The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
"A Mother Takes a Stand"
Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society
Tipper Gore (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987)
Frank Zappa, testifying
at the congressional hearings

[The Eighties Club does not necessarily concur with the views represented in this excerpt. We produce it here with the awareness that there are other sides to this issue not represented in what follows. But the grassroots campaign against sex and violence allegedly glorified by some forms of music is of historical interest as an important element of the so-called "culture wars" waged during the 1980s.]

As the fatigue from the day's events settled in, while I waited at LaGuardia Airport, I couldn't stop my mind from replaying the hostile confrontation I had just experienced. Now I was alone in New York City, stranded by stormy weather. This was one of the worst nights of my life.

I had just endured three hours of verbal attacks from angry rock stars and other recording artists. The New York Chapter of the National Association of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS), which presents the coveted Grammy Awards, had invited me to represent the Parents' Music Resource Center in a panel on explicit lyrics. I knew that some songwriters and performers in NARAS did not especially appreciate our views, but they needed to hear how a number of consumers feel about certain musicians' products. I thought I could help them understand our concerns.

I never had a chance. The panel included record producer Bob Porter, jazz artist Mtume, and punk rock singer Wendy O. Williams, in a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Eat Your Honey." The audience consisted of a business associate of the rock group Twisted Sister, punk rockers sporting purple mohawk haircuts and T-shirts bearing the logo for the heavy metal band Venom, and a few quiet NARAS officials. Every question, for almost three hours, was aimed at me. Many were highly personal and insulting. No doubt about it -- I had been set up.

I suggested to the panel that parents have a right to know what their children are buying and hearing. Wendy O. Williams, a Grammy nominee, replied that I was upset about these songs simply because I can't handle the possibility that my own child might masturbate....Ms. Williams obviously considered me a neurotic Washington housewife who dislikes sex. She proceeded to read from the Song of Solomon and Twelfth Night. It almost seemed worth the pain to hear a woman who sings songs like "(Work That Muscle) F*** That Booty" recite the Bible and Shakespeare.

....[I]t never occurred to me that record industry officials would be a party to such tasteless personal attacks. Nor did I imagine that the people who play a role in awarding Grammys would refuse to take explicit lyrics seriously....

I had become aware of the emergence of explicit and violent images in the world of music several months earlier, through my children. In December 1984, I purchased Prince's best-selling album Purple Rain for my eleven-year-old daughter. I had seen Prince on the cover of magazines, and I knew that he was the biggest pop idol in years. My daughter wanted his album because she had heard the single "Let's Go Crazy" on the radio. But when we brought the album home, put it on our stereo, and listened to it together, we heard the words to another song, "Darling Nikki": "I knew a girl named Nikki/Guess you could say she was a sex fiend/ I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine." The song went on and on, in a similar manner. I couldn't believe my ears! The vulgar lyrics embarrassed both of us. I was stunned -- then I got mad! Millions of Americans were buying Purple Rain with no idea what to expect. Thousands of parents were giving the album to their children -- many even younger than my daughter.

Around that time, my two younger daughters, ages six and eight, began asking me about things they had seen on MTV, the music video channel on cable television. I had always thought that videos had great potential as a dramatic new art form, but I had not watched many. I began watching more often, and I observed that several included adult (or at least "mature") themes and images. "Mom, why is the teacher taking off her clothes?" my six-year-old asked, after watching Van Halen's Hot for Teacher, in which a "teacher" does a striptease act for the boys in her class.

I sat down with my kids and watched videos like Motley Crue's Looks That Kill, with scantily clad women being captured and imprisoned in cages by a studded-leather-clad male band. In Photograph, by Def Leppard, we saw a dead woman tied up with barbed wire. The Scorpions' Rock You Like a Hurricane showed a man tied to the walls of a torture chamber and a singer being choked by a woman. These images frightened my children; they frightened me! The graphic sex and the violence were too much for us to handle.

Other parents were experiencing the same rude awakening. One day in early 1985, my friend Susan Baker came by to talk about her concerns. Susan and her husband, U.S. Treasury Secretary James Baker, have eight children. She told me that two of her friends were getting ready to take action on the issue of pornographic and violent images in music, and asked if I would be interested in signing a letter inviting others to a meeting to hear more about the excesses in some rock music.

....We decided to establish the nonprofit Parents' Music Resource Center, to be known as PMRC. In May of 1985, we set out to alert other parents in our community. Sally [Nevius] arranged for Jeff Ling, a former rock musician who is now a youth minister at a suburban Virginia church, to give a slide presentation graphically illustrating the worst excesses in rock music, from lyrics to concert performances to rock magazines aimed at the teenage market. We invited the public, community leaders, our friends (some of whom held public office), and representatives of the music industry. Our hope was to generate a discussion of the issue, raise public awareness, and begin a dialogue with people in the industry. To our surprise, more than 350 people showed up at our first meeting on May 15,. 1985, at St. Columba's Church in Washington, DC.

To my knowledge, no music industry representatives attended this meeting, with one very important exception: Eddie Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), unable to attend himself, had sent his wife, Martha Dale Fritts, and two NAB staff members. They brought with them a letter that Mr. Fritts had just written and sent to eight hundred group station owners, which alerted them to growing concern among the public over "porn rock."

....Eddie Fritts had a keen sense of corporate responsibility. He and his wife also have teenagers at home. Many station owners and programmers share his concerns. In June 1985, the industry newspaper Radio and Records reported: "Record industry officials declined comment, but radio programmers spotchecked by R&R this week generally welcomed the NAB's suggestion that record companies enclose written lyrics with records to help stations detect sexually explicit or violent wordings that may be inappropriate for their audiences."

....Record companies were not so excited. Lenny Waronker, president of Warner Brothers Records (Prince's label), rejected the NAB request to include lyrics. "It smells of censorship," he told the Los Angeles Times....A representative of one local station, the sometimes controversial KROQ-FM in Pasadena, California, agreed: "It's freedom of choice. The music is the beat; the lyrics come secondary....We make our money on sex, from A to Z. It's what sells."

By happy chance, we gained an alley in the recording industry who could help us find our way through the music business. Throughout the ensuing campaign, he gave us invaluable advice -- on the condition that he never be identified.

Our secret ally held an important position in the record industry. Like us, he was sickened and disgusted by the trend toward pornography and violence in some rock music....

Our strategy was simple. We felt it was crucial to publicize the excesses in song lyrics and videos, the source of our concern. We were convinced that most parents are either unaware of the trends in rock music, or uncertain what to do about them. We decided to get the word out and build a consumer movement to put pressure on the industry....We wanted industry leaders to assume direct corporate responsibility for their products. The problem was to persuade an industry profiting from excesses to exercise some self-restraint.

....From June to November 1985, we held dozens of meetings, participated in frequent conference calls, and exchanged numerous letters, as we sought solutions palatable to the industry and to the National PTA (National Congress of Parents and Teachers) and the PMRC. As our negotiations intensified, the issue quickly became a national one.

Media coverage of the campaign included well over 150 newspaper columns, editorials, and radio stories about the porn rock issue. Ellen Goodman, William Raspberry, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, William Shannon, Judy Mann, Mike Royko, David Gergen, and many other syndicated columnists wrote favorable reviews. Reuter's North European Service carried stories, while the BBC did separate radio and TV interviews with Susan Baker and me. The Economist of London, the Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, Esquire, Newsweek, Newsday, The New Republic, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today all ran stories. Most were supportive.

....News of the PMRC's fight to alert the public to porn rock spread quickly. The women of the PMRC collectively did hundreds of interviews on radio and television and for magazines and newspapers across the country and around the world. The "Donahue Show," "Today," "CBS Morning News," PBS's "Late Night America," all three networks' evening news shows, "Entertainment Tonight," "Hour Magazine," and many others picked up the story.

Meanwhile, Mr. [Stan] Gortikov of the RIAA gave us a crash course on the recording industry. In a meeting with the PMRC in June 1985, he explained that the companies in the RIAA sell 85 percent of the recorded music in America. While the industry had considered a rating system, he said it would be too difficult to administer. The movie industry rates about 350 new films a year; the recording industry produces some 25,000 songs and 2,500 albums annually....

In August, a middle-aged rocker named Frank Zappa, who enjoys a dedicated following, emerged as the record industry spokesperson chosen to confront the PMRC. Zappa labeled us "the Washington wives," and (my personal favorite) "cultural terrorists." He summarized his arguments in Cash Box magazine:

No person married to or related to a government official should be permitted to waste the nation's time on ill-conceived housewife hobby projects such as this. The PMRC's case is totally without merit, based on a hodge-podge of fundamentalist frogwash and illogical conclusions.

He was not the only one to surface in opposition to the PMRC. With a cry of "Censorship!" Danny Goldberg, president of Gold Mountain Records, formed Musical Majority, which enlisted the help of artists like Daryl Hall and John Cougar Mellencamp. While the Musical Majority defended artists' rights, the PMRC raised questions about the rights of others. What about the right of parents to protect their children? What about the right of citizens not to be bombarded with explicit material in the public domain?

....The PMRC proposed a unique mechanism to increase consumer choice in the marketplace instead of limiting it. Our approach was the direct opposite of censorship. We called for more information, not less. We did not advocate a ban on even the most offensive albums or tapes. We simply urged that the consumer be forewarned through the use of warning labels and/or printed lyrics visible on the outside packaging of music products. Critics used the smokescreen of censorship to dodge the real issue, which was lack of any corporate responsibility for the impact their products may have on young people.

....The PMRC and the National PTA have agreed that...musical products should enjoy all the rights and privileges guaranteed by the First Amendment. But as Thomas Jefferson once said, when excesses occur, the best guarantee of free speech is more speech, not less. That's all we asked for -- awareness and disclosure. Our proposal amounted to nothing more than truth-in-packaging, a time-honored principle in our free-enterprise system.

....By this time, the United States Congress had begun to take an interest in the issue, and many members considered holding hearings. In September 1985, Senator John Danforth of Missouri scheduled a hearing before the Senate's commerce committee, which he chaired. The commerce committee has jurisdiction over communications issues, and wanted to investigate the prevalence of pornographic, violent rock lyrics for its own information -- not to consider any legislation.

....[T]he September 19 hearing certainly brought the issue out for public debate. It turned out to be the most widely publicized media event in congressional history. A seat in the hearing room was the hottest ticket in town all year.

....After the Senate hearing, the negotiations produced results that all parties felt represented a workable and fair arrangement. We decided to make a major compromise -- to accept the formation of an RIAA policy statement on explicit lyrics, and drop our request for a uniform standard of what is or is not explicit. We would also drop our request for an R rating on albums or tapes to designate explicit products, in exchange for the warning "Explicit Lyrics -- Parental Advisory." We agreed to give the compromise a chance to work in the marketplace, and to monitor it jointly and assess its effectiveness a year later. We also agreed to cease the media campaign for one year. On November 1, 1985, the RIAA, the National PTA, and the PMRC jointly announced the agreement at the National Press Club in Washington.

The critics, of course, weren't finished. I became the victim of harsh and often tasteless attacks. Someone sent me a copy of SPIN, a music magazine published by Bob Guccione, Jr., and financed by his father, the publisher of Penthouse. It contained a satirical article entitled "Tipper Gore's Diary," which detailed all the songs I would ban before or after lunch. The article eventually raised itself to the level of a personal pornographic attack, by alluding in rather uncivilized terms to my sexual relations with my husband....

During October and November of 1985, the New York-based Simmons Market Research Bureau surveyed the nation on the issue of rating records. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed agreed there should be a rating system. Additionally, 80 percent wanted the lyrics visible on the outside of the albums or tapes, where they can be read. And the censorship charge didn't stand up to scrutiny.

Heavy metal and its loyal fan following represent a new phenomenon in rock music. Focusing on the darker, violent side of life, this brand of music was first played in England some twenty years ago as a vehicle for countercultural rebellion....But the frustration and rebellion that is a normal part of the maturation process for many young people...seemed to turn to greater and greater despair. The music took an even darker turn and explored subjects like devil worship and the occult, sadistic sex, murder, rape, and suicide.

....Perhaps the youth of the eighties have to go to new extremes such as these to get their parents' attention. It must be hard to rebel against a generation of adults who have broken quite a few taboos themselves.

The names of some of these bands imply a fascination with violence and evil: Venom, the Dead Kennedys, Suicidal Tendencies, W.A.S.P. (which, according to them, stands for "We Are Sexual Perverts"), Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Warlord, Metallica, Predator, the Scorpions, Slayer, and Black Sabbath.Certain of these heavy metal and punk rock bands make violence (particularly sexual violence), explicit sex, and the power of evil central themes in their concert performances and recordings.

....Most of the heavy metal bands record for small independent labels and will "only" sell perhaps 250,000 to 400,000 copies. These groups tour the country and can build up a substantial number of fans by playing live concerts and selling their records by mail order. Increasingly, those independent labels are being distributed by the six major corporate record labels. This is a business decision which will further promote heavy metal to the public.

In concert, the most strident bands not only play their music at the highest decibels, but perform what they describe as "vaudeville acts" that glamorize explicit sex, alcohol and drug use, and bloody violence....A male rock star, Alice Cooper, was one of the early proponents of "shock rock." He used props like guillotines and giant boa constrictor snakes to terrify and excite the aduence. The band Kiss elaborated on Cooper's theatrical violence and drew nationwide protests and devoted fans....In England, Ozzy Osbourne, long-time lead vocalist for the heavy metal band Black Sabbath, horrified rock enthusiasts by biting off the head of a live bat during one frenzied performance. Heavy metal headliners are now competing with each other to be the most outrageous and socially unacceptable, which seems to assure them instant success among young fans.

W.A.S.P. released an album of the same name that was replete with songs about death and sex. It included lyrics such as "Sex and pain are the same,/They're really the same." The band's lead singer has convulsed audiences by throwing raw meat into the crowd. The band has also used skeletons, axes, blades, and gallons of fake blood as props. To promote their act, they have used a picture of a bloodied, half-naked woman chained to a torture rack. Past performances have included the simulated attack and torture of a woman. Reportedly, in the act lead singer Blackie Lawless wore between his legs a codpiece adorned with a circular saw blade....As Adrianne Stone reports in the January 1985 edition of Hit Parader, "[W.A.S.P. are] the deranged demons who bind a loincloth-clad female onto a 'rack,' then 'slit' her neck until she shakes and convulses into oblivion."

....Rock music fan magazines freely publicize this violent, gruesome entertainment, gleefully reporting and dramatizing the "fun." In September 1985 Faces Rocks carried a story about the "hot 'n' nasty" W.A.S.P. band. Band member Lawless told writer Keith Greenberg that "nastiness" is central to the W.A.S.P. performance. "I don't mean vulgar 'nasty,'" he said. "I mean violent. We sound like a tin can ripped open with your hands, that kind of nasty. It doesn't leave a clean cut." Anger helps fuel the violence Blackie Lawless and other heavy metal rockers inject into their performances. "The anger is what helps you relate to the kids," he said in the same interview. "When you got adolescents and you put in a healthy dose of hostility, you got a lethal combination there. That's what makes rock 'n' roll what it is."....

Parents should listen closely to the messages in heavy metal. A song by the popular Motley Crue offers this view of a romantic interlude: "I'll either break her face/Or take down her legs/Get my ways at will/Go for the throat/Never let loose/Going in for the kill." Or consider this from their two million seller: "Out go the lights/In goes my knife/Pull out his life/Consider the bastard dead."

....Some heavy metal songs extol the virtues of torture, rape, and murder of women. They usually portray women as sexual playthings and as victims -- objects of pleasure designed, like alcohol and drugs or fast cars, for men to use and abuse. Many of the album covers of heavy metal groups present glimpses of this anger-spurred violence.

....Abattoir's Vicious Attack shows a woman's torso with a man's arm wrapped around her from behind. In one hand the man holds a dagger, in the other a sharpened meathook which he presses to the woman's breast. The album Savage Grace boasts a color photograph of a nude woman gagged and chained to a motorcycle, and the album Be My Slave shows a scantily clad woman on her knees, holding sadomasochistic tools of the trade in her hands.

....Children are also portrayed as victims of brutal violence by some of these bands. One group, tastelessly styled the Dead Kennedys, has a song called "I Kill Children." It goes like this: "I kill children/I love to see them die/I kill children/I make their mothers cry." Another band, Slayer, known for its dedicated satanic lyrics, sings in a song entitled "Kill Again": "Kill the preacher's only son/Watch the infant die/Bodily dismemberment/Drink the purest blood."

Is all this just entertainment? A 1986 study by two professors at California State University at Fullerton concluded that teens don't listen to the words of songs, just the beat....However, common sense and virtually every other study on the topic suggests otherwise.

Dr. Joseph Stuessy, professor of music at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of The Heavy Metal User's Manual, holds that music does affect behavior.....According to Dr. Stuessy, music aids retention of verbal messages; we are more likely to remember a message if it comes to us in a musical contect. Repetition makes us more likely to internalize -- and like -- a message....Dr. Stuessy warns that heavy metal music differs categorically from earlier forms of popular music and from mainstream rock and roll. With its celebration of extreme violence, substance abuse, explicit sex, and satanism, one of heavy metal's main themes is hatred....

As radio consultant Lee Abrams allegedly stated, heavy metal may be "the music to kill your parents by." Teens who listen to heavy metal get that message of hate overtly or covertly....Another rock and roll expert cites examples of teen homicides, suicides, and other violent acts linked to a youth's involvement with, among other things, heavy metal music. Dr. Paul King, medical director of the adolescent program at Charter Lakeside Hospital, a psychiatric and addictive disease facility in Memphis, Tennessee, says that over 80 percent of the adolescent patients he treats have listened to heavy metal music for several hours a day. Dr. King notes that over 50 percent of them know the words to the songs and can write them down. A number of students spend school time writing and memorizing the words, he adds; "the lyrics become a philosophy of life, a religion."

Since we began the Parents' Music Resource Center, we have read many letters and reports indicating that the messages of violent hatred in the "religion" of heavy metal do influence and help corrupt; in some extreme cases, they even seem to play a part in ending young lives. Undoubtedly, there are other important factors in all these cases, but the message of the music can be regarded, at the very least, as a symptom of some distress, if the young person is troubled....

One such letter came from a mother in San Antonio, Texas. She has experienced a tragedy that she feels is directly related to the influence of music on behavior. This woman told me that in the summer of 1980, her sixteen-year-old son went into a trancelike state on a very hot summer night. He was listening to Pink Floyd's album The Wall. He had not been able to sleep because his allergies were acting up, and he had a severe headache. His aunt was asleep on the couch in front of the TV set, which was beaming a violent episode of "Starsky and Hutch" about a serial killer of prostitutes. The boy suddenly stabbed his aunt to death. He claims not even to remember the act.

According to the police report, there were no drugs involved, just hot weather, the headache, the TV, and the music. Her son "believes the music itself can hypnotize you," she says. At this writing her son is now in prison, and she and her family have exhausted all means of appealing the case.

There are many other recent cases of children committing similar types of murders. In May 1986, the Tacoma News Tribune reported that a twenty-six-year-old boy murdered his mother with an ax and a pair of scissors, in the course of raping her. He was ruled sane for trial; the defense plans to plead that the influence of satanism and heavy metal music caused the boy to commit these acts. To date, however, no such defense has been successful in the courts.

We should be deeply concerned about the obvious cumulative effect of this cult of violence that has captured the public's imagination and pervaded our society. Few parents realize how much the angry brand of music that is part of it has presented suicide, glorified rape, and condoned murder. The message is more than repulsive -- it's deadly.