Warning: PMRC Advisory

On September 19, 1985, hearings were held before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee regarding inappropriate content in popular music. The hearing was requested by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), headed by wives of the Washington elite including Tipper Gore (wife of then-Senator and future-VP Al) and Susan Baker (wife of Treasury Secretary James).

The PMRC, funded by Beach Boy Mike Love and Joseph Coors, was seeking to create a rating system similar to that used for motion pictures. As the “Washington Wives” saw it, objectionable content could be broken down into four main categories: sex, violence, drug & alcohol use and the occult. The PMRC wanted the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) to voluntarily implement a labelling system so parents would know whether the album contained offensive material.

In preparation for the hearing, the PMRC compiled a list of songs they referred to as the “Filthy Fifteen”. Comprised of six pop or R&B singles and nine heavy metals tunes, the list had at least one example of each of the four categories. References to genitals and female masturbation particularly riled these ladies up, as did glam metal odes to teenage rebellion and allusions to witchcraft and the devil.

The “Filthy Fifteen”:

  1. “Darling Nikki” – Prince
  2. “Sugar Walls” – Sheena Easton
  3. “Eat Me Alive” – Judas Priest
  4. “Strap On ‘Robbie Baby'” – Vanity
  5. “Bastard” – Mötley Crüe
  6. “Let Me Put My Love into You” – AC/DC
  7. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” – Twisted Sister
  8. “Dress You Up” – Madonna
  9. “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” – W.A.S.P.
  10. “High ‘n’ Dry (Saturday Night)” – Def Leppard
  11. “Into the Coven” – Mercyful Fate
  12. “Trashed” – Black Sabbath
  13. “In My House” – Mary Jane Girls
  14. “Possessed” – Venom
  15. “She Bop” – Cyndi Lauper

At the hearing, Senator Paula Hawkins (R-FL) held up the covers of albums like Def Leppard’s Pyromania and W.A.S.P.’s self-titled debut as evidence of the depravity of popular music. She also presented the videos for Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (also a member of the “Filthy Fifteen”). “We’re Not Gonna Take It” was targeted specifically because it “glorified violence”, but it’s comically violent, like a Bugs Bunny cartoon; the comic effect is heightened by the presence of actor Mark Metcalf, imitating his Animal House character Doug Neidermeyer.

Appearing as opposing witnesses that day were Frank Zappa, John Denver and Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, who told the committee that “The full responsibility for defending my children falls on the shoulders of my wife and I, because there is no one else capable of making these judgments for us.”

In the end, the hearing was just a formality; the RIAA agreed to put a generic “Parental Advisory” sticker on records with explicit content. In 1990, the first album to receive a sticker was 2 Live Crew’s Banned in the USA (gangsta rap was in its infancy in 1985, but I would have loved to see Tipper Gore try to face off against Ice-T).

The sticker was a big deal in those early years; at that time, the nation’s biggest record retailer – BY FAR – was Walmart, which refused to sell any album carrying a sticker. Record companies, much to the chagrin of artists, began releasing “clean” versions of albums to be sold at Walmart. Many artists used their lyrics to protest the use of the sticker. An entire album, Just Say Anything (the fifth in Sire Records’ Just Say Yes series), was dedicated to free speech in pop music; as you may have guessed, the album was adorned with a “Parental Advisory” sticker.

As part of its “Earworm” video series, which I HIGHLY recommend, Vox put together this excellent clip explaining the link between “Satanic Panic” and the PMRC.

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