BLACK We see the Out of Frame logo. It fades out over a small, but expanding, video clip of OOF-S02E01 in the center of the frame. SEAN Recently on Out of Frame, we talked about how Jazz, Blues, and Soul musicians led the charge for civil rights and racial integration in America. The episode fades away. We hear the opening chunks of Malcolm Young's rhythm guitar marking out the tempo for AC/DC's "BACK IN BLACK" SEAN But that was far from the only time artists have had to stick up for individual rights... CLIP: PMRC HEARING The song AC/DC's "BACK IN BLACK" actually begins as we see clips of the PMRC "Washington Wives". SEAN We flash forward to the 1980s when a group of well-connected busybodies--I mean, fine, upstanding ladies who called themselves the Parents Music Resource Center launched an attack on recording artists like Prince, AC/DC, Madonna, and Def Leppard. We see images of the 4 women discussed below. SEAN The PMRC was founded by a group of 4 women infamously known as "the Washington Wives". And as the moniker suggests, they were all married to powerful figures of national politics. They were Sally Nevius, wife of a former Washington City Council Chairman; Pam Howar, the wife of a successful DC area realtor; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; and Tipper Gore, wife of then Senator, and everybody's favorite Emperor of the Moon, Al Gore. Al Gore "Emperor of the Moon" clip from Futurama. SEAN At its peak, the group consisted of just 22 members, and yet through their influence, they were able to get national attention and even Congressional Hearings to combat lyrics and music videos they believed were corrupting America's youth. Show CLIPS of MODERN MUSIC VIDEOS Nothing too risque, but we should see some shots from videos that feature racy shots such as Nikki Minaj's Anaconda. Then we'll cut back to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun". SEAN Now, given the musical landscape we all live in today, it's hard to imagine recording artists like Cyndi Lauper being considered "porn rock", but in 1985? That's exactly what the PMRC claimed. Show LIST of Filthy Fifteen. SEAN In fact, that year, they released a list of songs that they called the "Filthy Fifteen" -- a group so objectionable that something absolutely had to be done to protect parents and kids from their pernicious influence. For the children. Ok, fine, you say. Parents' groups are always finding new things to worry about, and it's everybody's right to decide what their kids get exposed to. So what's the big deal? The big deal is that even though the PMRC publicly asked record companies to "voluntarily" place warning labels on their albums, their proximity and connection to government made it clear that -- just like with the Movie Ratings system established in 1968, or the Comics Code Authority in 1954 -- if the industry leaders didn't "regulate" themselves, politicians were all too happy to step in and do it for them, stomping on the First Amendment in the process. To that end, in September 1985, the United States Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a hearing on behalf of the Parents Music Resource Center, quote: "On the subject of the content of certain sound recordings and suggestions that recording packages be labeled to provide a warning to prospective purchasers of sexually explicit or other potentially offensive content", and surprise, one of the key Senators overseeing the hearing was Al Gore. CLIP: GORE [Something dumb] SEAN Al Gore, and his cohorts like Sen. Paula Hawkins, and my own former senator Jim Exon led the charge, playing music like Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" -- accusing these songs of glorifying suicide, rape, and sadomasochism. They invited psychologists and musicologists to come talk about the influencing power of music, and used their testimony to say that parents just had no possible way of ever knowing what their kids were listening to and that exposure to this Devil music would create Satan-worshipping, violent, drug-abusing children around the country. Seriously. CLIP: GORE (?) Parents can't know, blah blah SEAN Keep in mind... This was 1985, not 1885. SEAN Fortunately, in order to balance the hearings, the Senate Committee also invited a handful of recording artists to testify, including John Denver, Frank Zappa, and Twisted Sister front-man, Dee Snider. If you watch the hearings -- which, I encourage everyone to do in full -- it's clear that the Senators were expecting John Denver to be on their side, for Zappa to come off like a weirdo, and for Snider to be an incomprehensible troglodyte. But in a shocking twist, these three men spoke as eloquently on behalf of free speech as anyone has ever done. Zappa came out of the gate hard. ZAPPA (04:10+) "The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense... Dandruff by decapitation." SEAN John Denver expressed serious concerns that any kind of ratings system would be subject to political tampering and would be controlled by people who misunderstand or misinterpret the music they're rating. JOHN DENVER ?? SEAN And Snider presented a case that, far from being pernicious, his music and his stage presence was about freedom of expression and kindness, while outing himself as a teetotaling Christian -- a loving husband and father who took the responsibility for raising his own kids very seriously. DEE SNIDER ?? SEAN At one point, Senator Slade Gordon accuses Frank Zappa of not understanding the difference between government action and private action, and claims that no one is pushing legislation... But watch how quickly the the thin pretense of "voluntary action" falls away. SEN. JIM EXON (27:00) On the Hayes Code and movie ratings being "voluntary", followed by a direct threat from Sen. Jim Exon to introduce regulation if the industry doesn't "clean up its act" SEAN I can't help but hear Exon's words and think about how much it actually sounds like organized crime. You know... "I'd hate for something bad to happen to you if you don't do what we want." If it's clear to everyone in the music industry that if they didn't give in to the Washington Wives, their politically powerful husbands would make life a lot worse for recording artists using the law, that's not really voluntary, is it? SEAN And here's the thing... The PMRC did have a point. Kids are influenced by the music and entertainment they're exposed to, and of course it's difficult for parents to vet every song their children are listening to. But if Tipper Gore and her friends were really just going for voluntary action, they could have created a publication that warned people about the albums and songs they thought were "dangerous" or highlighted uplfting music kids should be listening to. They could have spent their efforts creating value for parents like Consumer Reports and Car & Driver do for their readers. But... They didn't do that. Instead, thanks to their position and political connections, they got the Federal government to drag musicians in front of Congress, conducting hearings and threatening legislation -- all while claiming they were just looking out for the best interests of children. And maybe that's the actual lesson here. There's a school of economics called Public Choice that looks at political action with the same kind of clear-eyed skepticism as we tend to look at other areas of life. It's tempting to think that politicians are always working for the well-being of everyone, or at least all of their constituents, but in reality they're just human beings -- often self-interested, acting mainly on behalf of themselves and their friends. Or... Their wives. It didn't matter to the PMRC or their powerful friends in the Senate if their actions might come at the expense of thousands of artists and business owners. It didn't matter to them if they cost consumers billions of dollars by requiring more lawyers, censors, and more printing expenses on every album. They were prepared to go a lot farther than that... Including pushing legislation that directly violated the First Amendment to the Constitution. And if you listen to the PMRC hearings, they had some support in the Senate to do it. In the days just before the hearings, the Recording Industry caved to the Washington Wives' demands and started putting Parental Advisory stickers -- the "Tipper sticker" -- on albums they deemed to be offensive. But in an ironic twist, those labels ended up being an easy way for kids to know exactly which music the moralizing busybodies of the PMRC and their friends in government didn't want them to listen to. And what's more exciting to teenagers than doing whatever authority figures tell them not to do? Explicit album sales went up after the hearings. And they outraged artists, spurring the rise of a new wave of anti-censorship recordings and statements from across the musical spectrum -- with contributions from punk bands like NOFX, the Ramones, and the Sex Pistols, to hip hop and rap artists like Ice T and NWA, to rock bands like Sonic Youth. After all that effort, including direct threats of legislated censorship, the Parents Music Resource Center got what exactly it wanted and yet created a massive cultural and artistic backlash against censorship at the same time. What's troubling now, is that it seems as if censorship is once again on the rise. But this time, it's not coming from social conservatives or uptight schoolmarms. It's coming from young people and their professors who believe that controlling the language people are allowed to hear will be able to stop the spread of ideas they don't like. But thinking about what happened in the 80s with the PMRC hearings gives me hope. The enemies of free speech may sometimes win the upper hand, but censorship cannot survive for long, no matter how well intended it might be. The kids just aren't gonna take it. BUMPER: OUT OF FRAME LOGO SEAN Thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. Leave a comment below and let's start a conversation. And if you want to see more video essays like this, hit that subscribe button and check us out as @FEEonline on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. See you next time! SNIDER (02:45) Dee Snider responds to direct attacks on his character. Unfair. (3:30-04:23) Under the Blade commentary. (07:50) "It is my job as a parent... the full responsibility falls on my wife and I... That is where the PMRC's role ends." (08:35) Twisted Sister being misrepresented. "There is no authority that can make these judgments" ZAPPA (04:10+) "The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense... Dandruff by decapitation." (5:00) "Ladies, please be advised... Kiss on the foot" (7:30) Conflict of Interest (17:00) "It's the parents' concern, not the government's concern." (18:00) ...on why this is a move towards legislation (21:15) Sen. Slade Gordon claims there's no government action... AT A SENATE HEARING! (27:00) On the Hayes Code and movie ratings being "voluntary", followed by a direct threat from Sen. Jim Exon to introduce regulation if the industry doesn't "clean up its act" (2

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About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

April 5, 2018

In the 1980s, a group of well-connected "Washington Wives" attacked artists like Prince, AC/DC, Madonna, and Def Leppard for their “corrupting” content. They demanded that the record companies start putting parental advisory warnings on music. But things didn’t pan out as they might have hoped… The enemies of free speech may sometimes win the upperhand, but censorship cannot survive for long.


Written & Produced by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Jaye Davidson & Sean W. Malone