Parents Music Resource Center
|Time to put on some|
“”The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years, dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design.
“”"Thank you Tipper (Gore) and Jesse (Helms) for making sure that as long as there are a few four-letter words on the album, it’ll sell an extra million copies!"
|—Steve Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith, MTV Video Music Awards, 1990|
The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was a government committee active during the 1980s. The goals of the committee were to increase parental control over access by children to music deemed to have violent, drug-related, occult, or sexual themes, and unintentionally increase record sales of a few previously obscure heavy metal musicians.
Origins and Goals
The PMRC was founded in 1985, in the shadows of rising political conservatism under president Ronald Reagan, by a group of "Washington Wives" that included Susan Baker (wife of the then Secretary of the Treasury James Baker, Peatsy Hollins (wife of Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina), and many other Washington socialites (such as Pam Hower and Sally Nevius). Most notably, the group included Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator, later-Vice President
and inventor of the Internet Al Gore, who became the group's most outspoken member. Amazingly enough, a musician provided initial funding for the non-profit group (Mike Love of the Beach Boys, cementing Love's status as the Official Asshole of the beloved 1960s surf rock band.)
There are several stories floating around on what inspired the PMRC to come together. The most popular one is that Tipper Gore was so upset to find her daughter listening to "Darling Nikki" by Prince, what with its lyrics about masturbation in a hotel lobby, that she put two and two together and decided rock‘n’roll was to blame for teen suicide, murder, Satanism, drug and alcohol use, and worse.
The goal of the PMRC was to save America from the menace of "filthy" music (and apostrophes, judging by its name). Initially, pairing with the national United States PTA, the group came up with six stringent demands for the recording industry to implement, including "reassess(ing) the contracts of performers who engage in violence and explicit sexual behavior onstage" and "establish(ing) a citizen and record-company media watch that would pressure broadcasters not to air “questionable-talent.” By the time Senate hearings were held on the subject, however, the list of demands was reduced to a simple warning label put on records with explicit content. (In return, the "politics" of the deal was that, by implementing this label, the RIAA would theoretically get a blank recording tape tax passed through the Senate. Of course, the blank tape tax never did actually get pushed through.)
Explicit content is then defined as... well, whatever the artists and/or their labels think is explicit enough to warrant the label. In its current form, it ended up being a mere voluntary tool for artists to self-identify material they don't think is for the kiddies. (Nothing wrong with that, really. It could have been far, far worse.)
Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?!?
The PMRC released a "Filthy Fifteen" list of the "most offensive" songs. While the list included some popular artists at the time (such as Cyndi Lauper and Madonna), it also include many artists from the then relatively obscure genre of heavy metal. The list ended up helping the more obscure artists' record sales. Longtime Washington DC radio host Cerphe Colwell believes that one of the reasons heavy metal took off in popularity in the late 1980s was precisely because the PMRC shone a spotlight on the genre. (After all, what better way for a teenager to rebel than listening to music that stiff Washington socialites thought was "filthy?")
The group then instigated a Senate hearing on "porn rock" in August 1985, at which testimony in opposition to the PMRC and censorship was delivered by Frank Zappa,[note 1] Dee Snider of Twisted Sister,[note 2] and John Denver.[note 3] All three were concerned that the PMRC was merely the start of a slippery slope to a full censorship effort.
In the wake of the hearings, the PMRC achieved an agreement with the RIAA, which introduced Parental Advisory stickers but refused a ratings system, a ban on explicit album cover artwork, or any other demand. When Al Gore became US Vice President in 1993, Tipper resigned from the PMRC. The organisation has since quietly disappeared.
In the end, the uproar and fury caused little of note from a practical standpoint. Certain artists embraced the stickers as a badge of honor, but there is not much evidence that sales were impacted one way or another. (It did give a way for certain retailers such as Wal-Mart to market themselves as "family-friendly" by refusing to sell records with the sticker, and in more explicit, rebellious genres such as heavy metal or hip-hop the censorship effort might have actually backfired, increasing sales — particularly of the artists on the "Filthy Fifteen" list. But that's about it.)
Perhaps the biggest impact of the PMRC was giving musicians fresh new material to write about — as seen by the Wikipedia article on the PMRC, where the musician reaction section (documenting the many lyrics which poked fun at the PMRC, and other protests) is the largest part of the article.
Censorship and monopoly
While not truly censorship, the warnings did enable de facto censorship and restrictions on the music industry. For instance, Walmart refuses to carry any offensive material, which meant that the albums had to be heavily edited to be sold in Walmart or not sold at all. From the industry side, this meant printing out two different versions of the album, which was inefficient for reasons that should be obvious, making a "wholesome" artist slightly more valuable than a "rougher" artist even if they sell the same number of albums. From the consumer side, Walmart had obliterated the small town shops, including the independent record store. If you wanted the unedited album, you either had to buy from Walmart or travel several hours to the nearest major city. Luckily, we have the Internet now.
Unofficially? It was nothing more than a distraction from a proposed blank tape tax, according to Frank Zappa. The idea behind it was that if blank tapes cost as much as the ones from the album store, then piracy would be uneconomical. But the unmentioned result would also be that independent artists would also have to pay more for blank tapes, making it all but impossible for an independent music group to get started, unless of course they signed with the record company.
- Backward masking
- Comics Code Authority
- Dungeons and Dragons
- Moral panic
- Mothers Against Drunk Driving
- Satanic panic
- Streisand effect
- Frank Zappa
- ↑ Zappa went on to use recordings of the hearings on his track "Porn Wars", which lampooned the controversy.
- ↑ The band's song "We're Not Gonna Take It" was one of the "Filthy Fifteen".
- ↑ It seemed odd at the time that someone with as wholesome of a reputation as he had would testify in support of "porn rock". However, even John Denver had run-ins with censorship. As explained in his testimony to the Senate, his song "Rocky Mountain High" was bizarrely banned from some radio stations for supposedly being drug related, and some newspapers refused to print advertisements for the George Burns/John Denver comedy movie Oh, God! on the grounds that they were "using the name of our Lord in vain."
- ↑ Frank Zappa, Opening Statement to and Q&A with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Rock Lyrics and Record Labeling, 19 September 1985. American Rhetoric, 16 December 2018.
- ↑ "MTV: The Naughty Envelope, Please : Television: The MTV Video Music Awards program provides impromptu stage for musicians addressing the issue of censorship." by Chris Willman, Los Angeles Times, 1990 September 8
- ↑ "Back in the Day: Rockers vs. Parents Music Resource Center in 1985" by Tony Wade, Solano County Daily Republic, 2018 October 12
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 "PMRC’s ‘Filthy 15’: Where Are They Now?" by Kory Grow, Rolling Stone, 2015 September 17
- ↑ Larson, Thomas E. (2004) "History of Rock and Roll". (pp. 250 "The PMRC") Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company
- ↑ "Tipper Gore Reflects on PMRC 30 Years Later" by Kory Grow, Rolling Stone, 2015 September 14
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 7.2 "You Ask, We Answer: 'Parental Advisory' Labels — The Criteria And The History" by Tom Cole, NPR, 2010 October 29
- ↑ "Mike Love Is Kind Of An Asshole" by Luke Winkie, Vice, 2012 Oct 2
- ↑ 9.0 9.1 "Parental Advisory Forever: An Oral History of the PMRC's War on Dirty Lyrics" by Zach Schonfeld, Newsweek, 2015 September 19
- ↑ "Industry Threatened : ‘Porn Rock’: The Sound Draws Fury" by Dennis McDougal, Los Angeles Times, 1985 November 1
- ↑ "6.66 Heavy Metal Highlights of the PMRC Hearings" by Mike McPadden, VH1 Classic, 2015 September 21
- ↑ "Frank Zappa Meets The PMRC" by John Anthony Wilcox and Robert J. Sodaro, Relix, October 1986
- ↑ 13.0 13.1 13.2 "The Day Twisted Sister Went To War With The PMRC" by Johnny Black, Louder Classic Rock, 2016 September 19
- ↑ "How Frank Zappa's 'Mothers of Prevention' Responded to the PMRC" by James Stafford, Ultimate Classic Rock.com, 2015 November 21
- ↑ "John Denver —Pop Music's Wholesome Guru" by Grace Lichtenstein, New York Times, 1976 March 28
- ↑ "Senate Statement on Rock Lyrics & Record Labeling" by John Denver, delivered 19 September 1985, archived on American Rhetoric: Online Speech Bank
- ↑ Arp, Robert. (2013) 1001 Ideas that Changed the Way We Think. (pp. 895 "Parental Advisory Label") Atria Books
- ↑ Slagel, Brian and Eglinton, Mark. (2017) For The Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records (pp. 123)
- ↑ Zach Schonfeld, "Parental Advisory Forever: An Oral History of the PMRC's War on Dirty Lyrics", Newsweek, 9 October 2015.