Capitol Hill rocked briefly yesterday morning to Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Going to Take It," setting the tone for an emotional hearing on what has come to be called "porn rock" -- songs critics say glorify sex, sadomasochism, satanism and substance abuse.
On one side was the Parents Music Resource Center, whose members include Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker, and Tipper Gore. Gore's husband, Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.), sat on the panel hearing testimony. The PMRC is seeking recording industry compliance in warning parents about music that might be considered inappropriate for children.
On the other side were musicians Frank Zappa, John Denver and Dee Snider, lead singer and songwriter for Twisted Sister, as well as various industry and broadcast representatives.
A circus atmosphere pervaded the Russell Senate Office Building, with rock fans and foes angling for the few available seats. Hundreds more lined the halls as the recording industry, which recently agreed to voluntarily label records with a generic warning about explicit lyrics, got its wrist slapped for doing too little too late.
There is no legislation pending, so yesterday's hearing was largely a forum to focus on the issue. But the mood of some members of the Senate subcommittee on communications was clear: " The music in question does not have any redeeming social value. It's outrageous filth, and we've got to do something about it. If I could find some way to do away with it constitutionally, I would," said Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.).
Zappa, an outspoken musician who prefaced his remarks with a "reference" reading of the First Amendment, said that PMRC's proposal to rate or label rock records is "an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes on 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.
"Taken as a whole, the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of 'toilet training program' to housebreak all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few," Zappa added. "Ladies, how dare you."
Zappa, who called the PMRC demands "the equivalent of treating dandruff with decapitation," also attacked the threat of "trade-restricting legislation whipped up like an instant pudding by the Wives of Big Brother," an apparent reference to the PMRC's political connections by marriage.
At one point Zappa mimicked the accents of Susan Baker and Tipper Gore. He was blasted for his testimony by Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), who said the singer's statement was "boorish, incredibly and insensibly insulting" to the parents' group.
Gorton told the 44-year-old rock star, two of whose children were in attendance: "You could manage to give the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States a bad name if I felt you had the slightest understanding of it, which I do not."
Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), the first to testify, held up enlarged pictures of album covers she said glorify sexual activity and unacceptable behavior for young people. She also provided the music when she played the videos of Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher," which shows elementary school-age children lusting for their bikini-clad teacher, and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Going to Take It," which shows a teen-age boy rebelling against his father by smashing him into a brick wall and throwing him downstairs and through a window.
"This issue is too hot to cool down," Hawkins said. The question before the committee, she said, was how far should society go "to keep young children from being exposed to words and images which may run counter to their parents' values and beliefs."
The PMRC wants the record industry to do three things: label records with a generic warning about content, make lyrics available to the consumer before purchase and create a panel to set up policy guides for which records should be labeled.
"Some say there is no cause for concern," Susan Baker said in her testimony. "But we believe there is. Teen-age pregnancy and teen-age suicide rates are at epidemic proportions . . . and rape is up."
She said there are many causes for society's ills, but "it is our contention that pervasive messages aimed at children which promote and glorify suicide, rape and sadomasochism have to be numbered among the contributing factors."
Millie Waterman, a vice president of the national PTA, said that the problem "is that there are many songs which include lyrics that may not be appropriate for young children or that send messages that may be dangerous to individuals or society." Among them, she said, are songs containing profanity, sexual references, vulgarity or violence and those that "promote suicide, practice of the occult, rape, incest, murder or bondage, among others."
Jeff Ling, a local minister who has been advising the PMRC, showed slides of bands whose music the group finds objectionable and quoted from some of the lyrics, including four-letter words and explicit sexual references. The litany of licentiousness generated equal amounts of laughter and groans from the standing-room-only crowd, but, as Ling reached the end, the lyrics took a graphic downturn, and the panel seemed relieved when Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) hurriedly said, "Sorry, your time has expired."
Sen. Gore also provoked some laughter. Early in the hearings he had admitted to being a fan of both Zappa's and Denver's. When Dee Snider testified, he asked whether Gore's fandom extended to Twisted Sister. "No, I'm not a fan of your music," Gore responded coolly.
Snider, 30, dressed in a cut-off T-shirt and jeans and with plaited blond, brown and black hair cascading down his back, took exception to the PMRC characterizations of his work. Describing himself as a Christian who doesn't drink, smoke or use drugs, and saying that he does not write songs inconsistent with his beliefs, Snider called PMRC criticisms "slanderous" and "little more than character assassination."
He said his song "Under the Blade" was meant to describe the fear of surgery, not, as his critics claim, to espouse bondage, rape and sadomasochism. The video Hawkins showed of "We're Not Going to Take It" "was simply meant to be a cartoon. It was based on my extensive personal collection of Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons," he said.
"I'm opposed to any kind of rating system, voluntary or otherwise," said singer John Denver, arguing that the number of records containing objectionable lyrics is so small that "it's not going to affect our children to a degree that we need to be fearful of."
Sometimes the battle lines blurred. Zappa, for instance, opposed any ratings system but proposed full disclosure on all lyrics. The PMRC wants disclosure only on lyrics that may be offensive and no longer pursues a separate rating system, having accepted the industry's proposal of a generic warning. The National PTA wants a ratings system and full lyric disclosure. Both the PMRC and the PTA want industrywide guidelines, but the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) says no and the ACLU is ready to step in.
Danforth admitted that the hearing was "to provide a forum so that the whole issue can be brought to the attention of the American public." He said the hearing would require words and pictures that "will shock the sensibilities of many of us in this room and many who will be watching these proceedings on television. I just wanted to warn you so that if children have the TV on, their parents can know what's in store for them."
RIAA head Stanley Gortikov adamantly repeated the industry's position that it will not establish a panel to rate songs. "No star panel can make endless laundry lists of unacceptable values that can handily apply to every future lyric written," he said. "Any attempt to create a master bank of such right/wrong or good/bad characterizations is likely to become a first step towards censorship, a concept which is not only abhorrent in itself but which is also fundamentally inconsistent with creative freedom and American values."