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

The 1980s is often looked back upon with nostalgia, and for some people it's probably hard to remember just how tumultuous a decade it was. As an adolescent growing up during the decade of big shoulder pads and even bigger hairstyles, I remember how tense the '80s were. Young people at the time were coming of age during an era where sex could result in contracting an incurable and fatal disease, along with the stress of the ongoing Cold War, where TV movies like "The Day After" would helpfully remind us that our world could evaporate in a fiery flash of exploding Russian atom bombs. It's no wonder that, like teens of previous generations, many of us tried to escape through rock music, but there were forces at work attempting to change how we were able to do that.

The 1980s was, among other things, a decade of emerging social conservatism, perhaps in reaction to a perception by many people that things had swung too far in the other direction during the late 1960s and 1970s. Ronald Reagan was in office, Christian Conservatives like Jerry Fallwell's Moral Majority had risen to power, there was an ongoing witch hunt in the form of the Satanic Panic, and basically the 1980s seemed to be a time where powerful social forces were trying to push back against stuff they just didn't like.

Rock music has been blamed for the moral decay of young people since its very beginning, with parents and various authorities fearing that listening to rock and roll might cause white kids to explore black music and the perceived dangers that entailed, or might literally damn themselves for all time, because God might not tolerate someone listening to Buddy Holly. Looking back on those early protests against rock and roll, it's easy to see that some adults have always been frightened by the things their kids find exciting. After all, listening to Elvis might have led kids to discover morality withering pastimes like playing pinball.

Of course, by the 1980s, popular music had changed a lot, and some artists did try to push the boundaries of lyrical content and image. Pissing off parents had long proven to be a sure way to sell records, and rock music had evolved to the point that it wasn't just for kids anyway. The mid '80s seemed to be a time when social conservatism gained particular strength at a governmental level, and in 1985 a group of concerned women formed the Parents Music Resource Center, also known as the PMRC. These rock music hating folks were the wives of powerful politicians, giving their committee more clout than the average group of concerned citizens. Headed by Tipper Gore, the wife of then-Senator Al Gore, and also other powerful Washington wives, the PMRC was very worried that rock music had gotten too out of hand, and would lead to the type of moral decay previous generations might have blamed on horror comics.

The PMRC issued a list of "suggestions," including the voluntary formation of a ratings system by the recording industry. While many would think that such a ratings system was reasonable, the PMRC had other suggestions which were not as easy to accept. Those included putting pressure on the radio and television stations to not broadcast explicit songs, making record stores sell albums with graphic covers under the counter, and pressuring record companies to reassess the contracts of artists who performed live with any sexual or violent content as part of their show. Powerful retail scaredy-cats like Sears and Walmart reacted predictably by not allowing certain rock music to be sold at their stores.