1985 PMRC/Senate Hearings: Then and Now
It was the summer of 1984, and my band Twisted Sister was taking the world by storm. With our angst-filled teen anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” we were dominating music radio and television airwaves, and igniting the fire of rebellion in the hearts and minds of American youth. As we rode in our tour bus from town to town, playing show after show, little did we realize that a cultural guillotine awaited us.
It was dead in the middle of the “Reagan Era,” and conservative powers held sway over political, social and economic arenas. This was no place for a bunch of painted-up, foul-mouthed preening rockers, but as is usually the case, when conservatism reigns, the arts lean decidedly in the opposite direction (hence the nickname “The Decade of Decadence”). Loud and very proud, things were clearly headed for an impasse.
The blowback came in a surprising form: the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Quite an innocuous name for such a subversive-minded group. Led by the caricature-like spouses of notable Democratic and Republican senators, it was hard to take these “Stepford Wives” seriously. Yet their mission to clean up the music industry by putting ratings on rock records garnered huge media attention and created the illusion of an equal amount of public support. Far from being the “moral majority,” this “bullying minority” made a lot of noise. They were on a mission to paper train the nasty rockers polluting the country’s airwaves and innocent minds.
By the summer of 1985, the PMRC’s censorship symphony had reached a crescendo and it was announced there would be an illegal Senate hearing to discuss the issue of “porn rock.” They didn’t call it illegal, I did. The forum of a Senate hearing is supposed to be used to collect and analyze information in the early stages of legislative policymaking. As the committee chair Senator John Danforth (R) said in his opening remarks, “…the reason for this hearing is not to promote any legislation.” Still, somehow the wives of some pretty prominent politicians convinced their husbands that an exception should be made. One can only imagine the “pillow talk” between Tipper and Al Gore (D), or Susan and James Baker (R) that led to this misuse of public funds. “Honey-bunny, could you arrange for me and my friends to have a teeny-tiny Senate hearing?
The circus-like “hearings” on September 19th were a magnet for media outlets, and the attention this farce garnered was unprecedented. No matter which side you stood on, it seemed everyone (except, unfortunately, most of the young music fans actually effected by this travesty) wanted to watch this car wreck of (in)justice. And that’s just what it was.
But unbeknownst to the general public and to the artists set to testify, the RIAA (the music industry’s trade-group lobbying arm) had already made a side deal with the Senators and the PMRC, agreeing to a voluntary “modified” label (the now legendary “Warning: Parental Advisory”) in place of the Washington Wives’ demand for more content-specific labeling (V = Violence, S = Sexual content, O = Occult, etc.). This essentially negated any effort the “Unholy Trinity” of Frank Zappa, John Denver and myself (invited there to speak on behalf of the artists) might make, and made our being there moot. There was no way for us to win.
Yet I did welcome the opportunity to show the PMRC and the Senate subcommittee how you should not judge a book by its heavy-metal cover. Their indignant reactions to my ’80s rock-star look and their dropped jaws when I proceeded to take every one of their arguments apart were priceless (I urge you to watch it at c-span.org). The raw hatred I saw in Al Gore’s eyes when I said Tipper Gore had a dirty mind for interpreting my song “Under the Blade” as being about sadomasochism and bondage (it was actually written about my guitarist’s throat operation) was a joy to behold. They really should have vetted me better before allowing me in to speak.
Sadly, the aftermath of the debacle was even worse than I feared. Our First Amendment constitutional right to freedom of speech had been eroded, yet the average record buyer was apathetic. The most typical comment about the sticker was, “Now we know which records to buy!” The music consumer just didn’t understand how that sticker would be used against them. (And used against them it was.)
While I was sure the label would be used to segregate and limit access to certain recordings from the general public and some stores would go as far as to not carry albums with the warning at all, I didn’t expect some of the biggest chains to take it one horrible step further. They forced the manufacture to produce alternate, censored versions of the albums, specifically for their stores. The average adult or young-adult record buyer (and even parents buying them for their younger kids) had no idea that the album they were purchasing from Walmart had content either “bleeped out” or completely removed. The “stickering” of recorded product wasn’t giving the buyer the knowledge to make an educated choice, it was being used to decide for the record buyer what they could or could not listen to. This is the subversive nature of ultra-conservatism. If they can’t manipulate you overtly (through the passing of laws, regulations or restrictions) they’ll do it without your knowing it’s being done to you.
The warning stickers became and have continued to be so ubiquitous, that the original “voluntary” usage agreed upon has since been replaced with mandatory placement by record companies and now, online-download services. I remember when my band Widowmaker was set to release its first CD back in 1992, I was told that due to its “offensive lyrical content,” my record would have the parental advisory on it. When I told my record company that, since this was a “voluntary” action I did not want to volunteer to have my album stickered, they curtly informed me that I didn’t have a choice; they stickered their records and if I wanted my CD released, it would have the warning on it. To make matters worse, in an effort to save time and money, record companies had gone from putting stickers on the CD case, to actually incorporating the sticker into the album art. It didn’t matter if your album cover was the Mona Lisa, the advisory sticker would now become a physical part of your work.
Thirty years later, everything and nothing has changed. The ultra-conservatives still want to dictate to the masses what they deem acceptable for the general public to see and hear. The record industry is a mere shadow of its former self (apt punishment for its cowardice), and CDs and vinyl albums have almost become “novelties” in a world driven by downloads. Yet, the warning labels still adorn individual track listings and albums online.
Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” — one of the PMRC’s legendary “Filthy Fifteen” — has become a political go-to song, a rock ‘n’ jock anthem beloved by young and old alike, and in an ironic twist, it was sung by a PMRC-like women’s organization at the “evil rocker” (played by Tom Cruise) in the movie “Rock of Ages.” Go figure.
While initially my appearance at those Senate hearings was damaging to my career and reputation, long term it was beneficial, showing people for the first time that I was much more than a screaming “Raggedy Ann on acid” and a fairly intelligent, sentient human being. Fortunately, I have gone onto better things. My arch nemeses Al and Tipper Gore are long divorced, while this October 23rd my wife Suzette and I will celebrate our 34th wedding anniversary. You’re damn right I’m bragging. I wasn’t throwing stones at their glass house. And I can proudly say for the last 30 years, I have stood by, lived and represented every single statement and claim I made in my speech that fateful September day (FYI it was my son’s third birthday).
Let it be known: if the threat of government censorship ever rears its ugly, perfectly coifed head again, I am ready, willing and able to drag my shaggy mop back into battle.
Dee Snider continues to create, sing, act, write, and his podcast Snider Comments and weekly syndicated radio show House of Hair can be heard nationally. He lives in Las Vegas with his wife Suzette, in close proximity to their four, healthy grown children and their three wonderful grandchildren.
Courtesy of Huffington Post