Saturday, March 26, 2011
The P.M.R.C. Files: 09/12/85 - "Furor Over Rock Lyrics Intensifies"
(Images via: NYCDreamin Archives)
"Furor Over Rock Lyrics Intensifies"
by Robert Love
Rolling Stone Magazine - 09/12/85
A small group of well connected Washington women is spearheading the most serious protest against rock lyrics since Spiro Agnew's 1971 crusade to rid popular culture of drug references. This time the primary targets are the heavy-breathing hits of Prince and Madonna and the "sadomasochistic" messages of heavy metal groups like Motley Crue and Judas Priest. The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), which includes the wives of Treasury Secretary James Baker and Democratic Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, wields sufficient political clout to have already persuaded the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee to tenatively schedule hearings on the subject for September 19 .
The PMRC wants the music industry to voluntarily institute standardized ratings, similar to movie ratings, for records, tapes and videos. Songs with sexually explicit or profane lyrics would receive an X; those that refer to the occult would receive an O; and those that glorify violence would receive a V. Also on the group's agenda is a demand that printed lyrics be available so that parents can look at them prior to purchasing a record. In addition, record labels, distributors and broadcasters are being pressured to "exhibit voluntary restraint" in what the group calls "pornographic" nd violent material.
"We're not censors," Tipper Gore, 37, a co-founder of the five-member PMRC and the mother of four young children. "We want a tool from the industry that is peddling this stuff to children, a consumer tool with which parents can make an informed decision on what to buy. What we're talking about is a sick new strain of rock music glorifying everything from forced sex to bondage and rape."
Tipper Gore at Tower Records with a copy of the [then] latest LP by California metal outfit Bitch, titled "Be My Slave"
Cited as particularly offensive examples are Prince's "Darling Nikki" ("I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine") and Judas Priest's "Eat Me Alive," a song Gore says is about "oral sex at gunpoint."
In attempt to forstall legislative action, the recording industry has been meeting privately to discuss preventive strategies. When contacted, chief executives at the major labels have refused to comment. But Stanley Gortikov, president of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), has met with executives of nineteen lables, and in an August 5th letter to PMRC president Pam Howar, he presented the record industry's position. The PMRC's requests, Gortikov wrote, "involve complications that would make compliance impossible." Publishers, he explained, not record companies, own the rights to print lyrics. In addition, a label never has full control over packaging or display of recordings or over the way its artists present themselves in performance or on video. A rating system that requires for or five categories, Gortikov wrote, would be "totally impractical."
Instead, the RIAA members would agree to "individually apply a printed inscription on packaging of future record releases to identify blantant, explicit lyric content in order to inform those concerned parents and children. An industry-wide text will be developed and used." The labels, through the RIAA will work with the PMRC to finalize the stickers language, but Gortikov's letter offers one suggestion: "Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics." Use of the sticker would be determined on a company-by-company basis.
The Sticker! The Sticker will save us from these evil, perverted rock groups.
This practice - applied most recently for Eurythmics' 1984 soundtrack album and for Marvin Gaye's "Dream of a Lifetime" - doesn't seem to satisfy the PMRC. "I don't think that addresses the problem, " Says Gore. "We want an industry-wide standard created by the industry. If you're going to leave it up to the individual record comapnies, just leave the mess the way it is."
Though rock lyrics have come under attack in the past, the PMRC's crusade has garnered an unusual ammount of attention. As Gortikov wrote in a confidential letter to record companies, "I cannont escape continuing dialog with the PMRC group, particularly in view of its Washington links."
"The Washington Wives," as they've become known, had met with Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), after his wife attended a lecture given by the group. Fritts acted with urgency, requesting that forty-five record labels send lyric sheets with new releases to all radio stations to aid program directors in their choices. He also sent warning letters to 806 station owners, enclosing the lyrics to "Darling Nikki" and another Prince composition, Sheena Easton's "Sugar Walls," a song with thinly veiled references to female arrousal.
"What we've got is a group of well connected Washington parents who are raising the issue to the level of national public debate," said Fritts. "If the industry does not voluntarily respond, the PMRC would be prepared and in a position to propose legislation which would restrain the industry, which we are against."
Since Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines already determine the acceptability of what may go on the air, many in the broadcasting industry considered Fritts' actions to be alarmist. As Charlie Kendall, program director of WNEW-FM in New York, remarked, "We know what the lyrics are to the songs we play, and I know what my community can take. There is always gonna be an element that doesn't like rock and roll. But as long as I keep it clean and within FCC guidelines, I say 'Fuck 'em.'"
The PMRC's primary objective, a standardized record-rating system, similar to the one instituted in 1968 by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), has been consistently dismissed by the record companies as impractical and ultimately ineffective.
According to RIAA statistics, roughly 2500 LPs, each with about ten songs, are released every year, some within days of recording. If a rating system were imposed, all 25,000 songs would have to be rated, because of the possibility of release as a single. "We would clearly be looking at a very large staff of people to rate that many records," says Robbin Ahrold, a vice-president of communications for RCA Records. "Tunes on the smae album can be very different, and you really can't give a single rating to an LP."
A spokesperson for CBS Records says, "We feel that there is already in place an informal system of checks and balances, which involes producers, record-company executives, broadcasters and teh artists themselves - and it functions pretty well. These women have been documenting a miniscule number of offensive lyrics; it's the same songs over and over again."
Beyond the logistics of a rating system are thornier questions of artistic freedom and integrity. Who would rate the records, and how would it be done? Motion picture guidelines are quite specific; nudity and four-letter words require that a film get a certain rating. "In films, there's no interpretation," says Ahrold. "Record-lyric rating, by it's very nature, would have be highly interpretive. And that brings up the question of whose standards rule the ratings. We feel that is a basically irresolvable issue."
Russ Solomon, founder of the Tower Records retail chain says, "A rating system would be conterproductive. If it ever comes to pass, it will only increase the sale of certain records." Solomon, who says he has never refused to carry a record because of its lyrical content or potentially offensive artwork, also thinks such a system would be impractical. "Ratings would have to get into slang and language that no one understands. When they finally realized what [Jefferson Airplane's} 'White Rabbit' was about, the record was dead and gone for four years."
The PMRC has also aimed its sights at rock video, particularly because of MTV's popularity among young children. "I'm disturbed by the portrayal of women and the graphic violence on MTV," says Gore. "An older person or a teeneager can look at this and see the humor in it, but an eight - or - ten-yer-old isn't anesthetized yet. Powerful images on television, wheter it's MTV orthe A-Team, have a strong effect on younger kids." She recalls that two of her preteenage children were confused and alarmed by Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher," a video in which a teacher strips down to a brief bikini, to the delight of her students.
MTV initiated a meeting with the PMRC, according to a spokesperson, "to outline for them the standards that we've had in place from the very beginning. We program for a twelve-to-thirty-four-year-old audience, and we think our standards are stricter than the networks." MTV executives pointed out to the groupthat videos don't exist for many of teh songs the PMRC objected to. "Or if they do, we have either declined to play them or played them only after they were sent back for editing."
The PMRC has additionally sought to have offensive album covers kept from public view, and the group wants warnings issued to prospective buyers of concert tickets for "burlesque-type" stage shows. Gore cites reports that Billy Idol allowed two young female fans to fondle him and that Twisted Sister encouraged female fans to strip on stage.
The PMRC is only the most visible organization in a growing network of more conservative regional groups. The National Music Review Council, a nascent organization started by William J. Steding, executive vice-president of two radio stations in Dallas and Kansas City, wants to initiate a seal of approval for acceptible, positive records. "If a record is found objectionable by the council," says Steding, "it will make it out to the stores and radio stations, but without the seal. It's apositive approach, not unlike the Good Housekeeping seal." Steding, who has banned from his stations such songs as J. Geils' "Love Stinks" and Devo's "Whip It," has sought the support of Smokey Robinson, who, as a Motown vice-president, has spoken out recently against what he calls "porn rock."
"I don't want to name names, but you know who they are," said Robinson. Ironically, two of his label's acts, Rick James and the Mary Jane Girls, are consistently criticized by the PMRC for suggestive lyrics.
Editorials by former Reagan aide David Gergen in US News and World Report and articles in The Washington Post and Newsweek ("Stop Pornographic Rock") have decried the blatant lyrics of Prince, Madonna, and even Cyndi Lauper. Syndicated columnist M. Lee Smith tagged Prince and Kiss "purveyors of filth."
After testifying at the congressional hearings, the PMRC plans to participate in a panel discussion at the NAB convention in Dallas this September and is busy organizing its wealth of grass-roots support. "We're going to have to put a national organization in place, on a state-by-state basis," says Tipper Gore. "We're seeking a coalition with the PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, labor, anyone who is willing to help. The key question for the industry, whether its records or MTV, is: Could you exercise some self restraint where these excesses - explicit sex, grapic violence -have occured?"
"The P.M.R.C. Files"...to be continued.