Looking Back at When Rock Music Was Under Attack By the PMRC

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Along with their suggestions, the PMRC released a list of songs that earned the title of the "Filthy Fifteen," which included entries from artists as diverse as Cyndi Lauper, whose tune "She Bop" the committee maintained was about masturbation, and metal band Venom, whose song "Possessed" made the list for having occult content. In September of 1985, the PMRC had their moment in the spotlight, when the Senate agreed to have a hearing on what they were calling "Porn Rock." The ensuing event was ridiculed by rock fans as very earnest PMRC members went head to head against rock musicians including Dee Snider from Twisted Sister and Frank Zappa. They were joined by John Denver, whose folk rock song "Rocky Mountain High" had been misinterpreted as a pro-drug song, leaving him with a distrust of musical censorship efforts.Dee Snider also maintained that his band's music had been misinterpreted and made an argument that, as a father, he felt that only his wife and he were qualified to make musical decisions for his children, believing the same was true for other parents. Frank Zappa, being the awesome individual that he was, argued eloquently that the PMRC's proposals were badly conceived and would not benefit children, but instead just harm adults who liked rock music.

In November of 1985, the record industry agreed to put generic warning labels on albums containing material that might be objectionable to some. Albums with the "Tipper Stickers" weren't carried in certain big chains like Walmart, but also resulted in letting kids know which albums contained the kind of stuff that might worry their parents - a worthwhile goal to many teenagers. Many musical artists ridiculed the PMRC and their nanny sticker, and music continued to get produced and sold that the committee would've preferred disappear.

Looking back at the list of suggestions the PMRC had made, it's hard to imagine how anyone with a love of free speech or music could have embraced such an agenda. I've heard people argue that "A rating system isn't a bad idea," and perhaps that could be true, if the rating system being suggested didn't include warnings of "occult content" and other weirdly subjective judgments. Asking record companies to reassess the contracts of certain objectionable artists is pretty troubling as well. Popular music is a form of art, or can be, and pushing boundaries is part of what good art sometimes does. In the long run, parents that object to their kids listening to certain material, can do what parents have always done, actually listen to the music they're worried about, and make a decision for themselves. Did anyone really want Tipper Gore and her cronies making those choices for them?

The 1980s were an interesting decade for many reasons, but it was definitely an era where social conservatives and alarmist groups who thought certain art, music, and film were dangerous to young minds had more power than they probably should have been allowed. The PMRC really accomplished little of lasting importance, but they provide a cautionary example of why it's a terrible idea to allow moral watchdogs to act from a position of authority when it comes to artistic content or music.
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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.