As a teen in the 1960s, Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson loved music. During her sophomore year in high school, she got her first set of drums, and taught herself to play while listening to the stereo. She frequently played along with Sandy Nelson’s ‘Let There Be Drums’ album. In 1964, after playing for about a year, she helped form an all-girl rock band, The Wildcats. The ‘Cats played mostly high school dances and local fairs. The Wildcats ended after graduation, but later in life Mary Elizabeth would have the chance to sit in with such legends as Willie Nelson and The Gareteful Dead. But back in the 60’s, few would have guessed that this young Ringo Starr fanatic would rise to national prominence as one of rock music’s greatest villains: Tipper Gore.
We’re all too familiar with the story of the PMRC and their campaign to clean up rock music. Or are we? Many of us watched this story unfold on MTv, where the issue was over-simplified and delivered to us by Kurt Loder in short snippets via MTv News. MTv framed the story as a classic good guys vs bad guys saga, where the evil oppressor’s goal was the censorship of rock music, and the artists we watched on MTv every day were the innocent victims. Young people everywhere ate this version up, oblivious to the real elements at work here: politics, power, money, backroom deals and big business.
The PMRC (Parent’s Music Resource Center) was formed in 1985 after Auntie Tip heard the lyrics to Prince’s ‘Darling Nikki’, a song her 11 year old niece was listening to, and was horrified. Soon after, Gore and three other ‘Washington Wives’ formed the PMRC, allegedly to “increase parental control over the access of children to music deemed to be violent, have drug use or be sexual.” The PMRC began pressuring the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) to “exercise voluntary self-restraint perhaps by developing guidelines and/or a rating system, such as that of the movie industry.”
The Parent Teacher Association got involved as well, calling for the music industry to “put a label on record, tape, and cassettes rating the material contained within and require that such a rating would read profanity, sex, violence, or vulgarity.” The PTA further stated that “all we want to do is take the element of surprise out of buying an album.” Both groups invited RIAA labels to discuss the issue; of the 62 record companies invited, none of them agreed to participate.
At the same time, the RIAA was participating in congressional hearings regarding the ‘Home Recording Act’, or HR 2911, which included a tax on blank tapes to prevent the home taping of music and video, an issue that the RIAA believed was costing the industry millions of dollars annually. This tax would have netted the RIAA labels an estimated $250,000.00 annually… Four husbands of the ‘Washington Wives’ sat on the committee to decide the Home Recording Act… So any resistance to the PMRC from the RIAA was doomed at the start, because behind the scenes, the RIAA was in bed with the Washington Wives.
When the Reverend Jimmy Swaggert caught wind of what was happening, he quickly jumped on the bandwagon and began pressuring retailers not to carry any rock music, and several retailers across the country started pulling rock music and rock magazines from their shelves. The RIAA, still in talks with the Washington husbands about the home taping bill, now faced losing even more millions in retail sales. Suddenly the RIAA agreed to play ball. An agreement was reached on labeling RIAA records.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a record-labeling hearning before Congress on September 9, 1985, a short time after the labeling agreement was reached between the RIAA and the PMRC. In other words, the hearings were a complete farce. But it made for great MTv, where the ‘fight against censorship’ angle was played up to the hilt. The discussions, which were broadcast on live TV on CSPAN, lasted for several days, and included testimonies by John Denver, Al Gore, Frank Zappa, Dee Snider and several other senators and musicians, although, since an agreement to label albums had already been made, really only served to bring the PMRC and their crusade to national attention.
Frank Zappa boldly asserted during his testimony that the RIAA had already made a deal with Congress to agree to label music if HR 2911 was passed, noting not only the Tipper/Al Gore connection, but also out that Senator Strom Thurman sat on the HR committee as well, while his wife Nancy was a PMRC affiliate. Zappa also got into it with Florida Senator Paula Hawkins, who famously displayed Def Leppard’s ‘Pyromania’ cover and shrieked “The message is clear! Burn, baby, burn!” Hawkins also played Van Halen’s ‘Hot For Teacher’ video for Congress. Schwinnnggg! Dee Snider is to be commended for his passionate defense of rock music, and for having the balls to tell a US Senator to his face that his wife has a dirty mind, right there on the senate floor. Whatever you think of their music, both men’s testimonies were nothing short of heroic.
On November 1st the RIAA unveiled their warning label to the public, along with the following statement:
We believe that not all music is right for all ages and out Parental Advisory Label was created for just that reason. Parents can use the label to identify music that may not be appropriate for their children and make the choice about when — and whether — their children should be able to have that recording.
Under the agreement with the PMRC, the 22 participating RIAA record companies would ‘voluntarily’ apply the warning label to any release containing references to “explicit sex, violence, or substance abuse.” The warning label was announced to the public just two days after HR 2911 had its own hearing… presided over by that bill’s sponsor: Tipper’s husband, Al Gore.
As it turns out, the RIAA got screwed; the HR Act was not passed. But as there was nothing legally binding in the agreement with the PMRC to label their releases, compliance with the agreement on the part of the RIAA was …sketchy. The labels had a negative effect on retail sales, not due to parents or kids deciding not to buy ‘inappropriate’ music, but rather through failure of retail and radio to sell or support music that carried the warning. So slowly but steadily, the RIAA labels in the agreement decreased the use of the label. From January 1986 to August 1989, the PMRC officially considered 121 records released by RIAA labels to be offensive; only 49 displayed the warning label. So: absolutely nothing of any substance had been achieved by either side.
Some labels and artists treated the label as a joke. Promo copies of Metallica’s 1986 album ‘Master of Puppets’ contained a sticker reading: “The only track you probably won’t want to play is ‘Damage, Inc.’ due to the multiple uses of the infamous ‘F’ word. Otherwise, there aren’t any ‘shits’, ‘fucks’, ‘pisses’, ‘cunts’, ‘motherfuckers’, or ‘cocksuckers’ anywhere on this record.” Ice-T’s album “Freedom of Speech” had a warning sticker that read: “X-Rated; Parents Strongly Cautioned; Some Material May Not Be X-tra Hype And Inappropriate For Squares And Suckers.”
The PMRC was not amused. They issued a report along with the National PTA in 1989 that stated that only half of all ‘explicit’ music carried the label, and that the RIAA member labels had “repeatedly violated the spirit of the agreement by releasing albums such as the Beastie Boys, Metallica, and Motley Crue without attempting to warn consumers about the content.” Once again the RIAA, still working with Al Gore to pass a version of HR 2911, agreed in 1990 to a new warning label to be more universally adopted and applied, and after quibbling about the definition of ‘explicit’, the new label debuted in 1991. A new version of HR 2911 called the Audio Home Recording Act was passed by Congress in 1992. How about that.
Once the RIAA was successfully extorted into agreeing to a universal warning label, the real work of the PMRC was done. The group changed its name in 1998 to the Partners with the Music Resource Center, as if everybody was now bestest buddies. In 1998, the group announced that due to limited funding and staff, it could no longer afford to publish its newsletter. Toward the end of its existence, the PMRC attempted to change its public profile, describing itself as a “resource center to educate and promote public awareness of the positive long-term effects of music on health, analytical and creative thinking and self-esteem.” Uh huh…
Thirty years after the Senate hearings, it’s easy to see what was really going on here. ‘Oh, you want us to pass a new tax that will tighten copyright law and help maximize your profits? Well, our wives don’t like your lyrics and album covers. Perhaps we can make a deal.’ This was never about censorship. This was Al Gore appeasing his wife; giving her and her pet project a brief moment in the political spotlight, and using HR 2911 as a lever to get wifey what she wanted. Or as Frank Zappa said before the Senate hearing, “A couple of blowjobs here and there and Bingo! You get a hearing.”
Did the PMRC and their warning label have any long-lasting effects on the music business or on rock music itself? No. As for the ‘music’ side, rock/rap lyrics would continually reach new heights of depravity and offensiveness that would make Prince’s ‘Darling Nikki’ sound like Peter, Paul, and Mary. On the ‘business’ end, make no mistake: the music business destroyed itself, by worrying more about consumers making analog copies of copyrighted material, and not enough about limiting the technology to digitize that material. Home taping didn’t kill music; the failure of Al Gore’s HR 2911 to forecast future technologies is what killed the music biz.