A Billboard editorial notes "concern about the increasing tempo of a trend towards suggestive lyrics by the writers of popular music . . ." The industry asks for "control from within, rather than from hostile legislative and censorious groups."
In Boston, local papers and religious leaders form a censorship board. In Chicago, a Crusade for Decent Disks floods local stations. Deejays form panels to screen out offending lyrics.
A songwriter's association passes a resolution saying, "it is in the best interest of the music industry voluntarily to curb the publication, recording and public performance of material offensive to the public taste."
Is this 1985?
Well, no. Actually, it's 1954.
Rock controversy is as old as the music. It is, of course, part of the music.
The parameters have changed, however, which makes the issue news again. Since forming in May, the Washington-based Parents Music Resource Center has mounted a series of attacks on what it sees as a new wave of sexually explicit and violent lyrics, albums covers, videos and stage performances.
The PMRC got a lot of play early on, a result of its congressional connections (they signed their first letter to the Recording Industry Association of America with their married names -- Mrs. Albert Gore, Mrs. James Baker -- so the RIAA would know whom they were dealing with) and its demand for a records rating system similar to the Motion Picture Association of America's film ratings.
That demand, which brought cries of censorship, has since been dropped (the PMRC says it never was that serious about a ratings system, though the National PTA is still pushing for it). But ratings talk prompted the RIAA to come up with the idea of a generic warning label for records containing explicit material.
Cries of censorship may seem a trifle paranoid, but nevertheless word is spreading that some mall record stores have already been informed that if they carry records with an "explicit" sticker warning, their leases may be canceled. One major southwestern city is considering an ordinance to rate rock concerts and prohibit attendance by minors. And a number of songs have already been dropped from many station playlists in reaction to the furor. In this context, the record company stance may not be so accommodating as it appears; the bottom line has always been that labels are more likely to reject an album they feel won't sell than an album they feel will offend.
That a Senate Commerce subcommittee will hold hearings Thursday on the matter of "pornlyrics" shows how effective the PMRC campaign has been. Testimony will be provided by PMRC and PTA officials, as well as rock performers Frank Zappa and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister.
There is no proposed legislation. Not yet, anyway.
Jazz, blues and even the occasional Cole Porter song ("birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it") have been targets of censorship, but they never provoked the passions of protest that a song like Ted Nugent's "Thunder Thighs" has, with its line, "she sets me free when she sits on me." And that is a mild example.
But in fact, long before the PMRC campaign, a number of record companies were putting jacket warnings on potentially offensive products, such as contemporary comedy records. Yet they had done so voluntarily -- an important distinction; no one wants to be told how to run his business. Furthermore, rock has always been a more convenient target than other popular art forms.
The PMRC, though, notes a difference between the songs being played now and in the past. Particularly disturbing are escalating patterns of violence toward women in song and video. And some lyrics in 1985 tend to be more visceral and blatantly sexual than their counterparts from 1955, much less 1935.
Still, the records that the PMRC and others vilify are a small portion of the overall market. They include certain songs by some of the most popular artists (Prince, Madonna), but also a wealth of material from many obscure acts.
The PMRC has a "Rock File" listing offending lyrics and telltale quotes taken from interviews to support their contentions of hedonistic behavior -- even pictures of rock stars drinking on stage during a performance. The group's primary targets are sexually explicit and sadomasochistic songs, though there is a whole subtext of material on substance abuse, occultism and antiauthoritarianism.
One can appreciate the concerns of parents, but there's more than a little irony in the PMRC targeting Twisted Sister's "We're Not Going to Take It Any More" for its advocacy of violent rebellion against parents (the impression of violence is based more on the video than the song itself). "Your life is trite and jaded, boring and confiscated," Dee Snider sings, and he's really expressing an age-old take on the generation gap.
Out of the 25,000 songs released each year, anyone who wants to will be able to find supportive evidence that, as the PMRC says, "rock artists encourage shallow sexual irresponsibility as well as experimentation in every possible sexual perversion, including sadomasochism, rape, incest and necrophilia." Congress will very likely hear about that.
In any case, few question the right of anyone to compose lyrics about incest and necrophilia. It is just that people ought to have the opportunity to know what they're buying beforehand. As Neil Young says, "It's a product, it's packaged, food for the mind. Why not label it as to content?"
Congress will hear about that, too.
Stretching a bit, one can date musical censorship back to Plato's gloomy appraisal of musicians and his belief that the perfect state demanded the exile of musicians for fear they might diffuse about them a "luxurious effeminacy or corrupting aspiration." Even in the prerock era, some charged that folk music books and records were corrupting the minds of unsuspecting children.
The first serious attempts at censorship in rock 'n' roll occurred when rhythm and blues began to cross over into the white marketplace. The Midnighters' "Work With Me Annie" and "Annie Had a Baby," and Clyde McPhatter's "Honey Love" and "Such a Night" were among the songs singled out.
But in the early '50s, the R&B market was still just an extension of the "race records" that had flourished in the '30s and '40s. The records were not a mainstay of radio programming and thus had a small audience. Available mostly on jukeboxes and in records stores in black neighborhoods, R&B had never provoked any great response. But the music lost its protective exclusivity when white youth discovered R&B.
It's sometimes forgotten that the emergence of R&B coincided with the Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 and that the radical right tried to link rock 'n' roll to school integration. Nobody bought that argument, but for several years the criticism directed at rock 'n' roll continued to be openly racist, as was earlier criticism directed at jazz and blues. A typical, widely circulated KKK poster warned: "Help save the youth of America: Don't buy Negro records."
After rock 'n' roll emerged and provoked cleanup campaigns in all types of music (one New York deejay refused to play Rosemary Clooney's "Mambo Italiano" for fear of offending Italians), there were flurries of regional activity. The Long Beach, Calif., sheriff's department banned certain songs from the jukeboxes in its jurisdiction; Memphis police confiscated "lewd" records and fined the sellers. And though Elvis Presley survived (and got his first national audience) in the cold-shower of '50s television, the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry were effectively stopped when they were blacklisted from radio for "immoral behavior."
The criticism of Presley's lyrics, tone and stage presence would have its reprise, though the names were changed: the Rolling Stones, the Doors' Jim Morrison, the Sex Pistols and Mo tley Cru e.
Another round came in the late '60s, directed at what Variety then described as "a recent wave of pop songs containing references to getting high on dope or liquor, suicide, prostitution and sundry way-out, offbeat and taboo subjects." The main offender, of course, was drugs, but in "Communism, Hypnotism and the Beatles," the Rev. David A. Noebel of the Christian Crusade insisted the Beatles were "dupes weakening the moral fiber of America's youth, rendering them useless in the fight against communism."
Drugs had been referred to long before the advent of rock, particularly in jazz and blues, but those references were often obscured by slang and little understood by the public (or the white public, at least). With the simultaneous emergence in the mid-'60s of psychedelic rock, drug advocacy became a central tenet of the counterculture. Often a code was still used, but it was the lingua franca of both performers and audience, for many of whom drugs carried the same implication that alcohol had in the Prohibition era.
In 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew lashed out at songwriters, accusing them of brainwashing young Americans. Calling rock music "blatant drug-culture propoganda," Agnew said it "threatens to sap our national strength unless we move hard and fast to bring it under control."
Within six months, the Federal Communications Commission had issued a directive clearly aimed at eradicating drug-oriented lyrics from the airwaves. The FCC may have been prohibited from engaging in a priori censorship, but there was a chilling effect in the directive, titled "Licensee Responsible to Review Records Before Broadcast."
The 1970 directive, however, made it clear that stations were thereafter responsible for what they played, and that playing certain songs -- i.e., those that referred to drugs -- would raise "serious questions as to whether continued operation of the station is in the public interest." The first national casualty was Brewer and Shipley's "One Toke Over the Line," but one station quickly banned all of Bob Dylan's recordings, claiming it was impossible to interpret his lyrics.
We're a long way from 1954, when the host of "Juke Box Jury" said, "All rhythm and blues records, obscene and of lewd intonation, are dirty and as bad for kids as dope." In 1985, there's little chance of a major legislative panic: For one thing, many aides on the Hill these days are part of a generation that grew up with rock 'n' roll.
They've survived well enough.
Frank Zappa may have, if not the last word, as least some interesting words on the matter of rude rock. On the cover of his new album, "Them or Us," he provides his own "Warning/Guarantee."
"This album contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress. In some socially retarded areas, religious fanatics and ultra-conservative political organizations violate your First Amendment Rights by attempting to censor rock and roll albums. We feel that this is unconstitutional and un-American. As an alternative to these government supported programs (designed to keep you docile and ignorant), Barking Pumpkin is pleased to provide stimulating digital audio entertainment for those of you who have outgrown 'the ordinary.' "
The prose may be flat, but the beat goes on.