In ’85 the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), an organization spearheaded by Tipper Gore and a handful of wives of influential Washington types, lobbied in the senate to censor music that contained lyrical content they considered to be satanic or overtly sexual. Utilizing the advent of the music video to enhance their rhetoric, the PMRC painted a picture of a music industry that was out of control and needed some regulation for the sake of our children. They came up with their “Filthy Fifteen”: fifteen songs whose lyrical content contained themes of sex, violence, drug use, and the occult. The media circus surrounding this push for censorship eventually culminated in a senate hearing in which Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and John Denver testified.
In the hearing, Zappa is eloquent on the matter of freedom of speech, the distinction between rating films v. rating lyrical content of music, and the slippery slope of censorship before a smug, derisive senate (featuring a baby-faced Al Gore). Here are some potent quotables from the hearing:
“The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design. It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC’s demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation”
“The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on things certain Christians do not like. What if the next bunch of Washington wives demands a large yellow ‘J’ on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?”
“Bad facts make bad laws, and people who write bad laws are, in my opinion, worse than songwriters who celebrate sexuality”
A few months after the senate hearing, Zappa was on CNN’s Crossfire. In this interview, Zappa responds calmly to a livid commentator John Lofton who points out that incest wasn’t a problem in this country until about twenty years ago—this guy is a real gem (note to self: Watch Daily Show interview with John Lofton). I like this interview for a few reasons:
- The way the other commentators use a “shh, the adults are talking” tone with Lofton.
- Zappa describes the plot of Van Halen’s video for “Hot for Teacher”
- Quotes like this one: “The biggest threat to America today is not Communism, it’s moving America toward a fascist theocracy and everything that’s happened in the Reagan administration is steering us right down that pipe.” And the incredulity of the commentators that follows (Frank was a man ahead of his time)
And if you’ve been watching TeeVee lately, you’ll have seen good ol’ fascist theocracy rearing its mitred head again. Zappa’s concerns about where this country was headed still carry weight some 25 years later.