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Twenty five years ago this Saturday, rock legend Frank Zappa publicly accused a prominent fan’s wife of being the leader of dangerous cult. Who was that fan? Then-Senator Al Gore, and the “cult” his wife Tipper was accused of being responsible for was the Parents Music Resource Center.
Zappa’s comment came during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The hearing, which was called to discuss what the PMRC had dubbed “porn rock, ” and whether or not records should be labeled to indicate inappropriate content. And just like the Napster hearings years later, musicians took up arms to defend their positions, with Zappa leading the charge.
True to form, Zappa—-who, by the way, will be immortalized in statue form this weekend in Baltimore—-was both articulate and incendiary. He criticized the PMRC’s lack of transparency (the genesis of his “cult” comment). He also protested the organization’s proposal for labeling and the censorship that he feared would follow as draconian, saying: “It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC’s demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.”
And I’m sure he made more than a few PMRC members feel pretty silly about the things they had said in front of the court:
Some of the albums that have been selected for abuse here are obscure. Some of them are already several years old. And I think that a lot of deep digging was done in order to come up with the song about “anal vapors” or whatever it was that they were talking about before.
Zappa, who interestingly was not included on the PMRC’s “filthy 15,” was principally concerned with the stigma that labeling records would place on artists. He felt that it would hurt their careers and limit their expression. He also argued that the burden of responsibility for what children should be exposed to lies with the parents, not the artists. Instead of arbitrary labeling, Zappa advocated making the content of an album readily available so that the consumer could make an informed choice.
While some of the senators present actively engaged Zappa—most notably Senator Gore—others were not nearly as open-minded. Senator Salde Gorton, a Republican from Washington, essentially told Zappa off, saying, “…I found your statement to be boorish, incredibly and insensitively insulting to the people that were here previously; that you could manage to give the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States a bad name, if I felt that you had the slightest understanding of it, which I do not.”
Within a year, the RIAA was printing content warnings and applying to them to records. But Zappa did get one last laugh—he incorporated audio from the hearing into his 1985 track “Porn Wars,” which certainly earns its warning sticker.