Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian
We all know that politics can be a dirty business. But on Sept. 19, 1985, things got really dirty – as in, completely inappropriate for the kids. And the PR pros.
That’s the day the U.S. Senate held a hearing on “porn rock.” The intention was to consider whether the content of some music may be inappropriate for children and, if so, what should be done about it. The driving force behind the hearing were four politically connected moms who had founded the PMRC – the Parents Music Resource Center. And the primary spokesperson for the group was Tipper Gore, wife of Senator Al Gore.
The PMRC wanted the record labels to put a warning sticker on albums that had explicit content and to create a rating system similar to the one used by the movie industry. They also wanted stores to conceal any albums with cover designs that were really hot. I mean, offensive.
Representing the degenerate musicians were Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, Frank Zappa and John Denver, who attended because he mistakenly thought the topic was endangered species. What ensued was a superb public relations battle.
To make their case, the PMRC activists and several others read song lyrics and showed music videos. As the Washington Post reported, “The litany of licentiousness generated equal amounts of laughter and groans from the standing-room-only crowd.”
The activists also cited “the Filthy Fifteen:” fifteen songs they said were particularly objectionable. The list included songs by Prince, Judas Priest, AC/DC, Madonna and Black Sabbath; a longer list also named several songs by Yanni as musical abominations, but for different reasons.
But the musicians gave as good as they got. Snider admonished the group, “The full responsibility for defending my children falls on the shoulders of my wife and I, because there is no one else capable of making these judgments for us.” Zappa – rarely one for subtlety – called the PMRC’s proposal “an ill-conceived piece of nonsense,” adding it was “the equivalent of treating dandruff with decapitation.”
And Denver, whom the Senators probably had considered to be a ringer, said the proposals were similar to the Nazi book burnings. He further stated, “That which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting” – coincidentally, words I recall being told repeatedly throughout my college years.
Despite the musicians’ strong testimony, the record industry, which had several other legislative priorities, voluntarily agreed to add the warning stickers; that’s the “Parental Advisory” labels you’ve seen on many records (and at the entrance to each Popeye’s).
Side note: Tipper Gore was hardly a prude. She played the drums, and in her youth, she sat in with The Grateful Dead. She also performed in an all-female band called the Wildcats, and I’m sure they were really hot. I mean, offensive.
In the end, both sides could claim victory. Gore’s group got their labels and were very successful in raising awareness about explicit music lyrics. The raunchy performers, meanwhile, got some great exposure. One radio personality credited the PMRC with helping popularize heavy metal, and as Dee Snider later observed, the common response from kids was, “ ‘Now we know which records to buy!’ ”
And we in the PR profession got another good lesson. Because even when your campaign is topping the charts, you have to be ready to deal with the misses. And the Missus.