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25 years after the PMRC hearings, America has learned little about censorship

TAGs: Frank Zappa, Parents Music Resource Center, PMRC

PMRC-Hearings-CensorshipYounger readers may not recall the great censorship kerfuffle caused by the Parents Music Resource Center, or the Washington Wives, as they were dubbed due to the fact that their organizers were all married to prominent politicians or other notables. The PMRC was formed in 1985 after one of the wives (Tipper Gore, at the time still married to then-Senator Al) discovered her daughter listening to a Prince record and took offense at a particular song’s lyrical discussion of masturbation. Following a fit of moral outrage and a bit of pillow talk, the corridors of power suddenly echoed with cries to impose censorship on those filthy-minded musicians.

Fortunately, a diverse gang of First Amendment-savvy musicians formed to push back against these overreaching women of privilege. Seriously, what else but the cause of free speech could have united Frank Zappa, John Denver and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider in the same room, let alone on the same team, on Sept. 19, 1985? Yet each of these three acquitted themselves admirably in knocking back the arguments put forth by the powerful politicians whose wives had them by the short hairs.

As Frank Zappa testified, “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 Don’t Like’ … Looking at the PMRC fundraising letter, in the last paragraph at the bottom of the page it starts looking like it is branching into other areas [beyond lyrical content], when it says: ‘We realize that this material has pervaded other aspects of society.’ And it is like, what, you are going to fix it all for me?”

The parallels between the PMRC’s ill-advised fight and the ongoing efforts to limit Americans’ access to online gambling sites are easy enough to draw. It’s hard not to think of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act when reading the part of Zappa’s testimony that describes the PMRC’s proposals as “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.”

When John ‘Thank God I’m A Country Boy’ Denver appeared to testify, most of the assembled politicians probably assumed that Mr. Wholesome was firmly on their side. Instead, he delivered a passionate condemnation of censorship, and warned the politicians that their attempts to go down this path would ultimately backfire. “That which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting. Consequently, a great deal of time and energy is spent trying to get at what is being kept from you.”

The PMRC eventually did get part of what they wanted, which resulted in the famous ‘parental advisory’ stickers affixed to compact disk shrinkwrap. Of course, the kids soon came to regard it as the ‘this album rocks’ advisory, a result that went into the record books as Denver 1, Tipper 0.

Similarly, all the anti-gambling rhetoric and legislation of the past decade has not curbed public demand for the product – if anything, quite the opposite. Whatever individual companies may have lost as a result of not being able to market their specific product has been more than balanced by anti-gambling campaigners’ relentless promotion of the entire industry as something indulged in by only the most wicked, most depraved segments of American society. Free ‘Thug Life’ tattoos for everyone!

So three cheers for the three heroes (two of which, sadly, are no longer with us) who stood up against the Washington Witches. And three equally rousing cheers for the anti-gambling crusaders — not just in America, but in all countries that seek to dictate what their citizens might say or do — who constantly strive to remind the general public that there’s a whole lotta good unclean fun to be had, and it’s only ever a mouse click away. Huzzah!

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