In 1985, America felt the wrath of four overprotective parents who were known as the ‘Washington Wives’, a group who set out to increase censorship in music. However, if they were going to achieve their goal then they would have to get through Frank Zappa first.
The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) wanted to prevent children from hearing music that they deemed to have violent, drug-related or sexual themes by labelling albums with parental advisory stickers—a proposal which Zappa rightly took umbrage with.
The husbands of the women who founded the PMRC’s were all connected to politics in one form or another and even included Tipper Gore, wife of the Senator and future Vice President Al Gore. One of the actions taken by the PMRC was compiling a list of fifteen songs in popular music which they labelled as the ‘Filthy Fifteen’ with each song then being labelled objectionable because of the category its lyrical content falls into.
Some examples of the reasoning for songs making it into the ‘Filthy Fifteen’ include Prince’s ‘Darling Nikki’ because of what was described as the ‘Sex/Masturbation’ lyrical content, Black Sabbath’s ‘Trashed’ for its mention of ‘Drug/Alcohol abuse’ and, bizarrely, Mercyful Fate song ‘Into The Coven’ for its occult themes.
In August 1985, 19 record companies agreed to put ‘Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics’ labels on the covers of albums to warn consumers of explicit lyrical content. Before the labels could be put into place, the Senate agreed to hold a hearing on so-called “porn rock”.
The hearing was held on September 19, 1985, and saw Zappa go toe-to-toe with the likes of Al Gore on “the subject of the content of certain sound recordings and suggestions that recording packages be labelled to provide a warning to prospective purchasers of sexually explicit or other potentially offensive content.”
During his statement, Zappa stated, “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 interpretation and enforcement problems inherent in the proposal’s design.”
Prior to the hearing, Zappa did everything in his power to try to change public opinion by sending the following letter to members of his fan club in a rallying cry in the censorship war. This was a topic that he felt extremely passionate about because he worried it would stop musicians being able to express themselves freely which would have a catastrophic result on art.
Read his letter in full, below.
“Here is the package we have prepared to assist you in any local effort you care to initiate in opposition THE WIVES OF BIG BROTHER and their dangerous program.
“Included is the typical PMRC fund-raising letter. We want you to see for yourselves what their pitch is. If you agree with their point of view, do what their letter tells you to do. If you don’t, use the addresses they have provided (people to complain to), and, instead of complaining, encourage them to broadcast things that YOU like. If they are not broadcasting enough of what YOU like, tell them what YOUR ENTERTAINMENT PREFERENCES ARE, and DEMAND MORE OF IT. If you don’t make your feelings known, you are going to be stuck with watching and listening to the stuff THEY LIKE.
“Also included is a copy of my letter to the President and my CASHBOX editorial. Feel free to quote any of this material in letters you might write to your elected representatives.
“The PMRC has a lot of nerve to ask for money… they are already very well funded, well connected, and seem to have the entire U.S. news media in their back pocket. This mailing, all legal fees, phone bills and travel costs connected with fighting this issue have been paid for out of profits from Barking Pumpkin record sales, and from Barfko-Swill mail order funds. We thank you for buying these items. Without the orders you have already placed, a real opposing view to this issue would never have been heard.
“Okay… it’s up to you now. Don’t let yourselves down… Take some time and help protect YOUR Constitutional Rights. You know how to use a phone. You know how to write letters. Make some noise about this issue. Use YOUR imagination. DON’T BEND OVER FOR THE WIVES OF BIG BROTHER.