Twenty-five years ago this week, members of the rap group 2 Live Crew were arrested. Not for DUIs or assault like today's musicians and celebrities, mind you, but for performing obscene songs at a concert.
It's hard to fathom something like this happening now. This is America! We have the 1st Amendment! But there was a time when lyrics were a political issue and pop was under fire from politicians, parents and the police. Rappers were getting arrested, and so were record store owners, and freedom of speech took a back seat to a court ruling about what was offensive.
But how did we even get to that point, and what has changed since then?
From Elvis's televised pelvic thrusts to Miley Cyrus riding a wrecking ball in nothing but boots, popular music has a history of pushing the boundaries of good taste. But in the mid-1980s, there was concerted pushback.
In 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center, or PMRC, released the Filthy Fifteen, a list of 15 songs about sex, masturbation, violence or the occult from artists like Prince, Motley Crue, AC/DC, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. It was a reaction to the pop landscape of the time. MTV had made music more visual and visible than ever, and this rewarded artists for pushing boundaries and being controversial. The MTV Video Music Awards, where Madonna suggestively rolled around on stage while singing "Like a Virgin," debuted the previous fall, and bands like Slayer and Judas Priest were accused of "backmasking" -- or putting subliminal and sometimes satanic messages in their songs. Parents were worried.
Obscenity in pop had become a political issue. Tipper Gore, the wife of then-Sen. and future Vice President Al Gore, was a member of the PMRC. Frank Zappa, John Denver and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister testified before Congress, and bills requiring albums with offensive content to be labeled were introduced in state houses across the country. (A Missouri bill listed sodomy, incest, bestiality, sadomasochism and adultery as possible topics that had to be labeled, according to an Entertainment Weekly story at the time).
By the end of the year, all sides found a solution they could agree on. The Recording Industry Association of America said it would voluntarily put "Parental Advisory" labels on albums it determined needed them.
Crisis averted, it seemed -- except that a Florida man had other ideas. In 1990, attorney and anti-obscenity activist Jack Thompson sent letters to state leaders including then-Gov. Bob Martinez (R) and Janet Reno, who was a Dade County state attorney and future U.S. attorney general under Bill Clinton, about Miami-based hip-hop group 2 Live Crew's album, "As Nasty As They Wanna Be." The album definitely deserved a "Parental Advisory" label, with songs about sex like "Me So Horny" and "The F--- Shop" -- songs that left no doubt about what they were about, without any double entendre or euphemisms. In letters, Thompson called for an investigation into whether the album also violated obscenity statutes.
Following a Lee County judge ruling there was "probable cause to believe" the album was obscene, he sent letters to every governor and lyrics from the album to sheriff's departments across the state. Judges in other Florida counties as well as some counties in Alabama, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin issued similar rulings, according to a 1990 Los Angeles Times story.
The Obscenity Wars were back, but instead of the record industry policing itself and letting consumers decide what to purchase and listen to, the government was calling the shots. Motley Crue's Tommy Lee was arrested in Georgia for mooning the audience, and a member of Skid Row was arrested in Utah for a particularly vulgar (apparently) pelvic thrust. In June, a Fort Lauderdale record store owner was arrested for selling 2 Live Crew's album, and members of the group were arrested in Miami for performing songs from it.
We were on a crash course with a future in which CeeLo's "F--- You" was outlawed (the clean "Forget You" version only, please), Eminem could never have even been a thing, and Nicki Minaj and Miley could be jailed for twerking.
But that never happened -- because the judicial system and public opinion pushed back.
"Rock the Vote" was founded in part as a response to the 2 Live Crew incident. Founder Jeff Ayeroff said in an e-mail to The Fix that the arrest "was a real wake-up call" and something he used to "catalyze the music industry." Madonna filmed one of its PSAs, and although it was about voting in that year's midterm elections, she also re-imagined the rapping portion of her song "Vogue" into a bit about freedom of speech that was very Madonna:
Freedom of speech is as good as sex."
By January 1991, the Miami Herald said "the campaign to prosecute purveyors of raunchy music ... [had] rolled to a halt," "like a freight train finally running out of steam." A jury acquitted 2 Live Crew and later, Too Much Joy, a band that was also arrested in Florida, was acquitted as well. The state attorney, Michael Satz, decided against pursing other cases against a club owner charged in an obscenity case.
The crusade was over, and it hasn't reared its head again -- at least not with nearly the same intensity. Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl halftime show "Nipple-gate" controversy caused a moral panic and led to MTV airing a handful of risque music videos like Britney Spears' "Toxic" during late-night only, but records weren't being banned or anything. And when politicians today attempt to use pop stars as political fodder in culture wars fights, it mostly falls flat (see Bobby Jindal and Britney, Mike Huckabee and Beyonce).
"It's tough to imagine a similar effort even gaining support today, let alone getting to the point of banning albums and arresting artists for performing their music," Rock the Vote president Ashley Spillane said in an e-mail. "[T]hat's a direct result of young people exercising their political power."
That, and a little thing called the 1st Amendment, which lets artists make and perform music -- even if it's really offensive.