Conservatives conceded the culture a long time ago. Everyone knows this, but not everyone can agree on why or how that happened to begin with. We can claim somewhat a-historically that the ‘conservative’ culture of the last century simply evaporated, and that it’s a matter of the ever-changing definition of liberalism graduating the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable by the decade. We could point directly to the movers and shakers of the culturally relevant revolutionary movements that forced particular court rulings and executive mandates on us. We could blame certain groups of people for subverting our media and entertainment. The reality is most likely some convoluted combination of all sorts of factors.
Before gangster rap, before the sex-pop music of the 2010s, before the Columbine controversies, and before the destructive black metal scene in Norway, there was the US Senate hearing before the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the subject of record labeling, rating, and possible regulation of the contents of pop or rock songs. More popularly known as the senate hearing orchestrated by prominent DC wives, notably Tipper Gore, it has come to be known as perhaps the most recognizable hysteria that accompanied the words “think of the children!” so indicative of early Politically Correct culture. At the time, it seemed like it was an ad hoc circus thrown together by an ambiguous collection of histrionic women and a complete waste of time. The Parents Music Resource Center, or PMRC, claimed to speak for the morals of an older generation, despite being headed by the likes of Tipper Gore, Susan Baker, Pam Hower, and Sally Nevius—beltway women married to career politicians.
Now, for a quick recap of 1985, we should be reminded that TCP/IP was still brand new technology, and “the internet” as we know it barely existed across a few servers in the basement of some government office. Nintendo would release the NES to American markets that year. The top grossing films of 1985 were Back to the Future, Rambo: First Blood II, and Beverly Hills Cop. It was the year David Lee Roth left Van Halen, Michael Jackson bought the rights to the Beatles’ repertoire, VH-1 began broadcasting across US airwaves, and “We Are the World” was recorded. And Pink Floyd went Roger Water-less, greatly improving their sound for the few pieces they’d yet still record together.
This was a world without internet, where you had to walk into record stores and retail places in order to purchase music, where radio was still a dominant media vehicle, and where three quarters of the population didn’t even know what an “independent” record label was. The other quarter owned a skateboard.
These are all factors to keep in mind as we review the arguments put forward by our favorite pop-rock musicians. They did not argue from principle, even if it seemed as though they did. They argued from a general appeal to a principle that was still then couched by a certain level of practicality. As the millennium approached, however, that practicality would evaporate, and the deterioration of not just the culture-at-large, but even their own specific sectors of music, would accelerate to the point of parody.
The highlight of the senatorial hearing involved the testimony of three opposing witnesses: Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snider. We’ll approach each of their testimonies one at a time, beginning with Snider’s, as his was the most direct and, amusingly, the hardest to defend. You’ll notice, however, that their arguments were all effectively the same: parents should be the ones to decide whether a song’s content is suitable for their children, not the government. You’ll notice also, however, that this wasn’t something that the senate committee ever denied. Legislation and regulation, although something that arguably was at least a remote possibility for some members of the committee, was expressly denied by the chairman by several prominent members. They were looking for a citizen’s and industry’s solution, not dissimilar to efforts in other industries to curb excess indecency or graphic violence.
Snider’s testimony is also unique among the other’s because Snider had been directly accused of penning songs about demeaning women and promoting t-shirts that included derogatory imagery of women—things Snider expressly took offense to. He came in with guns blazing, going off specifically on then-Senator Al Gore’s wife for the accusations. Unfortunately, some of it falls apart as they get into the matter of a song of his. Tom Cole briefly documents some of this in an article to NPR from a decade ago:
“I remember the PMRC complaining about the song ‘Under the Blade’ by Twisted Sister which they claimed was about rape,” says Cary Sherman. “But the lead singer for the group, Dee Snider, testified that the PMRC was projecting its violent fantasies into his music, which was actually about the fear that a patient experiences on the operating table before surgery, and that the song was inspired by surgery that the band’s drummer had to undergo.”
More specifically, Snider’s comments were these:
The song was written about my guitar player, Eddie Ojeda. He was having polyps removed from his throat and he was very fearful of this operation. And I said: Eddie, while you are in the hospital I am going to write a song for you.
I said it was about the fear of operations. I think people imagine being helpless on a table, the bright light in their face, the blade coming down on them, and being totally afraid that they may wake up, who knows, dead, handicapped. There is a certain fear of hospitals. That is what, in my imagination, what I see the hospitals like.
That sounds pretty reasonable an explanation, and we all know that sometimes the less-charitable among us will try to blow certain lyrics out of the water in order to suit particular interpretations more welcoming to a particular agenda. So let’s be fair for a second and take a look at the lyrics in question:
You’re cornered in the alley way
You know you’re all alone
You know it’s gonna end this way
The chill goes to the bone
It’s not another party head
This time you cannot rise
Your hands are tied, your legs are strapped
A light shines in your eyes
You’ve tried to make it to the front
But you’re pinned against the side
A monster stands before you now
His mouth is open wide
The lights go on, the night explodes
Tears into your mind
When the night does end, you’ll come again
The blade is gonna ride
I’ve selectively edited for brevity here, but follow the link to judge for yourself as to whether these are uncharitable edits with regard to Snider’s explanation. He may have written it while his bandmate was having surgery, and he might even have been inspired by that. But the song doesn’t read like it’s about a surgery, does it? Loathe as I am to admit it, Tipper Gore had a point. Whether it’s about bondage, rape, or merely a violent mugging, there’s clearly more going on here than some tomophobic drummer’s impending polyp removal.
That Snider refuses to comment on this and instead hides behind the artist’s privilege is revealing; he has to know that these lyrics are imaging something greater than a few breaths of Propofol and an unsympathetic surgeon. You don’t sing about alleyways, being tied up, attempting to escape, or explicitly mention nighttime unless you’re deliberately painting a scene that takes place in some sketchy urban neighborhood populated by characters of questionable physique. But because it’s vague enough, Snider still tries to make his case. He’s not a moron; he’s just revealing a specific interest in countering any allegations that his lyrics are about exactly what they seem to be about. Because he doesn’t like the thought that kids might not get to listen to his music.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Musician John Denver’s presentation is considered, along with Frank Zappa’s, to have been the most lucid and penetrating on the subject of censorship. Denver’s own music had been subjected to mild censorship over his career, as he noted in his statements, and he used the expected, typical comparisons to Nazi book burnings in order to underline his point.
His opening address to the senate panel included this defense:
I suggest that explicit lyrics and graphic videos are not so far removed from what is seen on television every day and night, whether it be in the soap operas or on the news, and that we should point our finger at the recording industry while watching the general public at a nationally televised baseball game chant in unison “The Blue Jays suck” is ludicrous.
The problem, Mr. Chairman, in my opinion has to do with our willingness as parents to take responsibility for the upbringing of our children, to pay attention to their interests, to respond to their needs, and to recognize that we as parents and as individuals have a greater influence on our children and on each other than anything else could possibly have.
It doesn’t take a parent to point out the idiocy of his argument here: they’re doing it over in the television industry, so why can’t we? An argument attacking the practicality of enforcing music regulations is more convincing than this, but this was the way Denver decided to go.
And he followed it up with an argument that anyone who was online two months ago should find very familiar: it’s the duty of the parents to shield their children from unsafe influences, even in a commodified, consumer society that packages culture onto, in this case, little plastic discs sealed in cellophane that feed us narratives and grooves at 200-500rpm. Denver admits here that the American entertainment industries are slipping into a level of degeneracy probably not fit for children, but he refuses to admit that the government should play any role in preventing that decline. It’s classic Americanism at play: if the people want to listen to this stuff, even if it degrades the public discourse, insults human dignity, and abases our tastes, they should be able to get a hold of it.
To a degree, Senator Ernest Hollings points this out when he first addresses Denver, mentioning how parents “are in one heck of a competition out there,” challenging Denver when he says “You say that parents have a greater influence. Not necessarily so.” Try to imagine informing this committee that, just thirty years down the road, people would be offering up the same arguments regarding the accessibility not of violent or profane lyrics, but of explicit, hardcore pornography—the likes of which that, in 1985, could only be found in skeazy stores and at somewhat exorbitant prices. Although not before a senate panel, the debate over a child’s access to Riley Reed’s free content on PornHub would follow the exact same lines of reasoning.
Al Gore then gets his turn to address Denver. He uses it to point out what many Americans still to this day refuse to acknowledge: the source of culture and how it is guided. “Why do you think,” he asks Denver, that music which “emphasizes explicit violence and sex and sado-masochism […] has been growing in popularity?” The exchange is illuminating in how it addresses the blind spots of the average artist:
Mr. DENVER. Again, sir, my experience, not only in this country but all over the world, is that music today is that medium which most specifically tells us what is going on in young people’s minds, not what is being put into them but what reflects what they are interested in.
I think that this addresses itself to a much graver problem in fact, the source of the symptom that we are discussing here today.
Senator GORE. Well, if a 10-year-old listens to a song glorifying rape, that is not reflecting what is in that 10-year-old’s mind, is it?
Mr. DENVER. I do not think so. I do not think there are many 10-year-olds who know what rape is.
Senator GORE. I am not sure I would agree with that.
If you have an explicit description of a suicide, in a song that seems to glorify and promote suicide, young people are aware of that.
John Denver, a man who had worked in the music industry for most of his adult life, tried peddling the lie that people listen to whatever is on their minds. He is apparently ignorant as to who, in fact, is making, producing, selling, and packing the music in the first place. It never seems to occur to Denver that far from being an artistic field, the music industry is an industry, run by people who operate businesses. Records don’t just come out of nowhere. People don’t just suddenly hear about a new CD coming out. Marketing is done. Albums are produced in studios. Execs decide what to spend more time and money on producing, advertising, and selling. This isn’t a grassroots, emergent operation, and it never has been. You’d think Denver would know this.
But let it not be forgotten that the man here who stood limply shrugging his shoulders over an acknowledged cultural decline was a self-admitted druggie with domestic abuse problems, and would go on to write an auto-biography a few years later detailing the extent of his complete lack of control. Perhaps his ignorance over how the industry works is sincere, as it’s hard not to notice how almost without exception, the pop stars of the music industry—and entertainment businesses in general—are notoriously drug-addled, fornicating, self-indulgent slaves to their passions first, and musical ‘artists’ second. Perhaps it’s no surprise that their managers and producers do everything they can to keep feeding them the particular objects of their vices. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that none of them ever couched their language about the industry with indictments regarding the stranglehold it’s had on American consciousness simply because their brains are too clouded with dopamine, serotonin, and ego to notice.
We’ll focus lastly here on the most famous witness called before this committee: Frank Zappa. Zappa’s demeanor fell somewhere between Snider’s open disdain and Denver’s meekness, yet his position was probably the most blatantly radical. Where Snider just wanted to set straight what he perceived to be a slandered record, and where Denver wanted to believe in preserving artistic expression, Zappa brazenly noted his interest in eschewing any possibility of legislation or regulation on the grounds of sexual freedom. Zappa notes:
Record ratings are frequently compared to film ratings. Apart from the quantitative difference, there is another that is more important: People who act in films are hired to pretend. No matter how the film is rated, it will not hurt them personally.
Since many musicians write and perform their own material and stand by it as their art, whether you like it or not, an imposed rating will stigmatize them as individuals. How long before composers and performers are told to wear a festive little PMRC arm band with their scarlet letter on it?
Frank Zappa, the man who penned the songs “Mudshark,” “The Illinois Enema Bandit,” and the entire album Joe’s Garage, is worried he’ll be labeled what, a pervert? Imagine that!
Zappa doesn’t want a rating system implemented on the basis that it’ll “stigmatize” the artists that more extreme ratings are applied to—presumably here this is to say that some stores will simply decline to carry higher-rated material, which would understandably impact the record company’s bottom line. On the other hand, doing exactly that would make it harder for kids, whom everyone involved in this argument claims to care about, to get their hands on these graphic recordings in the first place. This make’s Zappa’s argument effectively: “if you enforce a ratings system, then kids won’t be able to listen to my sexually degenerate songs!”
You can’t help but wonder if his point got lost somewhere along the way, but it turns out that is exactly his point after all. As he mentions to Al Gore just moments later:
But the legitimate concern is a matter of taste for the individual parent and how much sexual information that parent wants to give their child, at what age, at what time, in what quantity, OK. And I think that, because there is a tendency in the United States to hide sex, which I think is an unhealthy thing to do, and many parents do not give their children good sexual education, in spite of the fact that little books for kids are available, and other parents demand that sexual education be taken out of school, it makes the child vulnerable, because if you do not have something rational to compare it to when you see or hear about something that is aberrated you do not perceive it as an aberration.
He, like all the opposing witnesses, testify as to the value, merit, and necessity of parental guidance over a child’s media consumption and purchasing decisions, but he takes it a step further. Neither of the other high-profile musicians before this committee spent so much time defending sexual license in their creative output—not even Snider, whose whole glam metal gimmick oozed with sexual overtones both in his music and his stage persona. Yet Zappa zeroed in on it. What purpose does bringing up sexual education serve in the context of slapping a rating system onto rock music?
Remember also Snider’s deliberate obfuscation of his lyrics. Both Zappa and Snider share this in their testimonies; they both recognize, on some level, that perhaps there are themes they sing about that many parents would take exception to. Both of them claim to favor having a lyrics insert printed up and posted on the album packaging so the parents could make up their own minds before letting their kids buy up the albums. But both of them also object to the notion that they are in any way singing about something that is wrong.
What would motivate someone to say “maybe my work isn’t for kids,” while holding the simultaneous position that “rating systems must be avoided at all costs”? The practicality of implementing or enforcing a rating system was never a primary component of the argument, either. You could point to a belief that some parents are just wrong about shielding children from sexually suggestive material, as Zappa seems to, but then again, Zappa seems also to draw zero distinction between his brand of off-color sexually-charged humor and genuine sexual education that, at least in his opinion, should be taught in public schools. Notice his double standard here: if parents won’t teach sexual education, then the state—under the guise of its public schooling apparatus—should, but if parents won’t guard against questionable material in their children’s entertainment, the state should be completely uninvolved.
Zappa’s line of reasoning, so typical among classical liberals, remains materialistic and, ironically given his background, ignorant as to the relevancy of the arts in a person’s development. That a child might not learn about intercourse from their fifth grade teacher and that their father might never explain to them the mechanics of procreation is terrible, but that the same kid might pick up slang, habits, and disordered inclinations from consuming an open tap of filth packaged in four chords and a bridge doesn’t seem to be a problem.
A Lesson in What Not to Do
Read in a certain light, the grievances of the PMRC over rock music should be taken seriously by Catholics. No matter how much you may love your Alice Cooper or defend Black Sabbath as actually being pro-Catholic, it’s not possible to deny that their lyrical content exists on a sliding scale alongside the likes of Prince’s masturbatory excesses and any one gangster rapper’s glorification of violence. But like a similar hysteria that would erupt around the time of the Columbine shooting, the claim that lyrics directly influenced a child’s behavior is where the PMRC’s framework for all of this went wrong. As a result, any attempt to implement practical methods of curbing this type of music fell straight into the gutter and, as Philip Bailey, singer for Earth, Wind, and Fire dryly commented twenty years ago: “For the most part it might even sell more records in some areas—all you’ve got to do is tell somebody this is a no-no and then that’s what they want to go see.”
Viewed another way, the PMRC’s failure was deeper than simply shining the Streisand Effect upon explicit lyrical content. Due to some retailers’ interests in keeping their shelves stocked, various outlets would refuse to carry albums marked with the parental advisory stickers. Naturally, as I noted above, this would affect a studio’s bottom line, so they found ways around it. Simply silencing or censoring words, like the FCC demanded of television programs for decades, was the easiest solution, although the list of words to be censored included a wider range of slang than what the FCC’s somewhat liberal guidelines required. In any case, censoring out a couple of F-bombs in a single about dealing drugs, killing people, and fornicating with prostitutes sufficed to constitute a ‘clean’ version of the album, but it hardly fulfills the goals of what the PMRC had in mind.
The failure of this group is what happens when Catholics specifically retreat from the culture. The Hayes Code, commonly vilified by contemporary moviegoers, successfully prevented undo vice from flooding the silver screen at a time when that was exactly what the silver screen existed to proliferate, and it managed to do so for over forty years. It was implemented and maintained by the Catholics in Hollywood, and the Jewish producers at the time were willing, although perhaps not too happy, to comply. It wasn’t implemented by any government body, but by the free association of the working men in the industry.
The PMRC, rather than headed by Catholics, was fronted by mildly a-religious WASP beltway wives—a slightly longer way of saying that it’s hard to deny how they come across as histrionic women. The senate hearing committee missed the point by arguing from low-hanging fruit. It wasn’t culture or virtue that they were interested protecting, nor the decency of the public square, but the innocence of children. Like the video game controversy in the following decade, you can’t draw a straight line from your average twelve-year-old listening to Bathory to the mentally unstable kid burning down a church. Cultural influence, as Catholics are well aware, is not remotely so simple.
With this in mind, we can very clearly see how the efforts of the PMRC to curb the degeneration of music to be a radical, drastic, and completely ineffectual solution that was implemented far too late. In this regard, it characterizes the typical efforts of WASP reformers. Where support for the Hayes Code began in the twenties, it became a guiding document of the MPAA by 1934 and remained as such until 1968. But in the 1920s, the movie industry was still working out the kinks of how to operate, since movies had only been around for just a little over a decade. By contrast, the PMRC were trying to turn a Titanic that had gotten started in the fifties, in an industry whose practices had already been well-entrenched and whose artists had been making music for more than a generation. Indications of a decline were not just hitting the radar in 1985, the decline was impossible to ignore at that point.
Today, the fight over popular music is so lost that it’s best to consider that battlefield an irradiated no-go zone altogether. Instead, a very similar argument is playing out across topics that all Catholics, no matter how soft, should be able to agree on: the accessibility of pornography in an age of smartphones, 5G, and social media. There are all sorts of arguments in favor of banning pornography altogether, but it’s going to require a better consensus of consumer power and industrial organization in order to come up with any practical solutions, since it should be clear by now that the media (and segments of the government) have a vested interest in the filth’s proliferation.
Flaccid attempts at appealing to a parent’s authority, in an age when children as young as ten can be expected, in certain regions, to be computer literate and even own their own phone, are insultingly ignorant. The fact that parental control locks on computers can be circumvented with a simple google search, and that some of the most extreme fetish pornography regularly graces the front pages of the most popular sites of their kind are topics that more libertarian-minded defenders of free speech and pornography refuse to address. And this isn’t even touching on a larger problem of practicality: if your kid has any social interaction with his peers, you can’t simply bar him entirely from internet access or technology, as that excludes him from a sphere of ground common to his friends and alienates him in a way that he will have no frame of reference for. It’s setting him up not just to be a pariah among his classmates—the weird kid with the Luddite parents—but even worse, to a teenage rebellion so radical as to put his soul in jeopardy.
By the time the PMRC wanted to regulate lyrical content, pornography had already been brought under the protection of the First Amendment. Miller v. California had occurred twelve years beforehand, deregulating by judicial fiat any appeals to maintain the decency of the public square. Miller established a loose set of guidelines that aimed to distinguish pornography from obscenity, but in the fifty years since its ruling, no meaningful difference has ever been established, which has given free reign to pornographers to depict acts of depravity that would make the Marquis de Sade envious. The Miller decision turned out to be an overruling, in practice, of the obscenity boundaries laid down in Roth v. United States. Two years after the PMRC hearing, Oregon state would become the first in the country to decriminalize obscenity altogether. It’s worth noting also that the Roth case, like the PMRC, argued from the standpoint of wanting to protect the children; that it resulted in an almost identical failure to do so isn’t a coincidence.
My point here isn’t simply that the PMRC failed in their goal, nor even that they were fighting a losing battle to begin with. Rather, it’s difficult to view the PMRC as anything other than a distracting sideshow in what has actually been an ongoing argument over the accessibility of sexual vice in our culture. As William Pechter, writing for Commentary explains, pornography had been legitimized on the silver screen more than a decade before:
The meaning of the sensation caused by Last Tango in Paris, of the febrile character of its reception quite apart from the character of the film itself, seems to me unmistakably clear: we want pornography. We want it, but we don’t want to admit to wanting it, and so we want it cloaked in art, or some other socially respectable disguise; fun and “keeping up” will do, as witness the cultural legitimization of Deep Throat.
This was published the month after Miller was decided.
Americans wanted it, he says. We wanted it cloaked in some medium that pretends it is something that it’s not. Pechter makes it clear that there’s a straight line to be drawn from Last Tango in Paris to Deep Throat; the cultural upheaval that allowed this sort of entertainment to be broadly distributed was only confirmed by the Miller decision. In much the same way, the PMRC’s failure to properly address the crisis resulted in the same legitimization, except this time over the airwaves and in music records. The PMRC tried to stand its ground, but in the end it just verified the decline and probably accelerated it.
Where To Go From Here
If we really want to protect our kids from the utter depravity of contemporary culture, we cannot go out into it with arguments framed around the children. A broader and more important appeal must be found. Aesthetics, taste, and public decency are perhaps all terms now long outmoded by contemporary pessimism and common crassness, but condemnations of shame and the tried-and-true method of critical emasculation still tend to work.
But Catholics, and conservatives at large, must first come to grips with the fact that all entertainment isn’t created equal. A Catholic could watch Game of Thrones and, supposing he’s a healthy Catholic, it probably isn’t going to hurt him any. But indulging in a mode of entertainment so riddled with celebrations of vice—to say nothing of its aesthetics—shouldn’t be justified under the utilitarian argument in the first place. A better question he should be asking himself is why should he want to watch Game of Thrones to begin with.
It’s true that music hardly opens one up to the same occasions of temptation that the silver screen does, as lyrics and tonality work on levels of abstraction beyond the raw imagery of celluloid. We are attracted to music for different reasons than we are to film, however, as music tends to fill a silence that, today, we take for granted. But we nonetheless appreciate music through the use of our senses. No one can deny the moving qualities of different well-composed melodic lines or chord progressions, nor how a particular lyrical twist timed to the right harmony can change your mental state. Anyone who listens to sad songs enough can relate to the novel High Fidelity. “What came first,” asks Nick Hornby’s protagonist,
the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?
Replace the adolescent sense of heartbreak and rejection with pornographied lyrics, and the statement’s thrust remains unchanged. What you listen to shapes how you view the world the way embankments change the flow of water.
Critics can try to argue, as Zappa did, that censoring the sexually explicit across any mediums will merely infantilize the culture: a “reduction of all American Music, recorded and live, to the intellectual level of a Saturday morning cartoon show.” Associating open and unrestricted depictions of sexuality with marks of maturity is in fact the same type of nonsense you hear blurted out by porn-addicted Redditors today. That the greatest artistic achievements of civilization—Western or otherwise—more often than not exclude sexuality doesn’t even seem to occur to them. And meanwhile, what has the licentiousness of the contemporary culture granted us, if not an unmistakable fetishization of nostalgia that has resulted in a flourishing Funko-Pop market, perpetual childhood, and Disney’s tightening grip around whatever remains of American popular culture? Even if what Zappa said was true, anyone with a sense of taste could agree that a Saturday morning cartoon would be better than the garbage we have to deal with on the airwaves now.
Zappa’s statement reeks either of intellectual cowardice or mere creative bankruptcy, but anyone familiar with Zappa’s compositional oeuvre will recognize that the man was nothing if not musically innovative far beyond the talents of his peers. His fervent defense of graphic content just goes to show the sort of affects that sexual license have upon the otherwise rational mind.
Catholics would do well to note that self-regulation must be of primary concern, of course, but this is simply restating the very fundamentals of Catholic social teaching. More importantly, self-regulation must be ‘evangelized’, as it were, to fellow Catholics and, ultimately, to fellow conservatives. Acceptance of particularly grave vices should not be tolerated. Every man must himself establish a beachfront against the culture.