First they came for rock n’ roll music
Music has always been a target for overzealous censors and rock n’ roll music has been a particular favourite for a class of Americans with a tendency that seeks to abrogate the letter of the First Amendment in order to shape society according to their own often parochial private values. Elvis Presley was an early target of censorship because his style of singing and dancing was considered “too black” for “impressionable” young white audiences. But the overt racism that surrounded a white musician singing traditionally black music only hinted at the further absurdity that was yet to come.
The song Louie Louie was originally written and recorded by the African American musician Richard Berry in 1957. Since then it has been recorded by numerous musicians but it was a version recorded in 1963 by an American rock group called The Kingsmen that became the most endearing version of the song both for the right and the wrong reasons. While the lyrics to the song were widely known dating back to Berry’s articulate singing of his song, on The Kingsmen’s recording the lyrics are mumbled throughout most of the song.
The mumbled lyrics led to the fomentation of several conspiracy theories that the song’s lyrics were sexually obscene or even Communist propaganda. An exhaustive FBI investigation into the song proved inconclusive as it was determined that the lyrics were unintelligible at whatever speed the tape was played back. Perhaps it did not dawn on the investigators to listen to Berry’s original version and then compare it with the mumbling version by The Kingsmen so as to determine that in fact the “controversial” version had the same lyrics as the original – just sung in a far less clear manner. In any case, the song about a sailor at a bar missing a girl while chatting to the bar tender was far from controversial.
By the 1980s, the United States had survived Louie Louie without facing national meltdown but then came a group called the PMRC – the Parents Music Resource Council. Founded by the wife of then Democratic Senator Al Gore (Bill Clinton’s future Vice President), the group which was comprised of the wives of powerful Washington D.C. officials launched a crusade against so-called “porno rock”, in other words, rock n’ roll songs and albums whose lyrics the PMRC felt were objectionable.
The PMRC’s mission to restrict the sales of music in spite of the First Amendment rights of the composers, lyricists and performers. This “mission” was soon picked up by the more extreme elements of the burgeoning Evangelical Christian movement. During this time, Fletcher A. Brothers, a fundamentalist Evangelical Christian started a highly controversial camp called Freedom Village where parents whose children were “infected” with rock n’ roll music could go to be effectively brainwashed in order to develop a distaste for the kinds of music young people traditionally gravitate towards. While the PMRC’s list of proscribed music including songs by Prince, Madonna, AC/DC, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and Cyndi Lauper, Brothers went even further in proscribing any music that makes references to religions other than Christianity. Even Stevie Wonder, a musician widely considered to be an American nation treasure was proscribed by Brothers because of a song in which he mentions Astrology. Clearly the slippery slope was getting ever more slippery. Things got even more absurd when it was suggested that the popular Led Zeppelin song Stairway to Heaven contained satanic messages if played backwards. A simple understanding of linguistics would have shown that it would be impossible for a song whose words are highly intelligible to any English speaker would amount to nothing but gibberish in any language if played backwards. In other words, it is impossible to write and then sign a set of lyrics that are all found in the dictionary and also have these words be understood as legitimate parts of the English (or any other) language when played backwards. Yet this basic fact of linguistic science was ignored by those seeking to find controversy where there was none.
But far from a fringe phenomenon, the matter of rock lyrics went to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee where the matter of the “dangers” of rock music was discussed in all seriousness during hearings in 1985. During the hearings, composer, musician and lyricist Frank Zappa offered one of the most eloquent testimonies arguing that sacrificing the First Amendment based on the totally unscientific hypothesis that rock music is bad for the health of children was an overly broad restriction on the rights of adults to live in a society where an open marketplace of the arts exists in-line with traditional constitutional norms.
Zappa’s opening statement reads as follows:
“The First thing I would like to do, because I know there is some foreign press involved here and they might not understand what the issue is about, one of the things the issue is about is the First Amendment to the Constitution, and it is short and I would like to read it so they will understand. It says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
That is for reference.
These are my personal observations and opinions. They are addressed to the PMRC [Parents’ Music Resource Centre] as well as this committee. I speak on behalf of no group or professional organization.
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.
It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment Issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC’s demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.
No one has forced Mrs. Baker or Mrs. Gore to bring Prince or Sheena Easton into their homes. Thanks to the Constitution, they are free to buy other forms of music for their children. Apparently, they insist on purchasing the works of contemporary recording artists in order to support a personal illusion of aerobic sophistication. Ladies, please be advised: The $8.98 purchase price does not entitle you to a kiss on the foot from the composer or performer in exchange for a spin on the family Victrola. Taken as a whole, the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of “toilet training program” to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few. Ladies, how dare you?
The ladies’ shame must be shared by the bosses at the major labels who, through the RIAA, chose to bargain away the rights of composers, performers, and retailers in order to pass H.R. 2911, The Blank Tape Tax: A private tax levied by an industry on consumers for the benefit of a select group within that industry.
Is this a consumer issue? You bet it is. PMRC spokesperson, Kandy Stroud, announced to millions of fascinated viewers on last Friday’s ABC Nightline debate that Senator Gore, a man she described as “A friend of the music industry,” is co-sponsor of something she referred to as “anti-piracy legislation”. Is this the same tax bill with a nicer name?
The major record labels need to have H.R. 2911 whiz through a few committees before anybody smells a rat. One of them is chaired by Senator Thurmond. Is it a coincidence that Mrs. Thurmond is affiliated with the PMRC?
I cannot say she’s a member, because the PMRC has no members. Their secretary told me on the phone last Friday that the PMRC has no members, only founders. I asked how many other District of Columbia wives are nonmembers of an organization that raises money by mail, has a tax-exempt status, and seems intent on running the Constitution of the United States through the family paper-shredder. I asked her if it was a cult. Finally, she said she couldn’t give me an answer and that she had to call their lawyer.
While the wife of the Secretary of the Treasury recites “Gonna drive my love inside you” and Senator Gore’s wife talks about “Bondage!” and “oral sex at gunpoint” on the CBS Evening News, people in high places work on a tax bill that is so ridiculous, the only way to sneak it through is to keep the public’s mind on something else: “Porn rock”.
Is the basic issue morality? Is it mental health? Is it an issue at all? The PMRC has created a lot of confusion with improper comparisons between song lyrics, videos, record packaging, radio broadcasting, and live performances. These are all different mediums, and the people who work in them have the right to conduct their business without trade-restraining legislation, whipped up like an instant pudding by The Wives of Big Brother.
Is it proper that the husband of a PMRC nonmember/founder/person sits on any committee considering business pertaining to the Blank Tape Tax or his wife’s lobbying organization? Can any committee thus constituted “find facts” in a fair and unbiased manner? This committee has three that we know about: Senator Danforth, Senator Packwood, and Senator Gore. For some reason, they seem to feel there is no conflict of interest involved.
The PMRC promotes their program as a harmless type of consumer information service providing “guidelines” which will assist baffled parents in the determination of the “suitability” of records listened to by “very young children”. The methods they propose have several unfortunately [sic] side effects, not the least of which is the reduction of all American Music, recorded and live, to the intellectual level of a Saturday morning cartoon show.
Children in the vulnerable age bracket have a natural love for music. If, as a parent, you believe they should be exposed to something more uplifting than “Sugar Walls,” support Music Appreciation programs in schools. Why have you not considered your child’s need for consumer information? Music Appreciation costs very little compared to sports expenditures. Your children have a right to know that something besides pop music exists.
lt is unfortunate that the PMRC would rather dispense governmentally sanitized heavy metal music than something more uplifting. Is this an indication of PMRC’s personal taste, or just another manifestation of the low priority this administration has placed on education for the arts in America?
The answer, of course, is neither. You cannot distract people from thinking about an unfair tax by talking about Music Appreciation. For that you need sex, and lots of it.
The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of Moral Quality Control Programs based on “Things Certain Christians Don’t Like”. What if the next bunch of Washington Wives demands a large yellow “J” on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?
Record ratings are frequently compared to film ratings. Apart from the quantitative difference, there is another that is more important: People who act in films are hired to pretend. No matter how the film is rated, it won’t hurt them personally.
Since many musicians write and perform their own material and stand by it as their art (whether you like it or not), an imposed rating will stigmatize them as individuals. How long before composers and performers are told to wear a festive little PMRC arm band with their scarlet letter on it?
Bad facts make bad law, and people who write bad laws are, in my opinion, more dangerous than songwriters who celebrate sexuality. Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religious Thought, and the Right to Due Process for composers, performers and retailers are imperiled if the PMRC and the major labels consummate this nasty bargain.
Are we expected to give up article 1 so the big guys can collect an extra dollar on every blank tape and 10 to 25% on tape recorders? What is going on here? Do we get to vote on this tax? Do we get to vote on this tax? I think that this whole matter has gotten completely blown out of proportion, and I agree with Senator Exon that there is a very dubious reason for having this event. I also agree with Senator Exon that you should not be wasting time on stuff like this, because from the beginning I have sensed that it is somebody’s hobby project.
Now, I have done a number of interviews on television. People keep saying, can you not take a few steps in their direction, can you not sympathize, can you not empathize? I do more than that at this point. I have got an idea for a way to stop all this stuff and a way to give parents what they really want, which is information, accurate information as to what is inside the album, without providing a stigma for the musicians who have played on the album or the people who sing it or the people who wrote it. And I think that if you listen carefully to this idea that it might just get by all of the constitutional problems and everything else.
As far as I am concerned, I have no objection to having all of the lyrics placed on the album routinely, all the time. But there is a little problem. Record companies do not own the right automatically to take these lyrics, because they are owned by a publishing company.
So, just as all the rest of the PMRC proposals would cost money, this would cost money too, because the record companies would need — they should not be forced to bear the cost, the extra expenditure to the publisher, to print those lyrics.
If you consider that the public needs to be warned about the contents of the records, what better way than to let them see exactly what the songs say? That way you do not have to put any kind of subjective rating on the record. You do not have to call it R, X, D/A, anything. You can read it for yourself.
But in order for it to work properly, the lyrics should be on a uniform kind of a sheet. Maybe even the Government could print those sheets. Maybe it should even be paid for by the Government, if the Government is interested in making sure that people have consumer information in this regard.
And you also have to realize that if a person buys the record and takes it out of the store, once it is out of the store you can’t return it if you read the lyrics at home and decide that little Johnny is not supposed to have it.
I think that that should at least be considered, and the idea of imposing these ratings on live concerts, on the albums, asking record companies to reevaluate or drop or violate contracts that they already have with artists should be thrown out.
That is all I have to say”.
Taken as a whole, Zappa’s statement could be just as easily applied to the present state of censorship. The only difference is that Zappa’s statements on music now apply to news and political outlets while his statements on records and tapes now apply to social media operators and websites.
The United States survived the Red Scare of the McCarthy era and even lived to collectively atone for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s drink soaked witch hunt of people who were largely not Communists. The United States also survived Louie Louie and the PMRC’s anti-rock music witch hunt of the 1980s. Furthermore, during the 1980s and early 1990s when Ozzy Osbourne and later the band Judas Priest were sued in two separate cases where the plaintiffs alleged that the music made their children commit suicide. The absurd suggestions alleged in both cases were eventually thrown out by judges, thus setting a legal precedent that should have been obvious from the beginning based on fundamental common sense.
Today, most Americans see Joseph McCarthy as an anti-constitutional egomaniac and most Americans feel ashamed at the racist remarks in the press that surrounded the music and image of Elvis Presley. Furthermore, the music of artists like Prince, Madonna and Ozzy Osborne are now considered somewhat mild to most Americans and the idea of censoring these artists as was being considered in the 1980s now appears to be absurd.
It is all too convenient to wait for the next generation to atone for the mistakes of the past. But just as Zappa defended freedom in his own time, those who dare to be free ought to defend it here in the present.