In the spring of 1985, a group of politically connected women, including the wives of then-Secretary of the Treasury James Baker III and Senator Albert Gore, Jr. (yes, that Al Gore), distributed an open letter to the media, parents, and the general American public calling for a campaign to clean up rock music. "Rock music," they wrote, "has become pornographic and sexually explicit, but most parents are unaware of the words their children are listening to, dancing to, doing homework to, falling asleep to." The letter, which cited several artists including Prince and Judas Priest, continued, "Some rock groups advocate satanic rituals, the other sings of open rebellion against parental and other authority, others sing of killing babies."11
The group, designating themselves the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) led a national drive to force record companies to warn customers of explicit lyrical content in all music distributed in the United States. They suggested that all "profane" albums should be labeled: "X" for violent or sexually explicit content, "O" for references to the occult or witchcraft, and "D/A" for lyrics about drug or alcohol use. In addition, the PMRC listed the following demands:
1. Print lyrics on album covers.
2. Keep explicit covers under the counter.
3. Establish a ratings system for records similar to that for films.
4. Establish a ratings system for concerts.
5. Reassess the contracts of performers who engage in violence and explicit sexual behavior onstage.
6. Establish a citizen and record-company media watch that would pressure broadcasters not to air "questionable-talent."
The group concluded that by regulating musical content in this way they would reduce the number of rapes and suicides occurring each year. The rising rates of sexual crime and teen suicide, they asserted, could be directly linked to subject matter in much of the rock and roll music widely available and, unlike "slash-and-rape movies," unregulated. Teens, major consumers of music, were highly impressionable, they noted, and easily corrupted by such profanity.12
But who was to define just which lyrics were "profane," and how would they determine such a rating? The problem, lawyers, record executives, and artists argued, was that music couldn't be assessed so easily. Standards used to label motion pictures with "G," "PG," "PG-13," and "R" ratings had long been based on quantifiable guidelines. For instance, any film with a single scene involving frontal nudity, one depicting drug paraphernalia, or one exhibiting violence that produces blood—or all of the above—receives at least an "R" rating. Curse words defined as "harsh," such as "f---," if used up to three times, earn a film a "PG-13" rating. If the word "f---" is used in reference to sex, the film is rated "R." Violence without bloodshed earns a film a "PG-13" rating, while bloodshed results in an "R" rating. The list of rules is long and detailed and in order for it to be used, a Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) committee must carefully comb through each scene to determine just how "profane" a film is. That's quite a task for the MPAA, which must assess several hundred films each year. But the average number of albums released each year is far greater; in fact, hundreds of albums are produced each month!
Plus, while it may be fairly easy to identify bare breasts, a crack pipe, or spurting blood on screen, it is much more difficult to point out explicitly profane "scenes" in music lyrics. The Doors' "Light My Fire," for instance could be about smoking a joint, having sex, or simply exchanging a few flirtatious glances. When the Beatles sang "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," they might have been referencing a childlike fantasy of life among the stars or an LSD-induced drug high. And it's anyone's guess what Captain and Tennille were referring to when they crooned, "Do That to Me One More Time." Sure, these singers and songwriters may have had specific things in mind—impure or even "profane" things, perhaps—when they delivered these lines, but listeners can interpret the lyrics in many, many different ways. This was the argument of those who opposed the PMRC's plans to rate music; they were adamant in pointing out that most ratings would have to be subjective, that is, based on taste and personal point of view rather than concrete evidence of profanity.
On the surface it seemed there was to be little difference between the movie rating system certified by the MPAA and the music rating system proposed by Tipper Gore and the PMRC. No filmmaker is forced to submit his or her film to the MPAA rating. A filmmaker can choose to opt out of the system and distribute the movie without a rating, or with his or her own rating, as long as it isn't too similar to the MPAA designations. For instance, many producers and distributors of pornography skip the MPAA certification altogether and either sell films without any such label, or, more commonly, with an "X," "XX," or "XXX" rating.
The same "option" would be available to musicians and record labels. But, in August 1985, when pressure from the PMRC led nineteen major record companies to agree to require labeling of all records with "explicit" lyrical content, the "options" for most artists virtually vanished. Parents Music Resource Center sought to require labeling for all music distributed in the United States, and because by the 1980s nearly all records distributed in the U.S. were handled by just a handful of music corporations, and because each of these big companies had capitulated to the demands of the PMRC, the group ultimately got exactly what they wanted. Like it or not, artists had to submit to the rating system. Plus, record store managers, without ever listening to the music, could choose not to stock products with the "explicit lyrics" label or could refuse to sell them to anyone under seventeen. By the end of 1985, Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney's, Sears, and Fred Meyer stores across the country stopped carrying rock music altogether.13
For many musicians, all of this reeked of censorship. In September 1985, the debate over labeling music reached Washington, D.C., and several artists testified before the United States Senate, warning of the dangers in such a scheme. John Denver, a folk musician, argued that censors often misinterpret music and that he was "strongly opposed to censorship of any kind in our society or anywhere else in the world."14 Dee Snider, the lead singer for the rock band Twisted Sister, noted that danger lies in giving a few people the power to decide the meaning of a work of art. "The beauty of literature, poetry, and music," he reminded the committee, "is that they leave room for the audience to put its own imagination, experiences, and dreams into the words."15 Rock composer Frank Zappa got straight to the point. "If the goal here is total verbal/moral safety, there is only one way to achieve it: watch no TV, read no books, see no movies, listen to only instrumental music or buy no music at all."16 Ironically, Zappa's instrumental album, Jazz From Hell, would be labeled "explicit" later that year because of the title for one track, "G-Spot Tornado."
Two months before the Senate hearing, as the media coverage of the PMRC debate heated up, the Wall Street Journal featured an article entitled, "Records May Soon Carry Warnings That Lyrics Are Morally Hazardous." As apocalyptic as that announcement may have seemed to many music artists and consumers, some weren't impressed. "It's just plain dumb," Russ Solomon, co-owner of Tower Records, said of the plan. "Labeling won't do anything but turn kids on to what you don't want them to buy."17 In fact, he was right. The controversy sparked by the PMRC, the Washington Senate hearings, and the Parental Advisory Label (also referred to as the PAL), and the resulting music censorship incidents that occurred throughout the following years ultimately did more to boost record sales than to crush them. Like teens of the '50s who snuck their transistor radios from their parents' sight and tuned into local stations to hear "race" records—or black-produced rhythm and blues tunes—that were considered taboo, dangerous, and vulgar, so too would teens after 1985, curious and tantalized by what they "weren't supposed to hear," find ways to get a hold of music labeled "explicit."