Sex & Society » Politics, History: "Rhythm of Sin: The War on Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll"

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Rhythm of Sin: The War on Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll

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Music is sexy. Dangerous sexy. Back in the annals of history, some caveman Casanova figured out smacking out a rhythm on a rock with your club was more conducive to lovemaking than clubbing her over the head. Women have loved drummers ever since.

  Then & Now

Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.
–Phil Kerby, FBI investigator, 1998

In 1985, Reagan and Bush1 had just started their second term of popular fascism—er, presidency. Terrorism and espionage were daily newspaper headlines. Gorbachev and Reagan continually disagreed on nuclear disarmament. A hole was discovered in the ozone. (Reagan names “trees” as the leading cause of pollution.) Actor and famous “ladies man” Rock Hudson dies of AIDS. Movie adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple takes the Oscar for Best Picture, for its ruthless depiction of poverty, domestic violence and child abuse. The price of a postage stamp went up (again). Unemployment was over 7 percent. The federal deficit was $1817.5 billion.

With so much going on, it’s no surprise that the wives of Washington politicians should form a coalition to do their part for the American people. What issue united them? What evil would they attack? Poverty? Homelessness? Illiteracy? Child abuse?

Nope. Music.

That’s right, the biggest danger facing American families was musicians and their dirty song lyrics.

  Big Brother + Mothers Against Everything

“If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.”
–C.G. Jung, Integration of the Personality, 1939

It started with Tipper Gore, the wife of then-Senator Al Gore (who would go on to be Vice President, elected-but-not President, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient). Tipper “accidentally” purchased a Prince album for her 12-year-old daughter, Karenna.

“All I knew was that Prince was a new figure on the scene. She bought it because she liked ‘Let’s Go Crazy,’ but then I heard the words to ‘Darling Nikki,’ with its lyrics about a girl masturbating with a magazine, and I started paying attention.” After watching MTV, Gore said, “The images frightened my children; they frightened me! I am frightened! Way frightened! The graphic sex and the violence were too much for us to handle... Then I happened to talk with Susan Baker, whom I had met through an international club we both belong to, and I found out she was going through the same thing with her children.”

Susan Baker claimed she became alarmed when she heard her seven-year-old daughter singing along to Madonna songs on the radio.

Gore continued, “We got together with Pam Howar, Sally Nevius and Ethelann Stuckey and decided to try to do something about it.” That something was the creation of the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) to combat sexually explicit song lyrics.

  On the Cover of the Rolling Stone

A week before the Congressional hearing on PMRC’s melophobia (fear or hatred of music), People magazine’s cover blared: “Has Rock Gone too Far?” Rolling Stone’s November issue carried the headline “Big Brother Meets Twisted Sister.”

How do four over-reactive mothers (who clearly do not represent the target audience of any of the accused porno-lyricists) appear in pop magazines like rock stars or inspire Stan Gortikov, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, to fly from New York to meet with them, or intimidate Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, to ask 45 recording companies to supply written lyrics for their albums so that broadcasters can know (and be held responsible for) what they are playing? Or get a Congressional hearing on demand? What or who do they know that we don’t?

Could it be... their husbands?

  What’s Gov. Got To Do With It?

“The introduction of a new kind of music must be shunned as imperiling the whole state; since styles of music are never disturbed without affecting the most important political institutions.”
–Plato (428-348 BC)

“A couple of blowjobs here and there—and Bingo!—you get a hearing.”
–Frank Zappa (1940-1993)

“Washington Wives” PMRC and their better halves: Tipper Gore, wife of Senator Al Gore; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius.

The PMRC issued a most-hated playlist: The Filthy Fifteen.

1. Prince, “Darling Nikki”: Sex (no video available)

2. Sheena Easton, “Sugar Walls”: Sex

3. Judas Priest, “Eat Me Alive”: Sex

4. Vanity, “Strap on Robbie Baby”: Sex

5. Mötley Crüe, “Bastard”: Violence

6. AC/DC, “Let Me Put My Love into You”: Sex

7. Twisted Sister, “We’re Not Gonna Take It”: Violence

8. Madonna, “Dress You Up”: Sex

9. W.A.S.P., “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)”: Sex/Language

10. Def Leppard, “High ’n’ Dry (Saturday Night)”: Drug and alcohol use

11. Mercyful Fate, “Into the Coven”: Satanism

12. Black Sabbath, “Trashed”: Drug and alcohol use

13. Mary Jane Girls, “In My House”: Sex

14. Venom, “Possessed”: Satanism

15. Cyndi Lauper, “She Bop”: Masturbation

  Thus Spake Zappa

The PMRC also accused bands including Iron Maiden, Styx, Rush, Pink Floyd, Van Halen, Kiss and Queen of backmasking to promote Satanism and/or drug use.

Frank Zappa, John Denver and Dee Snider (Twisted Sister) were the only musicians who testified at the hearing.

Zappa: No one has forced Mrs. Baker or Mrs. Gore to bring Prince or Sheena Easton into their homes...Ladies, please be advised: The $8.98 purchase price does not entitle you to a kiss on the foot from the composer or performer...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?

Snider: I can say categorically that the only sadomasochism, bondage, and rape in this song is in the mind of Ms. Gore.

Denver: I’m strongly opposed to censorship of any kind in our society or anywhere else in the world... That which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting. Consequently, a great deal of time and energy is spent trying to get at what is being kept from you.

Not surprisingly the result of the Congressional hearing was that Washington Husbands agreed with Washington Wives. Sen. Gore was one of the three Senators overseeing the hearing and testified on to it on the PMRC’s behalf. Neither that nor his marriage to its founder seemed a conflict of interest in the mind of that Senator or his colleagues.

Before the hearing ended, the RIAA agreed to put PAL (Parental Advisory Labels) on releases that may be “explicit or offensive.”

  Sticker Shock: Parental Warnings in Music Marketplace

“We live in oppressive times. We have, as a nation, become our own thought police; but instead of calling the process by which we limit our expression of dissent and wonder ‘censorship,’ we call it ‘concern for commercial viability.’ ”
—David Mamet, American Playwright (1947— )

The effect of the labeling was immediate. Many record stores, including Wal-Mart, refused to sell albums containing the label that became known as the “Tipper Sticker” (Wal-Mart’s practice continues to this day). Others refused sales to minors. Some politicians rallied to criminalize the sale of explicit records to minors or to ban the albums altogether. Criminal charges for obscenity were brought against 2LiveCrew for the song “Me So Horny” from the album Nasty As We Wanna Be.

Dead Kennedys were charged for “distributing harmful matter to minors” when their album Frankenchrist featured an insert of H. R. Giger’s “Penis Landscape” and a parody sticker: “WARNING: The inside fold out to this record cover is a work of art by H.R. Giger that some people may find shocking, repulsive or offensive. Life can sometimes be that way.”

One of the first albums to receive the Parental Advisory sticker was Frank Zappa’s Grammy-winning Jazz From Hell, even though the album contained no lyrics at all; it was the RIAA’s way of punishing Zappa for his testimony.

While the legal expenses and distribution problems affected individual artists and choices made by record labels and music promoters, the Tipper Sticker may have boosted sales.

In “Freedom of Speech,” Ice-T raps:
Yo Tip, what’s the matter?
You ain’t getting’ no dick?
You’re bitchin’ about rock ’n’ roll
That’s censorship, dumb bitch
The Constitution says we all got a right to speak
Say what we want
Tip, your argument is weak...
Hey PMRC, you stupid fuckin’ assholes
The sticker on the record is what makes ’em sell gold
Can’t you see, you alcoholic idiots
The more you try to suppress us, the larger we get

The Furnaceface song “We Love You, Tipper Gore,” suggests that the label “only whets my appetite ... only makes us want to hear it that much more.”

  Legacy of PMRC: Today’s Filthier Filth

“The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.”
—Henry Steele Commager, American Historian (1902—1998)

Today’s Filthier Fifteen:

# Artist Song title Lyrical content

1. Britney Spears, “If U Seek Amy”: Sex

2. Eminem, “Crack a Bottle”: Misogyny, drugs, sex

3. Amy Winehouse, “Addicted”: Drugs

4. Flo Rida, “Right Round”: Sex

5. Ciara, “Love Sex Magic”: Sex, a stunning lack of magic

6. Lady Gaga, “Poker Face”: Sex

7. Jamie Foxx, “Blame It”: Sex, Alcohol

8. Big Boss, “Song for Satan”: Satanism

9. Keri Hilson/Timbaland, “Return the Favor”: Sex

10. 50 Cent/Justin Timberlake “Ayo Technology”: Sex

11. Jeremih, “Birthday Sex”: Sex

12. Pitbull, “Sticky Icky”: Drugs

13. 3OH!3, “Don’t Trust Me”: Sex, Misogyny

14. Cradle of Filth, “Sweetest Maleficia”: Satanism, Infanticide (no video available)

15. Rompeprop, “Lubricate the Fucksaw”: Gross

  Simon Says Science Says

Were the censors right? Are lyrics harmful to kids? The debate rages on. Ideas, sung or stated, and products like music, books, and video games are continually held up as responsible for the ills of our age. Death Metal is no more likely to cause murderous behavior than Twinkies, but both have been held as co-conspirators at trial.

Every so often someone will come out with studies that are the scientific equivalent of Monkey See, Monkey Do. Does your teenager’s iPod dictate when she has sex? It’s a chicken or egg argument—which came first: the desire for sex or the sexy playlist?

The nature of the way such studies are conducted is suspect. Researchers often have a predetermined outcome and the way they troll for data exposes their bias. Phone interviews with preteens about what they are listening to, and what they are doing with whom when Mom’s not home are only as reliable as the kids themselves. Why not check the iPods of the swelling number of pregnant teens in the Bible Belt?

Humans, young and old, are not blank discs waiting for someone to record their instructions upon us. There was sex before there was music. Whatever pop science, parents or the PMRC may have to say about it—kids like both. Sex and music: two great tastes that taste great together.


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