Censoring the Recording Industry

Having complete freedom say what you want, when you want and to whom you want is based in deep American idealism. The First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution provides several rights to its citizens. Among the many rights provided by our forefathers included the right to free speech. People or groups may not like what someone else is saying, but everyone in this country, everyone is entitled to their opinion and has a forum in which to express those views without worrying too much about retaliation. Think about how other countries view free speech and what happens when someone speaks out.

China lags behind most countries in civil rights. Many Arab countries forbid the media or its citizens to voice dissenting opinions regarding the government and/or its leaders. Doing so may result in the violators being tortured, beaten, imprisoned or even put to death. While these types of punishments are usually not administered here in the United States, there are times when people may have overstepped their boundaries. This is where the music industry and the Parents Music Resource Center, or PMRC, clashed in the mid-1980s because of their differences.

Until that point, recording companies were able to release any type of music to its fans. People were not closely watching the lyrics or watching what was on television with trained eyes. That attitude changed after the daughter of then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore and his wife Tipper brought home music by Prince. One of the songs on the Album Purple Rain, entitled “Darling Nikki” openly discussed sex and the act of fondling oneself. Those images were enough for Tipper Gore upset enough to do something.  Mrs. Gore rallied some of the other senator’s wives and formed a group dubbed the Parents Music Resources Group (PMRC, also known as the “Washington Wives”). Their purpose was getting record companies to label recordings that were deemed offensive for the mainstream. The group declared war on rock music because of its perceived link to morbidity, death and destruction.  The group cited several rock artists including Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC and Twisted Sister, among others, for contributing to the delinquency of children.

Because legislation pertaining to the Home Recording Act, was being heard during this time, the issue of censoring musicians with questionable lyrics in songs would be brought to light. The measure, if enacted, would prohibit consumers from recording music or videos from radios, televisions, etc. Again, Gore and her group wanted to get the recording industry on board with filtering the products they distribute. What they did was enraging the very musicians who created the music and not just from the rock world.

During a hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on September 9, 1985, musicians ranging from Dee Snider of Twisted Sister to John Denver spoke on behalf of the music industry and the right not to censor. Snider appeared before the committee and said his group’s videos were not violent. In fact, Snider said that lyrics to songs can be interpreted in many ways. (Snider, 1985, YouTube) He told the panel in their video “We’re Not Gonna take It,” one of the PMRC’s “Filthy Fifteen” that gloried, sex, violence, or both, there is no instances of either in the video.

The villain, a father, tries to get his son to conform to his ways unsuccessfully. Snider said the PMRC 5 father, who is blown up or catapulted through the yard, comes back in the next frame unhurt, uninjured in any way. He likened their video to Saturday morning cartoon violence. He said the band was not advocating violence in any form. (MTV, 2001, p. 1) “You will note when you watch the entire video that after each catastrophe our villain suffers through, in the next sequence he reappears unharmed by any previous attack, no worse for the wear,” Snider said.

Other musicians came in support of Snider. Both Frank Zappa and Denver were among those allowed to speak at the hearing. Denver spoke about his two brushes with the censorship issue. The first was after his release of the song, “Rocky Mountain High,” in which he said some radio stations refused to play because it contained drug references. (Hearings 1985, p. 65). Denver explained to the panel that the drug references were far from the truth. He said the song is about the “elation” one feels when they visit the area.

“This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains and also had never experienced the elation, celebration of life, or the joy in living that one feels when he observes something as wondrous as the Perseides meteor shower on a moonless, cloudless night, when there are so many stars that you have a shadow from the starlight, and you are out camping with your friends, your best friends, and introducing them to one of nature’s most spectacular light shows for the very first time,” Denver told Hearing members. The other time was when the movie “Oh God” was released in movie theaters.

Although Denver could not say for certain that the movie was banned from public view he noted that some PMRC 6 newspapers refused to print the ads for the motion picture. He added that other theaters would not put the movie’s name on the marquee. (Hearings, 1985, p. 65) Again, he said the outcry was a misunderstanding. The movie was not to make God to be vengeful or mean. Rather, the movie was intended to show people are supposed to work together and be there for each other. Those were his direct involvement with censorship. An issue that he fought vigorously against.

“I am here to address the issue of a possible rating system in the recording industry, labeling records where excesses of explicit sex and graphic violence have occurred and, furthermore, references to drugs and alcohol or the occult are included in the lyrics. May I be very clear that I am strongly opposed to censorship of any kind in our society or anywhere else in the world,” Denver said. Denver ended his statements by saying parents should take primary responsibility in raising their children. As the father of two adopted children. Denver understood that television and music is not for everyone.

However, he said the idea of having someone else telling them what to do is objectionable. He said other mediums such as television would have to be censored from dramas to sporting events. Work had to be done to make sure the politicians, recording industry; the artists and the public at-large would be on the same page. Denver’s statements were regarded by many as a calming influence on the hearings. Snider might have looked the part of a rock star with his long hair. However, he was all business once his time before the panel began. He spoke eloquently and pushed home his points with respect and forcefulness.

Picking up the censorship theme, Zappa said it was curious to him that the PMRC chose rock music to carry out its mission. He said other forms of music carry similar messages but was not targeted. For example, Zappa said Country Music contained lyrics involving, cheating fighting and other objectionable behavior. (Jones, 2001, p. 1818) Zappa said he knew the primary reason for this inequity: Country Music is based in Tennessee the home of then-Sen. Al Gore. He said that would not sit well with the senator’s constituents if his wife’s group went after one of their own. All of this was music to executives of the Recording industry Association of America, or RIAA, who were against the use of highlighting albums (now CDs and other medium) with questionable content. They argued that free speech would be squelched and creativity would suffer if artists and other creative people were forced to think about the impact it would have on the buying public. (Jones, 2001, p. 1818) It was not until 1990 that the RIAA agreed to voluntarily affix warning labels to its offensive products. The sticker “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” would be placed on such materials.

This was seen as a victory for the Washington Wives, who believed that kids should not be subjected to such products.  Some artists in the rap world took the label as a badge of honor using the label intended to weed people from buying the music—to lure more sales. Some musicians understood that if a product is forbidden, banned or otherwise out of reach, that more people will become interested in the item. It might have had an unintended consequence in that regard, but the wives were successful in bring out the issue to the forefront.

What happened next was the recording industry came under some heavy scrutiny. Acts PMRC 8 that were targeted by the “Washington Wives” were put on notice to clean up their act. The Rap industry was first on the list with their song lyrics that glorified violence and used women as nothing more than sex objects. However, rap artist argued their music came from the streets talking about their personal experiences with violence, sex, drugs, crime and other topics. Ice-T, now an actor, was taken to task for his 1992 song, “Cop Killer,” which depicted an angry youth going out and killing police officers.

It lead to the artist being dropped from his label, Time Warner, and a storm of controversy. (Heck, no year provided, p. 1) The rapper said people didn’t understand the song, (which uses the “F-word” repeatedly), which was a protest against police violence. People did not understand this point because those people saw the song’s title and went into a tizzy. T said he was annoyed that people were trampling on his First Amendment rights for writing and distributing the song. Ice-T eventually pulled the album, Body Count, which contained the controversial song.

Ironically, it was the rapper’s first foray into heavy metal with this band. He put the album back on the shelves without the song. In all, the song made for controversy (even the cover art depicted a type of monster) and put Ice-T into the forefront. Besides music, television and video games are now sporting the labels. Any game or show that includes violence, language, and/or adult situations is posted before the show begins. This gives parents guidance regarding what is appropriate for the viewers and what might not be suitable. Some shows such as “Family Guy” might appear in cartoon form. However, the content is not suited for young children. PMRC 9 Stores will either not sell items—particularly video games to children without an adult present—or they will not carry them at all. Some stores such as Wal-Mart will ask customers for identification from customer before allowing the purchase. The chain also sells “clean” versions of artists records so those who would otherwise be offended can purchase the music. Those versions are clearly marked as “clean” or “amended” versions.

All of this comes to the same conclusion: parents are the primary source of determining what their kids should and should not see. It should not come down to what other people think or believe is right. That decision should fall in the hands of the people that are raising the children. The “Washington Wives” made their point that some materials are not appropriate for mass consumption. That does not mean that because one person or group does not like something such as rock music that everyone must not listen. Using common sense is the best way to prevent controversy from entering a home or begin a family dispute. Gene Simmons, the bass player for KISS, and no stranger to controversy himself, said during an interview on Music Television regarding the PMRC and the censorship controversy that, “nobody tells me what to write, what to write about and who to write it to. ” Then, looking straight into the camera, Simmons said point blank: “If you don’t like the stuff, don’t listen to it. ” Perhaps that is the best advice of all.


  1. Censor This: Music Censorship in America. No date or author provided. Retrieved May 6, 2009 from: http://www. geocities. com/fireace_00/pmrc. html.
  2. Danforth, J. Chairman. “Record Labeling” Hearing Before the Senate Committee Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Washington, D. C. 1985, U. S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved May 6, 2009 from: http://www. joesapt. net/superlink/shrg99-529/index. html
  3. Heck, M. “A ROC Exclusive: ICE-T speaks out on censorship, Cop Killer, his leaving Warner Bros. , and more,” Rock Out Censorship, February 10, (no year provided). Retrieved May 6, 2009 from: http://www. theroc. org/roc-mag/textarch/roc-11/roc11-09. htm Jones, D. “Parents Music Resource Center,” Censorship: A World Encyclopedia. Vol. 3, L-R.
  4. Chicago, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001. p. 1818. Music Television (MTV). VH1 Original Movies: Warning: Parental Advisory, 2008. Retrieved May 6, 2009 from: http://www. vh1. com/shows/series/movies_that_rock/warning/history. jhtml
  5. Music Television (MTV). VH1 Original Movies: Warning: Parental Advisory, 2008. Retrieved May 6, 2009 from: http://www. vh1. com/shows/series/movies_that_rock/warning/artists_speak. jhtml
  6. Snider, D. “Senate Committee of Commerce, Science and Transportation Hearing,” Sept. 9, 1985. Retrieved May 6, 2009 from: http://www. youtube. com/watch? v=ILc5FGVJxRQ

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