I'm a fairly with-it person, but this stuff is curling my hair.
—Tipper Gore, wife of Democratic Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee, on rock lyrics
—Rocker Frank Zappa, on Gore's complaints
It is a controversy increasing in volume, to decibel levels that would rival any rock concert. To a growing number of worried parents and concerned citizens, rock 'n' roll is turning too often to sex, Satanism, drugs and violence for its major themes, and corrupting the values and views of unwary young people. To others, equally concerned, the specter of censorship taints any of the suggested remedies. Next week Congress will confront the issue for the first time when the Senate Commerce Committee, of which Senator Gore is a member, opens hearings on the problem of "rock porn"—and what, if anything, to do about it. In considering that problem, the lawmakers will have to confront one of the most acute tensions in democracy—between the rights of free speech and free expression on one side and the right of parents to protect their children on the other.
On August 31 rock's critics found unexpected—and unusually gruesome—ammunition for their case with the arrest of the alleged Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, an AC/DC fan who had apparently been obsessed by Satanism. The Night Stalker story was like a nightmare come to life for such groups as the Dallas-based National Music Review Council and the National PTA. Concerned about music's influence on the young and mindful of the acclaim afforded risqué rockers like Madonna
and others, these organizations have been trying for months to create some protection for the innocent from rock's raunchier lyrics. This summer they picked up welcome leadership from Tipper Gore, 36, Pam Howar, 43, and Susan Baker, 48, three well-connected Washington wives and mothers. Gore is a Virginia-bred mother of four. Howar, a former ad agency owner, is the wife of Washington real estate developer Raymond Howar. Baker, a devout Christian who favors classical and country & Western music, is the wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker, formerly the White House Chief of Staff.
Last February, inspired by a call from Howar, the wives shared for the first time their fears about the music they were hearing on the airwaves, in videos and through their children's stereo speakers. With support from a few pals (among them Ethelynn Stuckey, wife of former Georgia Congressman Williamson Stuckey Jr.), the women put together a blue-chip mailing list of 2,000 names from their Christmas card roster and in April launched the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Practically overnight the group emerged as rock's most potent critics.
The Washington wives, citing the G-through-X system now in use for motion pictures, initially demanded a somewhat more complex rating code for records. Albums and tapes would be stamped with a V for violent material, X for profane or explicit lyrics, D/ A for drug or alcohol references and O for occult. "There is no way to judge what our children are being exposed to," says Gore. "If they're going to sell a product like this, then they could at least give us a consumer warning." Her organization now seems willing to settle for a simple R/ PG system, though the National PTA is less willing to compromise.
The PMRC is concerned with more than ratings. Its members have called for printing song lyrics on all albums and removing album covers they consider offensive from display in record stores. They have also urged record companies to reevaluate contracts with performers who engage in questionable onstage behavior.
We want the industry to police itself. If they refuse, we're going to look into legal ways to stop what we feel is a form of contributing to the delinquency of minors.
—Sally Nevius, wife of former D.C. council chairman John Nevius and a PMRC member
Rock 'n' roll is beside the point. They're saying a small group can dictate to the masses a moral tone. Records first, then books, television and the Bible.
—Gene Simmons, lead singer for KISS on 13 platinum albums
Howar recalls her own rock awakening. "I started picking up a word here and a word there [of the rock songs played] during aerobics classes," she says. "I'd heard Prince over the radio. One day at the breakfast table my daughter was listening to the music, and I noticed this punk look about her. I started thinking, 'We'd better get a peer group together.' "
Using its considerable clout, the PMRC last June engineered an informal meeting for seven Senators and their staffers, as well as Federal Communications Commission chairman Mark Fowler, in the Senate Commerce Committee's hearing room. While Rev. Jeff Ling, a PMRC supporter and former fan of the Rolling Stones, plowed through a presentation of steamy rock lyrics and a slide show of tasteless album covers, Senators shifted uneasily in their stiff-backed chairs. "Well, now I'm killing you/ Watch your face turning blue," Ling chanted, reciting from Mötley Crüe's Too Young To Fall in Love. Then turning to Judas Priest's Eat Me Alive, he launched into lyrics that he said described oral sex at gunpoint: "Sounds like an animal, panting to the beat/ Grown in the pleasure zone, gasping from the heat/ Gut-wrenching frenzy that destroys every joint/ I'm gonna force you at gunpoint to eat me alive." Afterward FCC chairman Fowler was heard to whisper, "Something needs to be done."
Among the PMRC's most prominent targets are:
•Prince, most notably for Sister ("Incest is everything it's said to be") and more recently Darling Nikki, a song about masturbation on his Purple Rain album, which has sold more than nine million copies and collected several Grammys and an Oscar.
•Sheena Easton, for her Sugar Walls single, written by Prince ("I can tell you want me; you can't hide/ Your body's on fire; come inside").
•Twisted Sister, whose video for We're Not Gonna Take It shows a rock-loving son throwing his father into doors, down a flight of steps and through a window.
•Mötley Crüe, whose song Ten Seconds to Love describes a quickie encounter in the lift ("Touch my gun but don't pull my trigger/ Let's make history in the elevator").
•Cyndi Lauper, who in She Bop has some masturbatory moments of her own ("I can't stop messing with the danger zone").
•David Lee Roth, whose Van Halen video, Hot for Teacher, depicts a shapely high school instructor stripping down to a bikini in front of her class.
Not even the famously inoffensive Michael Jackson has escaped criticism. Baker's 7-year-old daughter, Mary, "is crazy for Michael, who is one of the purest." Insists Baker: "But even his latest album has a song about sadomasochism on it."
In August the Recording Industry Association of America met with the nation's top record company executives, who agreed to mark potentially offensive LPs with a single generic sticker that would read "Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics." Not good enough, said the PMRC. And so congressional hearings there will be, at least for a day, when Missouri Republican John Danforth heads an "information" session on rock records and the proposed rating systems in his Senate Commerce Committee on September 19. "As a father of five, I have been shocked by some of the lyrics that are reaching not only high school students but also very young grade school children," says Danforth. "I welcome the energetic search for solutions."
They may not be easy to find. Stanley Gortikov, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, claims a rating system "would be totally impractical. Unlike the motion picture industry, which rates about 325 films a year, the recording industry releases 25,000 songs annually, which would require a process for rating 100 tunes a day." What's more, says Gortikov, record companies have no control over the display of LPs in record stores, can't influence the behavior of performers onstage and, even if they wanted to, couldn't always place lyrics on albums because the copyrighted words are usually owned by others.
I was in radio when we couldn't even use the word cancer. It was an absolute no-no. Nor could we ever say syphilis. What I'm saying is, if some of these four-letter words are prohibited, what's next?
—Conservative radio commentator Paul Harvey
Censorship should not be a bad word. No society can survive without it. I believe that the stop sign at the corner is healthy censorship. That's what the Constitution had in mind—self-imposed, majority-approved censorship.
—Singer Pat Boone
Would-be rock raters face other, even more troublesome problems. For instance, who would judge? The PMRC suggests a panel chosen from members of the recording industry, retailers and consumers. Opponents of that plan worry that such judgments would inevitably be personal and arbitrary. Rock satirist Frank Zappa recalls his 1967 recording Let's Make the Water Turn Black, from which a record company executive excised eight bars. The lethal lyrics? "And I still remember mama with her apron and her pad/ Feeding all the boys at Ed's cafe." Recalls Zappa: "A person at the record company was convinced that the pad in question was a sanitary napkin. That's the kind of thing you can be subjected to when you let somebody decide what is dirty, what is occult, what is violent and the rest."
Even those outraged by modern rock songs wonder if ratings would have the desired effect. In 1984 Relax, a blatantly sexual dance tune by Britain's Frankie Goes to Hollywood, became the first song in years to be banned by the BBC. Slipping down the charts before that, the song quickly about-faced and now stands as the 12th biggest-selling British single of all time. In this country, movie ratings have done just as little to protect teens from the sex and violence found in countless soft-core beach-party pictures and slasher movies. In the end a bad LP rating might just provide an irresistible draw. "Kids know what they're getting when they buy our records," says Blackie Lawless, lead singer of W.A.S.P. Adding the cachet of an X rating, he says cheerfully, will simply "sell three times as many records for us."
While members of the PMRC insist they don't want censorship ("I used to be a high school English teacher, and book burnings scare me to death," says Ethelynn Stuckey), others argue that ratings are a step in that direction. Groups opposed to X-or V-rated songs on radio—or R-or PG-rated, for that matter—worry that warning labels could be used unfairly as a weapon by advertisers and the FCC to control a station's programming.
There surely will be plenty of turmoil before the ratings issue is resolved. Prince may have disappeared from public view for a moment, but Madonna
, with her peek-a-boo costumes, bawdy stage show and racy lyrics, has dominated the rock world for much of the summer. Next week MTV will hold its second annual video awards show, and one of this year's most-nominated performers (in six categories) is Roth, the former Van Halen vocalist whose caveman manner and sexual chauvinism has offended parents everywhere.
Gore, Baker and their friends will hit the stage as well, appearing this month in Dallas at the National Association of Broadcasters convention and at a meeting of the National Music Review Council. "Quite frankly, I hope we are out of business fairly soon. I'd love to get off the phone," says Baker. "But we will be around until there is a satisfactory solution," she adds quickly, "so we can protect our children from harmful messages."
—Written by Roger Wolmuth, reported by the Los Angeles, New York and Washington bureaus