Get our free newsletter
When Sen. Robert Dole and William Bennett recently railed against the “dirty” music sold by Time Warner as a toxic influence on America’s young people, many dismissed their attacks as the toothless barks of conservative bloodhounds hitting the campaign trail a year early.
That was before Time Warner decided to abandon its $100-million stake in Interscope—the label hosting the immensely popular work of Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Tupac Shakur. Time Warner’s sudden buckling was startling from a company that endured similar protests for years.
It was the first surrender in a cultural war that has been simmering for years. To begin with, Time Warner found itself imaged as the evil empire by anti-gangsta-rap activist C. Delores Tucker. The director of the National Political Congress for Black Women, Tucker drew a target on the company because she felt it was enriching itself by marketing hate and oppression of black women and, in her words, “pimping pornography on our black youth.”
But the staunch Democrat’s crusade was in vain—nothing more than a lone woman shouting outside the corridors of power or, as in 1993, in front of a D.C. record store—until she joined forces with Bennett, former Bush-era drug czar and head of the conservative think tank, Empower America.
In May, Tucker and Bennett stormed the annual Time Warner stockholders’ meeting in New York and blasted executives for peddling violent and sexually explicit music to teens. In June, Dole piled on, hurling more accusations at Time Warner in a speech in Century City, Calif. In the speech, the presidential candidate upped the ante, blaming the nation’s “moral degradation” not only on rap and rock music, but on the entire entertainment industry. By August, Time Warner couldn’t stand the heat; the company that once defended Ice-T’s song “Cop Killer” from outraged police groups now scrambled to bow to the whims of a few high-powered whiners.
The rapid chain of events was hastened by the imminent release of an album by Interscope act Dogg Pound, another sure controversy that Time Warner wants no part of. But the actual scenario that brought the corporate giant to its knees wasn’t some fluke.
After all, what in the hell is ol’ Bob Dole, whose interest in pop music probably begins and ends with the “Ballad of the Green Berets,” doing ranting about evil tunes for teens? And in a foul-mouthed oratory spiked with Nine Inch Nails lyrics, no less? And how about that right-and-left-wing tag team of Bennett and Tucker—Mr. Book-of-Virtues hisself and the church lady of the mean streets. How did this incredibly odd couple hook up? And what are they doing terrorizing boardrooms and scolding CEOs like they were a bunch of naughty schoolboys?
“It shows what some pressure can do,” smiles Barbara Wyatt, who masterminded the brilliant, if unlikely, scheme to embarrass the captains of industry into compliance.
A grizzled veteran in the war against explicit music, Wyatt heads the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC), a nonprofit group that has decried lyrics in rock and rap since 1985. After forcing the record industry to implement the notorious parental advisory sticker, the Arlington, Va.-based PMRC slipped below the rim of public consciousness. Many thought that the PMRC would go the way of disco after founder Tipper Gore’s resignation in 1992.
But under Wyatt, who took over last December, a smarter, savvier PMRC has re-emerged, subtly altering its approach and enhancing its reach. By staying in the background and working the levers of power, Wyatt has shown the deft touch of a studio engineer, backward-masking subliminal messages of censorship on an uplifting soundtrack about saving kids.
It was Wyatt who introduced and recruited “old friends” Bennett and Tucker for the initial assault on Time Warner. “I put Bill and Delores together because I felt it would be a very viable combination,” she says bluntly. “Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal, male/female, white/black. Perfect.”
It was Wyatt who provided the ammunition—some of the wording, in fact—for the public bashing of Time Warner. Both Dole and Bennett (whose wife Elayne has been a PMRC board member for years) readily admitted they hadn’t listened to the music they denounced so viciously. The bazooka for Dole’s particularly effective salvo in the cultural war was loaded with material—including verses from “Entrails Ripped From a Virgin’s Cunt” by Cannibal Corpse—courtesy of the sleek ’90s-model PMRC.
The PMRC isn’t just for pissed-off parents anymore. Some PMRC workers hail from the ranks of the young and baseball-capped whose very souls the group wants to salvage. For starters, there’s David Chamberlin, the 23-year-old U2 fan who is the deadpan voice of the PMRC’s new 900-line phone service, warning callers about everything from Aerosmith’s “Eastern mysticism” to Snoop’s glorification of group and oral sex. And there are office volunteers such as Wyatt’s 25-year-old son Freddy, a self-described “Generation Xer” who culls Vibe and Spin to keep his mom informed about rap and rock culture.
The days of Tipper Gore are over. Gone is the all-female garden club of political spouses that Frank Zappa ridiculed as the “Washington wives.” The PMRC’s incoming board boasts a broad roster of men and women who live far outside the Beltway—from Utah minister Donald Sills to Al Kasha, the L.A. composer who penned the score for The Poseidon Adventure.
Most important, the PMRC’s message, once the scorn of many besides Zappa, has gained currency in a way that the group’s founders never could have dreamed. Opportunists from both ends of the political spectrum now mimic the PMRC’s battle cry: that violent, sexually explicit music is inflicting permanent damage on the youth of America. And it should be stopped—not labeled, debated, or criticized, but rubbed out.
The quiet momentum of the PMRC hasn’t gone unnoticed by its historical opponents. Critics are repeating the same warning they made back in 1985: The only thing that needs to be stopped, they argue, is the PMRC, which—despite its claim to be an educational clearing house with a mission “to inform parents”—is really a thinly disguised censorship group.
“The PMRC has always claimed they just wanted warning stickers, but they don’t just want that,” says Phyllis Pollack of Def Press, a California-based PR firm. “They want to wash everybody’s mouth out with soap.The PMRC is an anti-free-speech group. This isn’t about music—this is about free speech.”
“The PMRC is being totally disingenuous when they say they’re not for censorship,” says James D’Entremont of the Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression. “They know full well that [lawmakers] can use the arbitrary and not especially reliable parental advisory labels as some kind of magic key to what is supposed to be censored and what isn’t, which is insane.”
Several state legislatures, including Pennsylvania’s, are weighing bills this year that would make it illegal for minors to buy albums saddled with Parental Advisory labels. Though the PMRC claims it has never advocated censorship, Wyatt sees no problem in preventing teens from getting their hands on explicit rock and rap albums.
“We don’t sell alcohol, tobacco, or Playboy, or any of those to young people,” she says. “It seems to me that if [music] is advocating what those things promote, then why are we letting our children have it? These songs encourage violence, they encourage killing, they encourage total disrespect for authority, and that is against the law—-now, disrespect for authority isn’t against the law—-but the others are against the law. And yet we’re handing them something that says “do it.’ ”
The PMRC is back, and—as Time Warner execs have already learned the hard way—its members want stickers applied over the mouths of artists they can’t abide.
The voice of Barbara Wyatt is curt and quickly impatient. Wyatt is a former music teacher, which explains why she often sounds like a piano instructor who’s endured the off-key blunders of too many clumsy fingers in her time.
“I’m a fairly reasonable soul,” she says. “But I do not like this violent music. This gangsta rap is so full of hate. I think it’s detrimental to society, especially in the inner city, because they live in a violent enough world.”
If Wyatt’s view seems hopelessly naive—that rappers should simply concentrate on being positive role models—her grasp of the historical role of music reveals a profound bias that no amount of spin control can mask. Try as she might, Wyatt can’t understand why things can’t be like the old days—say, somewhere down South in the mid-19th century: “Think of the slaves,” she says wistfully. “What wonderful music we have from those people….Those were bad times and yet their music was filled with hope. It was a very gentle, lilting music, not this angry music we have today.”
On a stifling summer afternoon, the petite, proper Wyatt sits at a table in the cool confines of the PMRC office, which is tucked behind hedges on the ground floor of the Virginian, a ’50s-style brick apartment building that towers above Route 50 in Arlington.
Breathing the bland quiet of a parish rectory, the office seems an unlikely spot from which to wage battle against the mighty music industry. It’s disappointing to find there’s no sullen crew hunched over CD players, transcribing the lyrics to the latest gangsta rap horror—only a volunteer or two answering the occasional phone call. A small yellow radio—the sort that always seems to be playing “Theme From a Summer Place”—is perched on the window sill. More decoration than research tool, it is turned off. A silent TV and a VCR gather dust as well.
This tiny, cramped office has served as the PMRC’s headquarters for years; in fact, there are remnants of the old regime everywhere: One rack holds frayed LPs by Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, and other forgotten ’80s hair-metal acts. These tattered trophies from the PMRC’s first crusade, once the subjects of so much controversy, now couldn’t fetch chump change at a yard sale. Nearby sit stacks of the PMRC’s 1991 video Rising to the Challenge, which sells for $23.95 a copy; it profiles many of the bands now consigned to the nearby used-record bin.
Like relics from another era (but actually only a few years ago), the badly dated vinyl and video demonstrate what the PMRC is up against: the warp-speed pace of change in pop music, a phenomenon the group views as an ever-steepening spiral of moral erosion. This frenetic arc of pop culture ensures that what’s shocking in the summer triggers nothing but a yawn by late fall.
Against the wall are more relics of the old PMRC’s Inquisition, including shelves of books that resemble the portable library of a high-school counselor specializing in at-risk teens: sociology tomes, juvenile delinquency tracts, treatises on satanic cults. And, of course, the basic texts of the anti-“porn rock” movement of a decade ago: All Ears: How to Choose and Use Recorded Music For Children, Rock Bottom, Learn To Discern. There is also a dog-eared volume titled Why Knock Rock?, a notorious right-wing, rock-hating manual that features instructional photos on how to organize a record burning.
Conspicuously absent is Tipper Gore’s 1987 best-seller, Raising PG-Rated Kids in an X-Rated Society, which featured—among many titillating passages—a quote from W.A.S.P. singer Blackie Lawless: “I like to drink blood out of a skull and torture females on stage.”
According to Wyatt, someone borrowed the only office copy of Gore’s book (still in print as a paperback) and never bothered to return it. Wyatt hasn’t much to say about her famous predecessor: “She hasn’t been involved or active with us for years.” In fact, Wyatt hopes to distance the PMRC from its controversial years under Gore: “I don’t want to be perceived as we have been in the past, as only a negative force,” she says. “The media wanted to portray us as the bad people.”
Nobody really suggested that they were bad people, but it’s no secret that the old PMRCers were perceived by many as a gaggle of prudish, wealthy housewives who had little understanding of the music culture they attacked. A board member since 1987, Wyatt was one of those women. Now that she has leapt into the spotlight, she’s sensitive to the fact that she’s several decades older—a grandmother, to boot—than the original Washington wives. Indeed, Wyatt gets downright defensive when asked about her age: “Whether I’m 21 or 97, I don’t think it has any bearing,” she says. “It’s totally irrelevant to the issue.”
Age may not matter to Wyatt, but it may soon prove a crucial matter for teens in the states poised to ban labeled music for minors. The PMRC’s calculated focus on young people may put some very popular albums out of reach of the young crowd that desires it.
Beyond her breathtakingly archaic view of black people, Wyatt’s very concept of music seems to stem from those pre-Presley days before teens really had their own youth culture. Back in the ’40s when Wyatt was growing up, teens often enjoyed the same music as their parents—if for no other reason than there was nothing for them to embrace as their own. Wyatt was no exception.
Raised in small-town south Jersey, Wyatt played organ at recitals and churches; the power of classical music still stirs her, decades later. “You get very emotionally charged,” she recalls. “When I sat down to play a Chopin. Oh! I was into that thing.”
Wyatt was a teen-ager during the golden age of Bing Crosby and all those romantic moon-june-and-spoon love songs, and she didn’t shy away from the dance floor. “We had Teen Canteen every Monday night where we went and danced for three hours. “Kiss me once and kiss me twice and kiss me again,’ and all those songs from the movies,” she recalls. She later majored in music (“piano, voice, and organ”) and taught for years.
Since the ’80s, though, Wyatt has forsaken the world of Chopin and Show Boat recitals to toil as a professional cause-monger. During the Reagan administration, she helped launch the Missing and Exploited Children Program; she is also a former director of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s Youth 2000 initiatives: “I’ve worked on many youth issues,” she says, rattling off a list: “Youth suicide, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, accidental death—so I know this area.”
Wyatt has also logged her share of charity work, especially the patriotic sort. During the Persian Gulf War, she and her husband, a retired Navy officer, sold bracelets emblazoned with “Operation Desert Shield—A Call to Freedom.” The copper bracelets sold well at $9.95 each, especially after Barbara Bush flashed hers on a TV talk show; the proceeds went to a nonprofit group, Voices for Freedom, which paid for U.S. soldiers to make free phone calls home.
Wyatt says her record as an administrator qualifies her to head the rejiggered PMRC: “My main strength has always been implementing national programs and making things happen,” she says. “Either behind the scenes, like putting together Bill and Delores, or being out there in front, whichever I have to do.”
It’s obvious that Wyatt and her minions have been emboldened by hearing their message on the lips of political leaders. There is an air of possibility in the office, a belief that goes beyond influencing public debate to controlling the messages young people hear in pop culture. The current political climate, with its broad backlash against racy pop culture, has created a much more receptive environment. Even Bill “MTV Boxers” Clinton has taken up the lance. Wyatt says the PMRC’s offensive against offensiveness has just begun. “We had been really just reactive,” she says. “I felt like if I took over, we were going to be proactive. And I was willing to do that.”
Critics of the PMRC are keeping a close watch on the rejuvenated group. “We’re not at all surprised by the return of the PMRC,” says John Woods of the Ohio-based group, Rock Out Censorship (ROC). “We always knew it was just a matter of time before they jumped back in front of the media cameras again.”
Wyatt has done just that. After accomplishing a great deal working in the background, Wyatt has stepped up her media presence. This afternoon, she has just returned from a taping for VH-1, and is busy planning a flight to L.A. for an interview with a German TV station; she spent the summer on radio talk shows, sparring with rappers and promoting the rejuvenated PMRC. “I debated a rapper the other day on the television, and he was saying [his music] was just describing the times, and I’m saying, “You could be such a role model—you hold the key to making some of the changes,’ ” Wyatt says. “Obviously they’re not going to make all the changes, but they really could have a profound influence on the young.”
Wyatt admits that she knows virtually nothing about the current music scene except that much of it is what she calls “verbal pornography.” But she argues that her ignorance merely puts her in the same situation as the parents whom the PMRC serves. Besides, Wyatt has her 25-year-old son Freddy: “Freddy’s been a tremendous help to me,” she says. “He knows the music—he’ll go to concerts and report back to me.”
Indeed, Freddy often volunteers at the PMRC office, fielding phone calls and mailing out pamphlets and videos. A former sales rep for a clothing company, he used to do promotions for D.C. nightclubs; he now hopes to find financial backing for a worldwide snowboarding exhibition. Freddy admits he digs a lot of the music damned by the PMRC, but then, he’s an adult and has come to believe there are some lyrics that are just too explicit for teen-agers.
He should know: When he was a teen, Freddy hated his mom’s group, especially at moments like when the PMRC came up during a classroom discussion of censorship.
“The early group was bunch of gray-haired old ladies sitting around going, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe they used the word “fuck” in a song,’ ” he says. “Now [the PMRC] is a little more open-minded in realizing that’s real life. The only thing we’re trying to do is protect the kids. We’re trying to give the parents a helping hand, saying, “Hey, this is what your son is listening to, and, if he’s got this album, it’s a possibility, if he plays it many, many, many, many, many times, then it might have something to do with his head.’ ”
As for his mom, Freddy thinks she’s doing a great job, even if he’s always having to explain all that gangsta-rap lingo to her: “I just try to bring the realization of the street to her that Tipper and them didn’t [have],” he says. “I pull things out of Vibe that their own people are talking about. I’m not going in looking at some Surgeon General’s report. You gotta go to the roots.”
Though the debate about gangsta rap has ignited the most controversy and Op-Ed articles, the PMRC is concerned about all sorts of audio mayhem flooding the marketplace. Grown-ups, children, and everybody in between are buying millions of CDs that have rape, gunplay, and alienation as their most persistent motifs. But that hasn’t stopped the PMRC from focusing on profoundly obscure groups. The group hammers on no-sellers like Carcass with the same ferocity that it shows Tupac and Snoop.
Wyatt holds up a fax that features the lyrics and song titles from Carcass and Cannibal Corpse: In her neat cursive handwriting, she has jotted on the missive, “Morgue Rock—New low level,” as well as a list of recent Carcass song titles: “Genital Grinder,” “Vomited Anal Tract,” “Maggot Colony,” “Excreted Alive,” “Exhumed to Consume.”
“You feel that you’ve traveled in the gutter seeing this,” says a disgusted Wyatt. “I can’t imagine what kind of person would even think of this stuff, let alone perform it. They have to be deranged in some way.”
Cannibal Corpse’s “Entrails Ripped From a Virgin’s Cunt” is a far cry from the pop tune that first spurred Tipper Gore to start the PMRC back in 1985: Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” which now seems almost as harmless as one of the show tunes that serenaded the Teen Canteens Wyatt attended in the ’40s.
It’s telling that Tipper’s initial foray into musical supervision was strictly between parent and child, which is where most PMRC opponents think music decisions should stay: “I purchased Prince’s best-selling album Purple Rain for my 11-year-old daughter,” wrote Gore in Raising PG Kids In an X-Rated Society. “I had seen Prince on the cover of magazines, and I knew that he was the biggest pop idol in years. My daughter wanted his album because she had heard the single “Let’s Go Crazy’ on the radio. But when we brought the album home, put it on the stereo, and listened to it together, we heard the words to another song, “Darling Nikki’: “I knew a girl named Nikki/Guess you could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine.’ I couldn’t believe my ears! The vulgar lyrics embarrassed both of us. At first, I was stunned—then I got mad! Millions of Americans were buying Purple Rain with no idea what to expect.”
Sometime after Tipper and daughter got an earful of “Darling Nikki,” Gore and three other wives of powerful politicians founded the PMRC to protest the availability of explicit music.
At first, the group mostly floundered and flailed away at the pop charts in a rather comical display of parental guidance gone simply silly. A 1985 list of songs deemed “offensive” by the PMRC seems laughably innocent a decade later—for example, the Captain and Tennille’s “Do That To Me One More Time” and Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” Later that year, Gore testified at the notorious “Porn Rock” hearings before a Senate committee and was generally ridiculed in the media.
Eventually, the so-called Washington wives managed to wipe the smirks off the faces of the industry and plaster them over with parental warning labels.
Their victory may have had something to do with who they were married to, but industry and cultural trends didn’t hurt their cause. At the same time that most of the country was taking a rightward turn, rap music became an increasingly powerful megaphone for an explicit, often profane denunciation of mainstream cultural values. Parents who thought they had safely insulated their brood by fleeing to the suburbs would walk into their child’s room and find the walls plastered with the images of menacing gangsters promising vengeance on their white oppressors. So, while the industry stood steadfast, millions of parents didn’t worry much about the assault on the free speech of artists preaching a gospel of urban Darwinism.
By 1990, the well-connected PMRC had convinced major record companies—members of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)—to voluntarily put “Parental Advisory—Explicit Lyrics” warnings on albums with violent or sexually explicit material.
The PMRC’s most lasting legacy, the labels derided by critics as “Tipper Stickers,” have become almost passé—something barely even noticed by most record buyers. (Zappa’s Jazz From Hell holds the honor of being the only instrumental album to earn a label—apparently for the profane “hell” in the title.) Though it remains uncertain how they actually affect sales, the Tipper Stickers’ familiar presence certainly hasn’t hurt the careers of multiplatinum rappers like Dr. Dre, Coolio, and Snoop Doggy Dogg. Three of the acts on this summer’s Lollapalooza tour—Hole, Cypress Hill, and Beck—have albums boasting the parental advisory labels.
But the new PMRC views the Tipper Stickers as a big failure. According to Wyatt, major labels aren’t labeling enough of their dirty music, and, of course, most independent labels—home to underground bands such as Cannibal Corpse—have never bothered with the stickers at all. (Some indies still regard Tipper Stickers as badges of honor and use them, or parodies of them, even though they aren’t legally bound.)
“[Gore] says that the PMRC achieved its goal, but the labeling hasn’t achieved its goal in my book—that parents know what’s out there and that there is a vehicle…they can rely on,” says Wyatt defiantly. “At the present time, [labeling] is not a reliable method of determining what some parents might feel is not appropriate.”
The voluntary nature of the labeling is just one of the shortcomings of the present process, says Wyatt: “Only very few companies put the labels on; that’s one of the problems. Number two, there’s a standard label but there’s no standardized method of what should be labeled, a system that says “if they have this word in it, then it must have a label.’ And even if there is a label on [a recording], any child can buy it, and the forbidden fruit is often the most appealing fruit.”
If Wyatt believes the parental advisory warnings haven’t gone far enough, critics contend the warnings planted the seed for the crop of current legislation in six states—Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Louisiana, New York, Washington, and South Carolina— that would outlaw stickered albums for minors.
All of this hubbub has echoes in rock’s 1950s beginnings, and the racial overtones haven’t changed that much. Back then, even white-bread, barely R&B acts like Bill Haley were often banned and decried as “jungle music” corrupting white teens (who had finally gotten sick of Pat Boone’s grinning swill). Pollack of Def Press points out that most of the acts presently under fire are black rap artists. In fact, she calls Dole’s denouncement of the Geto Boys and other groups a politically motivated lynching.
Pop music is designed to divide generations. If the artists of one generation are failing to offend the previous generation, they aren’t doing their job right. But that generational dynamic, which has been part of the rock business from Presley to Kurt Cobain, is under attack. The PMRC wants to make the teen beat off-limits to teens—for their own good, of course.
Opponents contend that the stickers have stoked would-be censors.
“[The] stickers have been used by people who would criminalize music,” says Paul Russinoff of the RIAA. “Young people have got enough to worry about without facing a criminal record for buying a CD.”
Russinoff has spent several years lobbying against the various music-banning legislation, which includes three consecutive bills in Louisiana that each time have been stopped only by a governor’s veto. Russinoff says the RIAA is presently examining several proposals for alternative warning labels.
“They’ve had the warning stickers for a long time,” says Def Press’ Pollack. “If that’s all the PMRC really wanted, they’d have disbanded several years ago.”
Woods of Rock Out Censorship has been fighting the PMRC and their stickers for years.
Back in the early ’90s, Woods led a Halloween protest outside the PMRC office; he now travels to rock concerts around the country armed with a petition that calls for the immediate removal of the hated Tipper Stickers. So far, he has gathered more than 50,000 signatures to send to legislators: “The mistakes that were made in 1985 through 1990 must not be made again,” Woods announces in a recent handout emblazoned with the headline “PMRC LAUNCHES NEW OFFENSIVE AGAINST ROCK AND RAP.” “We must get more musicians and fans involved in the struggle to keep free expression truly free.”
“We knew the PMRC would be back,” says Woods. “Are they dangerous? You bet. Are we going to fight them? You bet.”
Dialing 1-900-288-PMRC might not provide the uplifting experience many parents are expecting when they pick up the phone.
“ “Rape me, rape me, my friend,’ ” says an emotionless male voice. “ “Rape me again. Hate me. Do it and do it again.’ These are lyrics from Nirvana’s In Utero. The album condones rape, suicide, drug use, and uses obscenities.”
Most rock fans recognize those verses, but the recorded message isn’t for them. It’s one of many such messages for parents who’ve called the new PMRC information help line.
PMRC volunteer David Chamberlin, the voice behind the message, isn’t some rock music-hating parent. The 23-year-old is the brains and conscience of the new PMRC.
Chamberlin is a devout fan of Tom Petty, and he knows a lot about Nirvana. He has a thick file of articles and interviews on the band. He admits that he’s taken the lyrics completely out of context; he is well aware that Cobain may in fact be denouncing rape —not only as an act of violence, but as a metaphor for any abuse of power. But Chamberlin’s not interested in agonizing over quibbles like the intent of the artist; he wants to protect impressionable children.
“When 13-year-old kids listen to Nirvana’s “Rape Me,’ they’re not thinking about Bosnian Muslims and all the different things in the record industry and how [Cobain] is forced to write certain songs,” says Chamberlin. “They hear what’s there, and unfortunately, that’s a pretty blatant message.”
Nirvana is just one of three dozen rock and rap acts currently residing in the PMRC spin bin. Chamberlin delivers parents from the task of sneaking into their kids’ rooms and cuing up Kurt and the boys. He serves as translator, arbiter, tastemaker and town crier, alerting listeners of the dangers of the “relentlessly morose” music of Pearl Jam and Green Day’s championing of “anti-social behavior.” Not to mention the “casual sex and obscene language” of Liz Phair, the Offspring’s “negative outlook on life,” Slayer’s “anti-Christian blood lust,” and the “hopelessness and despair” of Soundgarden.
Chamberlin wrote the synopses and chose the lyrics for the 900 line, which will eventually feature more than 80 popular recording artists (see sidebar).
The roster isn’t some blacklist advocating censorship, says Chamberlin, but simply a hot line for concerned parents, similar to the explanatory listings (noting nudity, lewd language, innuendo, etc.) that are tacked at the bottom of movie reviews in publications like the Washington Post.
Chamberlin recalls that he thought the PMRC was “pretty stupid” when he first heard about the group back in the mid-’80s. After all, he says, he was only about 13 years old then.
An employee of the D.C.-based Family Research Council, Chamberlin works pro bono for the PMRC; he doesn’t even get free CDs, but that’s not his angle. In his work for the PMRC, he’s found a calling of sorts, and one that’s he’s proud of: “I don’t think I’m doing anything that’s anti-music—I love great music,” he says. “I’m not out carrying a sign and saying, “No, you shouldn’t be listening to this.’ What I’m doing is helping inform people.”
Like Freddy Wyatt, Chamberlin acts as the PMRC’s liaison to youth culture: He listens to rock music all day at the office, reads piles of hip magazines (“I heard the Stone Temple Pilots were breaking up,” he mentions in passing), and considers himself a “selective” rock fan.
What he can’t abide is obscenity, even in some of his favorite music. For example, he really digs the sound of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but he has no toleration for their “graphic sexual depictions, vulgar language, and view of women strictly as sex objects.”
He considers music and lyrics completely separate entities. “I don’t see beats and stuff like that as moral issues,” he says. “I’ll be the first one to stand up and say I love the Chili Peppers’ sound or the Nine Inch Nails’ sound. Do I approve of their lyrics? No.”
Chamberlin tries to live his personal life by strict moral standards, at least regarding sex: He and his girlfriend have decided to remain chaste until they get married (see “Just Don’t Do It,” 7/28 ). That moralistic code might explain why he doesn’t want to hear songs about sex.
As for his music, he puts even his pet songs to the same test: He may soon have to add his “all-time favorite band,” U2, to the 900 line. The band’s not exactly satanic, but with a cig-smoking Bono now dressing as Mephistopheles onstage, the Irish rockers have sure come a long way since “Pride (In the Name of Love).” Chamberlin worries the group’s single from the Batman Forever soundtrack, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” could give kids the wrong ideas about romance. He says he’s still brooding about whether it’s offensive or not.
Before he makes that decision, there’s a slew of bands more deserving of a spot on the PMRC hit list. Usually, he says, it’s fairly obvious what music acts belong there. His short list of who’s next: Blues Traveler and the Black Crowes (pro-marijuana); Primus, Foo Fighters, even old fogey Neil Young (vulgarities).
But he draws the line at Hootie & the Blowfish: “Hootie’s not going on there,” he vows. “I don’t think anybody can find anything objectionable about Hootie.”
You know, she entertained the Grateful Dead at the White House,” whispers a PMRC volunteer of Tipper Gore, who’s not a particularly popular figure around the office these days.
When Gore is mentioned at all, the group’s founder is viewed as a sort of traitor, an opportunist who bailed out to pander to the rock ‘n’ roll voters who put Bill Clinton and Al Gore in office. “Just remember where their money came from,” snipes the volunteer, referring to the Hollywood dollars that fill the Democratic Party coffers every election year.
(“I resigned from the boards that I served on when Al was sworn in as Vice-President so there would be no appearance of conflicts of interest between my role on the boards and my role in the Administration,” writes Tipper Gore in a faxed statement about her decision to leave the PMRC. “The present media debate is not a battle between mutually exclusive interests, and need not appear so. It is a conversation among respected entities about how we can help children make appropriate choices….Regarding my own musical preferences—I am a fan of everything from rock and roll to jazz. In fact, Al gave me a drum set for Christmas a few years ago, which we have at the VP residence. I play occasionally and our son Albert is taking lessons.”)
Officially, of course, there’s no mention of ill will; Gore remains listed on PMRC letterhead along with the other founders.
Some record-industry insiders say that once Tipper left, any pretense of the PRMC’s advocating free speech disappeared as well. They have noticed the new PMRC has taken a much different stance than the group did during the Gore years, when Tipper helped lobby against some of the music-banning bills.
“Tipper would always write letters and was always supportive,” says Mickey Granberg of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers. “She was always adamant that there would be no legislation. But the [new PMRC] simply hasn’t been there for us.”
Granberg’s single encounter with Wyatt wasn’t a pleasant one: “I spoke with her when we were in the middle of the [Louisiana] fight, and she was very vehement in terms of the music being harmful to minors,” says the veteran lobbyist.
Wyatt contends that these proposed laws—and the PMRC’s policy—simply protects vulnerable kids from harmful “verbal pornography” that should be off-limits to minors, period.
Even if Wyatt doesn’t know much about the actual music she hates, her approach combines a keen understanding of the dynamics of politics and popular culture. Whether she has uncovered a nerve or simply stumbled across it, she and the organization are on a roll. And she’s not going to let up until the PMRC has a say in what the kid down the street is listening to in the privacy of his own bedroom.
For the PMRC, explicit music is a health issue, plain and simple: “Is it censorship that we say somebody under 18 cannot drink alcohol and buy drugs or a package of cigarettes?” Wyatt says. “These things are detrimental to the growing body and the growing mind. There are many children that can listen to this music and it may not affect them, but there are many young people out there today kind of sitting on the edge.”
Def Press’ Pollack finds the attempt to equate music with toxic substances completely off-base: “We have all kinds of actual scientific proof showing what tobacco does to one’s lungs, to one’s cardiovascular system—this is no secret,” she says. “There is no scientific proof that what you listen to on a record album is going to cause any kind of specific behavior. If so, you better go ban all the Wagner albums right now, because that was Hitler’s favorite musician.”
Whether or not the music-banning bills become laws, the new PMRC has already managed to have a lot of impact under Wyatt’s leadership. Moreover, the housewife image of the old PMRC that so worries Wyatt has metamorphosed into something broader based and complicated.
The tentative list of the incoming PMRC board of directors is, if nothing else, a motley crew: L.A.-based, Oscar-winning songwriter Al Kasha, composer of the music for the Irwin Allen disaster flicks, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure (Kasha provides a recorded lecture on the power of music on the 900 line); Donald Sills, a minister and educator from Utah; Pamela Cantor of Boston, former president of the American Association of Suicidology; and William Goodloe, former Washington state Supreme Court justice, among others.
“None of these people are what you’d call common folk,” gripes ROC’s Woods, who claims this lineup wouldn’t be much an improvement over the former group of wives of congressmen and Cabinet members.
The actual size and sources of the PMRC’s budget remains a mystery. Wyatt refuses to comment on either topic, other than to emphasize that the group receives no government money and has no political ties.
“We do not have a fix on the reorganized PMRC yet,” admits D’Entremont of the Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression, whose massive file on the group peters out after Gore’s resignation. “They seem to be moving away from leaving themselves open to accusations that they’re dominated by Washington wives, and they’re trying to get a little more diversity on their board.”
When she’s not jetting across the country for interviews, Wyatt still tends to the day-to-day chores at the PMRC office, which she says is deluged with calls for help and information: “I had a woman call yesterday, and she said, “I want you to know, I’m a former hippie, I’m a liberal, I do not go to church, and I am incensed over this music that was just given to my child for a birthday present,’ ” says Wyatt. “There’s a very broad interest out there….These are parents who do not want this sold to their children. This is across the board, it has nothing to do with whether somebody’s a conservative or a liberal—they realize they do not want their children bombarded by this garbage. It’s everywhere—our children are listening to it six hours a day. They get up to it, they eat to it, they put it on when they’re in the car, they listen to it on the Walkman.”
She’s surprised that more parents haven’t freaked out enough to dial the PMRC in a panic.
“The sad part is that even today, there are still a lot of people—they must be living in a cave—there are still people who will call here and say, “We knew it was bad, but we had no idea how bad.’ ”
For the former music teacher, the problem is as obvious as the relentless beat of the boomboxes and car stereos outside the PMRC office window: Music can uplift or it can infect.
“Music is a very powerful tool,” she says. “It really hits you—that’s why they have background music in a movie, to put you in the mood. You don’t play a lullaby if you’re going to war.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck and Shawn Belschwender.