Rock ‘n’ roll culture has always been music for rebels, shared by different racial and social groups. Since the beginning of the genre, the contrast between parental and youth culture has been a recurring source of concern for older generations, who worried about their kids ‘acting out’ and getting themselves into trouble.
On September 19, 1985, Tipper Gore, the wife of senator and future Vice President Al Gore, started a cultural battle between the concerned housewives and rock ‘n’ roll idols. Tipper’s peace was shuttered after her preteen daughter brought home a copy of the soundtrack album to Prince's Purple Rain (an R-rated movie), and Tipper heard the lyrics to the song ‘Darling Nikki.’
I knew a girl named Nikki,
I guess you could say she was a sex fiend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine
She said how'd you like to waste some time
And I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind.
The noble lady felt deeply offended and decided to lead a crusade against explicit lyrics in rock music. She formed a Parent Music Resource Center (PMRC) together with her Washington housewife friends, Susan Baker (wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker), Pam Howar (wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar), and Sally Nevius (wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius). The "Washington Wives" stated a goal for their organization to increase parental control over the access of children to music deemed to have violent, drug-related or sexual themes via labeling albums with Parental Advisory stickers.
The group sent a letter to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and more than 50 record labels proposing that record companies either cease the production of music with violent and sexually charged lyrics or develop a motion picture-style ratings system for albums. The PMRC made American stores including Wal-Mart, J. C. Penney, Sears and Fred Meyer withdraw rock music and magazines from their sales.
The "Washington Wives" also made a special list of most objectionable songs called the "Filthy Fifteen." Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Def Leppard made the list. Even Cyndi Lauper was too dangerous for young ears according to the PMRC.
Cronos (Venom singer):
I was told about the PMRC during a recording session in the '80s, and I thought someone had hidden cameras, like pulling a prank on me to see my reaction, so I dismissed it as bollocks. Then, when I found out they were real, I couldn’t understand how supposedly intelligent people could be so ignorant. Of course, rock 'n' roll has all of the subject matter they accused it of having. It's rock and roll! It's supposed to be hard-core and edgy. Most of us rockers have families, and we are responsible parents. We don’t need the PMRC doing our jobs of protecting our kids from the harmful shit in this world. I would have been more upset if one of my songs or albums had not taken pride of place on their list.
Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider on what he thought of “We’re Gonna Take It” appearing among the PMRC's "Filthy 15":
I thought these women were very confused. And I quickly became aware that they only had had a passing glance at the content of songs. They just made some snap judgments. They saw the "We're Not Gonna Take It" video, "Oh, he's beating up his father, it's a violent song." They thought it was about violence against adults. They had not vetted the songs they had chosen very well.
On September 19th their battle against immorality came to its culmination in a "porn rock" Senate hearing featuring testimony from music stars who were willing to fight back the censorship. Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider testified against the PMRC proposal.
Even though Frank Zappa wasn’t included in the ‘Filthy Fifteen’ list, he still was infuriated by the fact of its existence because to him it felt like Cucamonga all over again.
Here is a video of his statement in court.
There are several "historical accounts" from which to choose. Let's arbitrarily choose this one: One day in 1985, Tipper Gore, wife of the Democratic senator from Tennessee, bought her 8-year-old daughter a copy of the soundtrack album to Prince's Purple Rain—an R-rated film which had already generated considerable controversy for its sexual content. For some reason, however, she was shocked when their daughter pointed out a reference to masturbation in a song called "Darling Nikki." Tipper rounded up a bunch of her Washington housewife friends, most of whom happened to be married to influential members of the U.S. Senate, and founded the PMRC.
Kandie Stroud, journalist and PMRC spokeswoman who debated Frank Zappa on TV:
We were a family completely saturated in music. I remember one time, one of my kids said, "Listen to this song, but don't listen to the lyrics, mom, you won't like them." Sure enough, it was some explicit song. I think it was something by Prince. I kind of looked into the topic and interviewed a bunch of different people in the music world. I thought, "Wow, it's really changed since the days of the Beatles and Elvis."
Cerphe Colwell, longtime Washington, D.C., radio personality who testified at the PMRC hearing:
Ironically, most of the heavy metal songs that they listed at the time were virtually unknown to the public. Heavy metal as a music format hadn't really blossomed. I truly believe to this day that one of the reasons that metal took off so much in the 1980s as a successful format is that the PMRC brought attention to what they thought was unacceptable, and of course that made it very much in the spotlight.
For Dee Snider, his testimony was a chance to show the world that he was not the dumb, aggressive metalhead the PMRC thought he was.
Here is Snider’s full testimony:
You talk about the music that was on the Filthy Fifteen, it's easy listening by today’s standards. It’s more than ironic that in the movie Rock of Ages, the Parents Music Resource Center-esque group headed by Catherine Zeta-Jones sang "We're Not Gonna Take It" at the rock star! That’s irony in its purest form.
Gotta give John Denver credit. His testimony was one of the most scathing because they fully expected—he was such a mom-American-pie-John-Denver-Christmas-special-fresh-scrubbed guy. Everyone expected that he would be on the side of right—right being censorship. When he brought up, "I liken this to the Nazi book burnings"—that's what he said in his testimony—you should've seen them start running for the hills! His testimony was the most powerful in many ways.
Here is the full speech of John Denver American singer-songwriter, actor, activist and humanitarian:
On November 1, 1985, before the hearing ended, the RIAA agreed to put "Parental Advisory" labels on selected releases at their own discretion. The labels were generic, unlike the original idea of a descriptive label categorizing the explicit lyrics. It is uncertain whether the "Tipper sticker" is effective in preventing children from being exposed to the explicit content. Some, citing the "forbidden-fruit effect," suggest that the sticker actually increases record sales.
A ‘U.S. News Tonight’ newscast:
The PMRC eventually grew to include 22 participants before shutting down in the mid-to-late 90's. Though the Parental Advisory labels are largely obsolete 32 years later, the question of the PMRC's lasting legacy remains.
Tipper Gore, released a statement to Rolling Stone magazine on the 30th anniversary of the Senate hearing:
In this era of social media and online access, it seems quaint to think that parents can have control over what their children see and hear. But I think this conversation between parents and kids is as relevant today as it was back in the Eighties.