrics are included with albums and tapes sent to radio stations. They also suggest that record companies “reassess” the contracts of performers who offend mainstream sensibilities. They suspect, too, that virgin minds are being poisoned by what they call “hidden messages and backward masking.”

After a while, it all got to be too much for Stanley Gortikov, president of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Gortikov — Tipper Gore calls him “a wonderful man” — seemed insulted when the PMRC women shoved his PG offer back in his face. All this, after a long summer spent writing endless letters to the PMRC, addressing its concerns with long, roman-numeraled, pro-and-con paragraphs.

Gortikov, a ruddy-faced man with his silver hair slicked back, appeared before the PMRC husbands on the Senate committee and uttered these words: “Enough already!” And then he told the committee all the things the music industry cannot do, and why:

It cannot rate records the way the movie industry rates movies. About 325 movies are released every year, compared to some 25,000 songs. It cannot print lyrics on albums and cassettes — despite the endorsement of the idea by Zappa and Denver — because music publishers, not the record companies, own the rights to lyrics.

It cannot provide printed lyrics to radio stations for the same reason. Nor can it control the music each station chooses to air. That’s the FCC’s province.

It cannot control the actions, lewd or otherwise, of rock performers at concerts, nor rate concerts for content, because “the best control … is parental supervision of the concert attendance of their children.”

It cannot place certain records behind the counter or in plain brown wrappers because that is the province of the retailers.

And finally, Gortikov told the committee, the industry certainly cannot, as the PMRC has requested, “refrain from the use of hidden messages or backward masking” because, Gortikov claims, he has never encountered such things in his twenty-five years in the business.

Even the PG rating, Gortikov said, was “approached with trepidation. It is as far as we can and should go.” He suggested that the PMRC establish its own rating system, as the Catholic Church has done for films. To demand a “review panel” amounts to “an ad hoc first-stage form of censorship,” he said.

While he was getting all that off his chest, Gortikov also stressed that he was “getting a little apprehensive about [PMRC] motives and fervor…. I hope it does not allow a thirst for press, public and government attention to gain more priority than the olive branch we offer.”

Gortikov’s belated counteroffensive notwithstanding, the Washington Wives — and now their husbands — clearly have the rock industry on the defensive. The very day the PMRC opened up shop last May, for instance, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) fired off a letter to its member stations to warn them of the sudden new national debate over what the letter called “porn rock.” Three weeks later, NAB president Edward Fritts asked the RIAA to send printed lyrics along with all music sent to radio stations — despite the fact that he later told the Senate committee that “of this limited number of [explicit] songs, only a very few ever receive any meaningful airplay.”

The PMRC has found sympathetic ears in other corners of the rock-related industry. George David Weiss, president of the Songwriters’ Guild, wrote in a June 29th Billboard magazine commentary that the industry should exercise “self-restraint” and “tone down” lyrics for the sake of the “moral health of children in America.” The alternative, Weiss wrote, is censorship. Meanwhile, Mike Love of the Beach Boys was donating $5000 to the PMRC, and Smokey Robinson, a Motown vice-president, was condemning “porn rock.”

Ever since white hillbillies merged “race music” into rock & roll, purists have sought to outlaw, pressure or rein in rock records and lyrics. In 1956, The Ed Sullivan Show refused to televise Elvis Presley below the waist. In 1963, the FBI and FCC replayed the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” at different speeds to try to detect dirty words. Conclusion: they couldn’t make out the lyrics. In 1970, Spiro Agnew called rock music “blatant drug-culture propaganda” and warned that it “threatens to sap our national strength unless we move hard and fast to bring it under control.” And even in the pre-PMRC era, according to the RIAA, some companies voluntarily placed warning stickers on particularly explicit albums.

The aims of the PMRC seem more subtle than those of earlier detractors of rock lyrics. The PMRC women say they seek not to outlaw or even change rock & roll, but to strip it bare for parents to see and then rate anything objectionable as R. More significantly, they have the type of clout that counts — political clout.

Many in the recording industry think they smell incipient censorship. After a curious silence all summer, rock performers are beginning to take notice. Among those who joined the Musical Majority, an antirating committee affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union, are representatives of Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, Don Henley, Prince, Lionel Richie, the Pointer Sisters, John Cougar Mellencamp and members of Kiss and Duran Duran.

Even Donny Osmond, speaking on ABC-TV’s Nightline, has objected to ratings. John Denver, no whips-and-leather rocker, flatly equated record rating with Nazi-like tactics and said of the PMRC’s goals, “Any self-appointed watchdog of public morals is suppression.” Frank Zappa, after introducing his lawyer to the committee, recited the First Amendment — “for reference,” he said. Any rating system, Zappa added, “opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality-control programs based on Things Certain Christians Don’t Like. What if the next bunch of Washington Wives demands a large yellow J on material written or performed by Jews…?”

In the Senate hearing room, at least, freedom of expression was stretched by advocates on both sides of the issue. Mrs. Baker told the committee that explicit rock lyrics are at least partly to blame for teen pregnancies, teen suicides and rape. Why, just the week before, in a small Texas town, she said, “a young man took his life while listening to the music of AC/DC. He was not the first.”

Also testifying for the PMRC was a twenty-eight-year-old Virginian named Jeff Ling, who describes himself as a minister and youth counselor. Ling has searched through record stores to amass one of the country’s most complete collections of raunchy rock albums. The PMRC calls him a “consultant”; the group pays his expenses and for many of the records he buys. The records are the centerpiece of a fast-paced slide presentation he gave for the committee, reminding the senators at one point of the inherent dangers of listening to AC/DC: “One of their fans I know you’re aware of is the alleged Night Stalker,” a reference to the suspect in a series of murders in Los Angeles County.

Ling’s “relationship with Jesus Christ” motivated him to speak out against “rock porn,” he said the day after the hearing. “I’m not a fundamentalist weirdo fighting the evil beat of rock & roll. I love rock & roll. It motivates me. Rock & roll doesn’t need pornography to do what it does best.”

He said he found the albums used in his presentation in record stores in Washington D.C. and its suburbs. “They weren’t everywhere in great numbers and not in every store, but they were there,” he said. He keeps his collection in a closet, away from his four-year-old son. “If someone … saw my closet, they’d think I have some weird habits.”

Ling will name his personal rock favorites if pressed, though he is wary of using his position to “endorse” any group. He said he likes the Hooters and Bruce Springsteen and even, yes, some heavy-metal groups.

Danny Goldberg, rock business manager, president of Gold Mountain Records and chairman of the Musical Majority, sat uncomfortably through Ling’s presentation and the rest of the hearing. Later, he compared it to the McCarthy hearings: “This is a return to blacklisting.” He called Ling “a right-wing nut who’s to the right of Adolf Hitler.” Then he added, “The Nazis liked Wagner. Are we going to string up Wagner?”

Ling’s presentation was “dishonest,” Goldberg charged, because it lumped the grossly scatological and violent lyrics of obscure heavy-metal groups with the more subjective lyrics of such major acts as Prince and Sheena Easton. According to the RIAA, seven of the fifteen or so groups presented by Ling — W.A.S.P., Morris Day and the Time, Bitch, the Mentors, Abbator, Impaler and Piledriver — did not go gold. Yet, Goldberg pointed out, their lyrics drew most of the gasps at the hearing.

There was this, for instance, from the Mentors’ “Golden Showers” on their You Axed for It LP: “Listen little slut/Do as you are told …/Come with daddy for me to pour the gold …/ All through my excrements you shall roam …/ Bend up and smell my anal vapor …/ Your face is my toilet paper …/On your face I leave a shit tower….”

Such lyrics, the RIAA contends, are not comparable to Prince’s use of the word masturbating in “Darling Nikki,” or his singing “incest is everything it’s said to be” on “Sister,” or Sheena Easton’s singing “The blood races to your private spots … come spend the night inside my sugar walls” on the Prince-written hit “Sugar Walls.”

On the other hand, the PMRC points out, the Rolling Stones’ hit album Undercover included the song “Tie You Up” with the line “Feel the hot cum dripping on your thigh.” And Kiss, in “Fits Like a Glove” from the 1983 gold album Lick It Up, sings, “when I go through her it’s just like a hot knife through butter.” And Judas Priest, in “Eat Me Alive” from the gold album Defenders of the Faith, sings, “I’m gonna force you at gunpoint to eat me alive.”

To industry complaints that the PMRC’s offenders list represents only a tiny fraction of the 25,000 songs produced each year, Tipper Gore responds, “Diversionary tactics.” She says the songs are available to children along with more mainstream music. She accuses the industry and its artists of deliberately confusing censorship with what she calls “truth in packaging.” She says people who create and produce albums have a responsibility to let parents know what’s inside the albums their young children buy.

“It’s not our intent to blacklist anyone … we don’t want to restrict artistic expression,” Mrs. Gore said after the hearing, shuttling between TV interviews and photo opportunities.

She acknowledges that the grossly offensive lyrics are put out by a handful of groups, some of them obscure. But she contends that they are pushing more mainstream artists such as Prince and Madonna into the gutter: “Everybody’s trying to outdo each other with some of this shocking material.” The market forces are forcing them, she says, to think they have to perform obscene material in order to sell albums.

The industry has responded by saying that parents — not artists or record companies — are ultimately responsible for what their children buy and listen to. If you don’t like it, the RIAA says, don’t buy it. And, according to the RIAA, only nine percent of buyers of rock music are between the ages of ten and fourteen.

The PMRC doesn’t buy that argument. More significantly, neither do the PMRC husbands on the commerce committee. Several senators warned the industry to “clean up your act” or face legislation or regulation. Record executives everywhere must have squirmed when Tipper Gore’s husband, Senator Gore, scolded the industry in front of network cameras: “Is this the kind of contribution they want to make to the society in which we live … is this the way they want to earn a living?”

How did Tipper Gore and Susan Baker and a small group of Washington wives put a multimillion-dollar industry on the run? How did mothers who listened to their children’s clock radios one day get a Senate hearing the next?

“Trench warfare,” Mrs. Gore said, smiling. She is thirty-seven, a blond, Washington-born mother of four, who describes herself as “a very liberal, with-it person.” She likes to listen to Phil Collins, Wham! and Paul Young.

Sitting beside Mrs. Gore in a Senate office, Mrs. Baker smiled, too. “It’s too bad you have to hit them over the head to get their attention,” she said of the music industry. She is forty-seven, Texas-born, a tall, attractive woman with a rich Southern drawl. She calls herself a “golden oldie,” who grew up listening to Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. (“And the twist?” Mrs. Gore asked her. “This was long before the twist, honey bunch,” Mrs. Baker replied.) Mrs. Baker says she has tried to listen to hard rock but can’t make herself like it She prefers classical and “beautiful music.”

The sudden, and perhaps lasting, success of the PMRC offers a cold lesson in the use of power. The Washington Wives had the levers of power in their homes, and they pulled them. Their direct, personal relationship with powerful men gave them instant name recognition that attracted the national media. It didn’t hurt that they had also latched onto an irresistible issue — sex, drugs and rock & roll versus Senate motherhood. Through the PMRC, the media “discovered” that certain rock lyrics had turned exceedingly nasty, then nourished the ensuing debate and attracted PMRC sympathizers. By the time the PMRC husbands were grilling the industry in Senate chambers, record companies were suddenly hearing threats of two demons — legislation and regulation.

The industry wasn’t paying attention last spring, when Tipper Gore’s eleven-year-old daughter played Prince’s “Darling Nikki” on the family stereo. Or when Susan Baker’s seven-year-old daughter heard Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” on her clock radio. Or when Pam Howar, wife of the owner of a Washington construction firm, and soon to be the president of the PMRC, started listening to the lyrics of music played in her aerobics class.

“We got together and said, you know, these things were happening to us in our homes,” Mrs. Gore says. In mid-April, they got out their Christmas-card lists and address books and invited their friends and associates to a May 13th meeting at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington. Some of the friends were U.S. senators.

The April 16th letter of invitation revealed that “some rock groups advocate satanic rituals, others sing of open rebellion against parental and other authority, others sing of killing babies.” The letter was signed by Mrs. James A. Baker III and Mrs. Albert Gore, among others. Their husbands’ names, they decided, packed a bigger wallop than their own.

“Heavens!” Mrs. Gore says now, not without sarcasm. “We used our married names!”

At the May meeting, Jeff Ling presented his slide show. Ling says he had been showing the exhibit for six years around Washington, mostly to parents’ groups and drug-counseling centers. But never to U.S. senators. The lyrics seemed to get their attention.

There was this poem from Mötley Crüe’s multiplatinum LP, Shout at the Devil: “Touch my gun but don’t pull the trigger …/Shine my pistol some more/Here I cum …/Reach down real low/Slide it in real slow …/You feel so good/Do you want some more?/I got one more shot/My gun’s still warm.”

There was also something called “If the Kid Can’t Make You Come,” from Morris Day and the Time’s Ice Cream Castle. And an album called Rise of the Mutants by someone called Impaler. On the cover, a rocker in leather has a pulp of bloody meat in his hand and blood dripping from his mouth. On the back, a woman lay at the drummer’s feet with blood on her face and torso.

The next day, The Washington Post ran a small item about the meeting. Things took off from there. Tipper Gore started doing radio interviews and radio talk shows all over the country. There were more than a hundred of them eventually. Then there was Tipper on The CBS Morning News, Tipper on Today, Tipper on the BBC, Tipper and Susan on the Phil Donahue show.

The press was warming up, too. An article titled STOP PORNOGRAPHIC ROCK appeared in May in the “My Turn” column in Newsweek. It was written by one Kandy Stroud, whom Newsweek described as “a free-lance journalist” who “sings with Washington’s Choral Arts Society.” Actually, Mrs. Gore says, Stroud was and is a PMRC consultant or “unofficial member.”

The wives became media wise. They began to say things like “off the record” and “I just want to background you on this.” Soon, every newspaper columnist from Ellen Goodman (Help Buyer Beware on Porn Rock) to William Raspberry (FILTH ON THE AIR) to George F. Will (NO ONE BLUSHES ANYMORE) was pontificating on the inherent evils of explicit rock lyrics. Columnist Bob Greene wrote in Esquire about teenyboppers who offered their body cavities to Mödey Crüe in order to win a radio contest. First prize was a trip backstage to meet the Crüe itself. One fourteen-year-old boy offered the band his mom, who, he wrote, “is very beautiful.”

America had been alerted.

Soon the PMRC was organized as a nonprofit organization. A sympathizer donated office space in downtown Washington, and the PMRC opened up shop on May 14th with its first press release. People around the country began donating money in response to a fund-raising appeal on the Donahue show. Sandy Sharpe, who runs the PMRC office, now says she isn’t sure how much has been raised, but she does know that the “porn rock” issue “struck a nerve from the Madison Avenue executive to the rancher in the San Fernando Valley.” After the Donahue show on July 17th, Sharpe says, the PMRC received 5000 letters in twenty-four hours.

The PMRC began writing its own letters. Lots of letters. They wrote Gortikov at the RIAA. They wrote to the presidents of the sixty biggest record companies. They soon heard from Gortikov, but not the record presidents. They say they still haven’t. But they weren’t surprised. The National PTA folks had told them they had been trying without success since June 1984 to get record companies to publicly respond to demands for record labeling and rating.

“I guess they figured, ‘Let Stan do it,’ ” Mrs. Baker says now of the record-company presidents.

Stan did it. After a series of letters and two face-to-face meetings with the PMRC women, Gortikov wrote the PMRC on August 5th to announce that senior executives of nineteen (later twenty-four) record companies had a concession to offer: they would affix “a printed inscription” on all future albums “to identify blatant explicit lyric content.” The companies proposed a label, PARENTAL GUIDANCE: EXPLICIT LYRICS. Gortikov also promised to try to get all other RIAA members — and even non-RIAA companies — to follow suit.

Later, people like Frank Zappa, Dee Snider and Danny Goldberg would accuse Gortikov of “caving in” to PMRC pressure and would demand that the industry’s labeling offer be rescinded. But there was good reason for Gortikov’s eagerness to appease the PMRC wives — their husbands. As Gortikov wrote in July to member companies, “I cannot escape continuing dialogue with the PMRC group, particularly in view of its Washington links.” He warned that the industry’s attempts in Congress to collect royalties on blank tapes and tape recorders would be “jeopardized” by any failure to respond to PMRC demands.

On August 7th, the PMRC wrote back to say that the PG label wasn’t good enough. It wanted a “panel including all aspects of the business (artists, songwriters, producers, distributors, executives, broadcasters, retailers, et cetera), as well as a representative group from the community at large, to come up with specific guidelines” for what gets labeled. More recently, Tipper Gore has said that the PG label should also be replaced by an R warning.

(The PMRC has since dropped its demand for more extensive ratings: D/A for drugs and alcohol, V for violence, O for occult, X for vulgar or explicit lyrics. After the hearing, Mrs. Gore said the PMRC also had modified its demand for the panel. It now wanted only a “general policy statement affirming good faith” from the record companies, promising that they would label records “based on general criteria they all agreed” to uphold, she said.)

The RIAA was in a tight spot. The Senate hearing was coming up; many of the senators on the committee would not be friendly, given the public posture of their wives. There was also the small matter of H.R. 2911, known as the Home Audio Recording Act. Introduced in the House in June, it was the latest of several attempts by the industry to levy a tax on the home-taping industry. The bill, and a similar version that was to be introduced in the Senate in October, would grant royalties to the recording industry from the sales of blank tapes and tape recorders.

The Senate bill was expected to reach the subcommittee level before the House version, according to Francis O’Brien, an RIAA consultant in Washington. Then it would have to pass the full Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina). The RIAA could not help noticing that one of the signatures on a May 31st PMRC letter to Gortikov was that of Mrs. Strom Thurmond.

“We obviously could not overlook the political connections of the PMRC,” says Trish Heimers, in charge of public relations for the RIAA. “They did not wave our legislation under our noses. We took their concerns at face value. We did, however, have their political connections in the backs of our minds.”

Tipper Gore says the PMRC did not request the Senate hearing. “Heavens, no,” she says. “That’s not the way things work.”

Other than her husband, Mrs. Gore says, she did not discuss the possibility of hearings with anyone on the committee. She says it was Senator Danforth who, after being alerted to the issue by his wife — who is “connected with” the PMRC, according to Mrs. Gore — called the hearing.

Steve Hilton, Senator Danforth’s press secretary, says Danforth decided to call the hearing after several discussions with the commerce-committee staff director, W. Allen Moore. Based on “a number of conversations with PMRC members,” Hilton says, Moore “relayed his concern about the pornographic nature of the lyrics” to Danforth.

“The impetus came from PMRC, which asked for an informal presentation to the committee,” which was granted, Hilton says. “That’s how Mr. Moore first became aware of the issue.”

Tipper Gore now says the scheduling of the hearing “in some ways made my task more difficult. We aren’t seeking legislation or regulation.”

Mrs. Baker is not pleased by the criticism she and Mrs. Gore have received for making the most of their husbands’ positions. “To disenfranchise us because we are married to men in responsible positions is unfair,” she says.

Both women point out that no one criticized them in the late 1970s, when they helped form the Congressional Wives’ Task Force. They campaigned for the homeless, for nutrition programs, for the elderly and against TV violence. “I guess it’s okay as long as you do the ‘safe issues’ that ladies are supposed to do,” Mrs. Gore says. She detects “an undercurrent of sexism” in the rock industry’s protests. “You’ll notice,” Mrs. Baker says, “that the music industry and its defenders are all male.”

So why have rock lyrics attracted far more national attention and debate than, say, the programs for the elderly? “Beats me,” Mrs. Gore says. “The only thing I can figure is it’s an issue whose time has come. There’s real frustration among the grass-roots people….”

The grass roots were out in force for the commerce-committee hearings. Among the several hundred spectators lined up outside, rock & rollers competed with concerned mothers for seats in the overflowing hearing room. There were many strange encounters. For instance: John “Pig Boy” Del Gaizo and his pal Joey “Psycho” Decauzio were discussing incipient McCarthyism and “Bible-toting morons” and how difficult it must have been for the Washington Wives to go to bed every night with husbands who get on TV a lot, when the two were interrupted. Barbara Patrick of Esopus, New York, broke in to inform them that her two teenagers were bombarded daily by blaring rock music … at prep school!

Senator Danforth, an Episcopal minister, seemed to have people like Mrs. Patrick in mind when he warned the audience that “some witnesses will be required to use words that will shock the sensitivities of many of us.” He warned parents at home: Mind your young ones watching this on C-SPAN. He warned the witnesses: “When you go beyond description and needlessly use expressions that go beyond bad taste, remember this is a Senate hearing….”

And so the senators began to speak their minds.

Senator Hollings began the proceedings by noting that the only redeeming social value he detected in “porn rock,” as he called it, was that its words are “inaudible.” “It’s outrageous filth,” he went on, “and we’ve got to do something about it…. If I could find some way constitutionally to do away with it, I would.” He said he had asked “the best constitutional minds” around to see if the stuff could be legally outlawed.

“The framers of the First Amendment never considered broadcast airwaves that could pipe this stuff willy-nilly into homes,” Hollings said.

Senator Paul Trible (R-Virginia) said the hearing “may be the most important hearing this committee conducts.” The issue at hand was not prohibition of rock music, he said. It was “moral suasion,” as applied to record companies.

Senator Gore asked that it be noted for the record that every record-company president asked by the committee to testify had declined. He also said his wife’s involvement in the PMRC had “given me an education” in raunchy rock lyrics. (Mike Kopp, Gore’s press secretary, later noted that four record-company presidents had been invited — from Capitol, CBS, Warner Bros. and RCA. Only CBS responded, he said; none attended.)

Senator Paula Hawkins (R-Florida), who is not a member of the committee, gave a “porn rock” presentation. She showed portions of two rock videos: Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Then, smiling stiffly for the TV cameras, she held up a copy of W.A.S.P.’s Animal (F**k Like a Beast).

After the cheers from the punkers died down in the rear, and after Danforth banged his gavel, Hawkins’ smile faded. “We will give each senator a copy of the lyrics,” she said softly, “if they will promise not to distribute them beyond their own possession.”

Hawkins ended her presentation by cutting off “We’re Not Gonna Take It” just as the evil father is blasted through a wall by his rock & rolling son. “Mr. Chairman,” she said, “this issue is too hot to cool down. Parents are asking for assistance….”

The PMRC women took the witness table to offer it. Mrs. Baker talked about how the “outrageous edge of rock & roll” had gone from Elvis’ pelvis to the buzz saw protruding from Blackie Lawless’ codpiece on a W.A.S.P. album cover, and from the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” to the Judas Priest lyrics “I’m gonna force you at gunpoint to eat me alive.” When the time came to mention the song “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast),” Mrs. Baker winced and spelled it out, f-u-c-k, in a Texas twang. Tipper Gore followed by stressing that “young minds are at stake.”

That was the cue for Jeff Ling to crank up his slide projector. On the screen flashed various album covers by Twisted Sister, AC/DC, Mötley Crüe, W.A.S.P., the Mentors, Prince, the Rolling Stones, Kiss, Morris Day and the Time, Bitch, Abbator, Impaler and Piledriver. Ling read the groups’ lyrics aloud in a hard, fast, staccato voice, often reciting so hastily that he began to gasp for breath. He built to a crescendo for the climax of the presentation — the Mentors’ “Golden Showers,” from “anal vapors” to “shit towers.”

The senators tugged at their ties. The rockers giggled in the rear. Danforth pounded with his gavel, shouting to Ling that his time had expired. Ling smiled and sat down. Danforth thanked the PMRC for bringing the lyrics to the public’s attention. He said it must have been difficult for the ladies to listen to the lyrics, apparently unaware that the PMRC pumps out stacks of mimeographed lyric sheets that the women carry around for distribution.

After Ling had packed up his gear and the PMRC women had left center stage, Senator James Exon (D-Nebraska), a former loan-company branch manager in Lincoln, made a surprising statement. He said, “This is the largest media event I’ve ever seen…. If we’re not talking about federal regulation or legislation, Mr. Chairman, what’s the reason for this hearing? Sometimes I wonder why these media events are scheduled.”

Danforth reddened. He said the hearing was called to “provide a forum for airing what a lot of people consider a problem” and to “ventilate the issue.”

Exon muttered, “We indulge in too many media events.”

Senator Hawkins cut in and told Exon, “No one has the right to poison our children with these lyrics.”

As Frank Zappa took the witness stand moments later, he asked whether the committee was considering legislation. Later, Danforth would say, “Believe me, there is zero chance of legislation.” But Exon told Zappa he was “one senator who might be interested in regulation or legislation … unless the industry cleans up its act.” He added later, “I want to hold out that threat for what it’s worth.”

Other senators, too, were clearly in a legislative mood, despite Danforth’s disclaimer. Unless the industry began to show “discipline,” Hollings warned, “I don’t think the American public will go along with just a nice hearing up in Washington.” Senator Don Riegle (D-Michigan) later told Gortikov point-blank: “You ought to do it [rate albums] before somebody else tries to do it for you.”

Zappa responded by comparing the PMRC demands to “treating dandruff by decapitation.” No one forced Mrs. Baker or Mrs. Gore to bring Prince or Sheena Easton into their homes, he said. “Thanks to the Constitution, they are free to buy other forms of music for their children.”

He described a phone conversation with the PMRC office, a fifteen-by-twenty-foot corner room stacked high with mail, press releases, albums and news clippings. The PMRC secretary, Zappa said, told him the PMRC had no members. “I asked how many other D.C. wives are nonmembers of an organization that raises money by mail, has a tax-exempt status and seems intent on running the Constitution through the family paper shredder. I asked her if it was a cult. Finally she said she couldn’t give me an answer and that she had to call their lawyer.”

Zappa told the committee that “fundamentalism is not a state religion.” He mimicked Mrs. Baker’s Texas accent, drawling in a falsetto voice, “Gonna drah-vuh mah luv inside yew….” He called the PMRC women “the wives of Big Brother.”

Senator Slade Gorton (R-Washington) seemed offended. “I found your statement to be boorish, incredibly and insensibly insulting” to the PMRC women, he told Zappa. “You could manage to give the First Amendment… a bad name if I felt you had the slightest understanding of it, which I do not. You have destroyed any case you might otherwise have had with the Senate.”

Senator Gore, on the other hand, told Zappa he had been a fan of his for years. “You’re a true original,” he said. Nonetheless, Gore went on, labeling seemed a reasonable request. Did Zappa believe the PMRC mothers were “silly” to be so concerned?

“It is the parents’ concern,” Zappa replied. “It’s not the government’s concern.” He said he suspected “a secret plan” and “a hidden agenda” by the PMRC. “It smells like legislation,” he said of the PMRC’s labeling demands.

Zappa went on: “I want my children to grow up in a country where they can think what they want to think and be what they want to be and not what somebody’s wife or somebody in government makes them be.”

Asked by Senator Exon how parents can know the contents of albums without a warning sticker or printed lyrics, Zappa answered, “I would say that a buzz saw in a guy’s crotch on the cover is a pretty good indication that the record is not for little Johnny.”

Senator Hawkins asked Zappa, a father of four, whether he objected to the labeling and rating of toys. “In a way, I do,” Zappa replied. “Somebody in an office someplace is making a decision about how smart my child is.”

Hawkins said she’d like to see the Zappa family toy collection.

“Come on over to the house,” Zappa said.

Hawkins grimaced. She asked whether Zappa earned profits from the sale of rock albums. Yep, Zappa said.

“I think that statement tells the story,” Hawkins said, wrapping up her questioning. The rockers in the rear hissed and booed. Zappa shrugged.

Next up was Denver. He said he “applauded” the PMRC women for their concern, but he was opposed to any sort of rating system. The PMRC, he said, was based on “a foundation of fear” by parents who fail to supervise their children’s buying habits. To put the onus of parental guidance on the music industry, Denver said, would be the first step toward totalitarian regimes that fear “the consequences of an informed and educated people.”

The senators suggested that labeling or rating albums was no threat to freedom of expression, but Denver held firm. Then Gore told Denver that he had been a fan of his for years. And Hollings lamented of rock artists, “They’re not all clean-cut John Denvers.”

Dee Snider of Twisted Sister was living proof. He blew into the hearing room, tossed down his sunglasses, stripped off his denim jacket and let his braided black and yellow hair fall down his back. Reading from a prepared statement, Snider told the committee that he was married, with a three-year-old son, and did not drink, smoke or take drugs. He said he was born and raised a Christian “and I still adhere to those principles.”

Snider said he had a little problem with the PMRC. For one thing, he said, Tipper Gore had “slandered” him by telling an interviewer that Twisted Sister T-shirts depicted a spread-eagled woman in handcuffs. Twisted Sister produced no such T-shirts, he said. Nor was his group’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” video violent, Snider went on. It was was merely a “cartoon with human actors playing variations on the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote theme. Each stunt was selected from my extensive personal collection of cartoons.” As in cartoons, Snider said, the villain in the video emerged unscathed from each seemingly catastrophic crash or fall. The United Way, he added, had requested permission to use the video for a program on “the changing American family.”

Finally, Snider said, his group’s song “Under the Blade” was not about sadomasochism, bondage and rape, as the PMRC has contended. It was about a friend’s fear of surgery.

As Senator Gore prepared to question him, Snider asked his own question first: Was the senator a big fan of his group, too? No, Gore said. He did not smile. Instead, he asked Snider the meaning of the letters S,M and F in his group’s SMF Friends of Twisted Sister Fan Club.

Snider didn’t miss a beat. “The Sick Mother-Fucking Friends of Twisted Sister Fan Club,” he replied airily.

“Is this also a Christian group?” Gore asked.

“Profanity has nothing to do with Christianity,” Snider said.

Asked later for his suggestions on how to inform parents about the lyrical content of records, Snider proposed a “satisfaction guaranteed” policy in which retailers would agree to exchange records that consumers found objectionable. He also suggested stores resurrect listening booths so that customers could hear records before buying them.

After a half-hour in the witness chair, Snider was thanked and dismissed. The next witness, the lady from the PTA, was nearly trampled in the stampede of rockers, reporters, parents, Senate aides and TV crews bolting from the room. The rock stars and the networks were quickly gone. So were most of the ten senators who had been asking all the questions. Only four — among them, Gore and Danforth — remained.

Sitting in one of her hsband’s staff offices in the Russell Senate Office Building shortly after the hearing, Tipper Gore called it “terrific. It was an airing of all sides. A lot of misinformation and misconceptions was properly cleared up.” Specifically, she said, the notion that the PMRC sought censorship was disproved.

Four days later, Mrs. Gore and Mrs. Baker sat in the same office and discussed the PMRC’s future. Through the hearing, Mrs. Baker said, “the industry has now recognized we have legitimate concerns.”

Even Frank Zappa had been civil to them, Mrs. Gore pointed out. The PMRC had not previously been enamored of Zappa. There was the small matter of an editorial he had written in August for Cash Box magazine, which lay now on a table before Mrs. Gore. In the editorial, Zappa had called the PMRC ladies “cultural terrorists” with “anti-sexual pseudo-Christian legislative fervor,” who espoused “fundamentalist frogwash.” He condemned their “special access to legislative machinery” and said “no person married or related to a government official should be permitted to waste the nation’s time on ill-conceived housewife hobby projects….”

Well, Mrs. Gore said, Frank Zappa was supposed to be a liberal, but his comments were “archaic.” But then again, he had invited her out for a drink after the hearing. And she found him to be “perfectly charming and very nice.” She paused. “Well, somewhat charming. But quite different from his public persona.” She said Zappa agreed with her that the printing of lyrics offered a promising compromise.

At any rate, Mrs. Gore and Mrs. Baker said, Frank Zappa pretty much represents himself. The man they still had to deal with was Stan Gortikov. Gortikov truly represented the industry, they said; they had scheduled a meeting with him for the following week.

But later that very day, Trish Heimers of the RIAA, speaking on behalf of Gortikov, was saying that the RIAA and the PMRC had nothing left to talk about. She said she had no knowledge of any meeting between Gortikov and the PMRC. There would be no more concessions, she added. The PG label is as far as the industry is willing to go.

Mrs. Gore and Mrs. Baker smiled and said they planned to continue the labeling fight until they had won and then move on to the rest of their demands — brown wrappers, MTV, printed lyrics and all the rest. They said the issue had by no means peaked with the hearing, which Mrs. Gore said had “raised public consciousness.” They said they were confident that they were close to a compromise with the RIAA on a warning label.

For now, Tipper was heading for L.A. to do a TV spot. But when she returned, the ladies said, Mr. Gortikov could rest assured he would be hearing from them again quite soon.


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