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Music Censorship: Tipper Gore and the Encore

CounterPunch: 2012


Music connects us. Music inspires us. Music helps us to vent our anger. Music gives us visions of a better world. As a result, some people don’t like it. For instance, the Senators at the 1985  Senate hearings on rock lyrics, which consisted of Al Gore and other politicians bashing music by trotting out raunchy lyrics while three musicians—Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snider—defended freedom of expression.


That same year, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) came out of the woodwork. They were a group of Washington wives who used the clout of their politician husbands to develop some clout of their own. Their goal was music censorship so they allied with the PTA to push for warning labels on records, tapes, and CDs. Shortly after the 1985 hearings concluded, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) agreed to put warning labels (Tipper stickers) on the music.


You can now watch the hearings in their entirety ( but that doesn’t give a full picture of what was at stake.


The other shoe dropped at a secret gathering in the Maryland countryside in 1986.  Billed as a “family picnic” and a “Pig Pickin’ Barbecue,” it was a benefit for the PMRC.  The “Benefit Committee” included Marine Corps commandant P.X. Kelly, Marriott vice-president Fred Malek, former Republican Party chairman Dean Burch, Senator Al Gore, Senator John Danforth (initiator of the anti-rock hearings), future HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, soon to be Democratic vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, past president of the American Bar Association Robert Wallick, Merrill Lynch vice-president Bruce Thompson, and Secretary of Agriculture John Block. Many other luminaries attended, including foreign dignitaries. If the real purpose was simply to raise money, these well-heeled folks could have just sent a check. Instead it was a meeting of America’s power elite, brought together to discuss the threat music posed to them.  As the Ramones sang on “Censorshit,” music censorship was “just a smoke screen for the real problems, S&L deficit, the homeless, the environment.” The people who created those problems wanted to solve a different one—the fact that music was the conscience of the world and musicians were using the corporate structure to spread their messages.


The Tipper stickers were just a warning shot, a prelude to the full assault. Promoters were jailed for putting on shows. Wal-Mart, the nation’s biggest music retailer, refused to stock stickered product and many retailers who did sell it were arrested. Musicians such as Bobby Brown, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe were also arrested and Jello Biafra went to trial over the cover to his Frankenchrist album. There were PMRC-endorsed record burnings. The major record labels set up in-house lyric censorship committees and rappers who wrote songs criticizing the police weren’t allowed to record them. Insurance coverage was cancelled for rap tours. Fans were arrested for wearing band T-shirts. A Florida public radio station lost its funding for playing an Iris DeMent song. Many states and cities introduced laws to restrict music. Police established local and national monitoring networks, disrupted shows and tours, set up concert roadblocks to keep fans away, and threatened to make it impossible for Time Warner to do business.


All this was done in the name of protecting women and children. Censorship point man Al Gore, who as Bill Clinton’s veep helped to usher in welfare reform, NAFTA, and the prison-industrial complex, cared about lyrics? Al Gore cared about women? Dow Corning, which as of 2010 had paid out $1.2 billion to women who’ve suffered medical problems with Dow’s silicon breast implants since the 1970s, also paid for a PMRC anti-rock music booklet which claimed that the music was to blame for AIDS because it doesn’t promote “sexual abstinence.” Al Gore was Dow Corning’s champion in the Senate.


Dow Corning wasn’t the only corporation bankrolling censorship. 7-Up helped defray the costs of the Pig Pickin’ Barbecue while Marriott, Alcoa, and Merrill Lynch all gave money to the PMRC. So did the foundations associated with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Chemical Bank. Coors donated office space to the PMRC.


The PMRC brought the previously marginal rightwing lunatic fringe onto the public stage and gave it their blessing. The police-produced Back In Control Manual that deemed music to be Satanic and cautioned parents to watch out for the Star of David was endorsed by Tipper Gore. Focus on the Family, now a significant player on the political scene with the money to place Tim Tebow’s endorsement as an ad during the 2010 Super Bowl, used its then $57 million annual budget to spread a “rock is Satanism” message. Focus on the Family opposed Earth Day, child care, and the anti-apartheid struggle that was such a big part of the hip-hop scene while putting out an audio tape, Bringing Hope to the Inner City, in which Dr. John Perkins warns against getting drugs out of the black community because “You’ll have a generation of people who are going to get a leader and say the problem is society around us.” Susan Baker, co-founder of the PMRC, was on the Focus on the Family board.


Music censorship also highlighted the growing class divide among blacks. While rap music brought the voices of poor communities such as the South Bronx and Compton to the world, the rich and powerful in the black community moved to silence it. Typical was C. Delores Tucker, a Pennsylvania slumlord who was the state’s commonwealth secretary until fired for misuse of public office. Tucker, working through the National Political Caucus of Black Women, organized picketing of record stores and got the Congressional Black Caucus, National Organization For Women, the NAACP, and the National and Progressive Baptist Conventions to support a boycott of Tower Records for selling hip-hop music. Tucker was no marginal gadfly. In 1995, sharing the dais with Hilary Clinton, she spoke at a Pentagon banquet, where she called for using abandoned military bases as “training centers” for inner city youth who would be under the direct control of the military. Tucker’s proposal was warmly received by an audience which included Joint Chiefs chairman John Shalikashvilli and the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. A year later, at a NPCBW luncheon, Tucker welcomed Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary, Senator Carole Mosely-Braun, Coretta Scott King, and Tipper Gore to an event where $14,000 was raised for Tucker’s anti-music campaigns. The war against rap helped to reinforce the image of the “young black thug,” smoothing the way for the growth of the prison-industrial complex. The U.S. prison population has surged from 750,000 at the time of the 1985 censorship hearings to 2.7 million in 2012.


Today we have an African-American President and attorney general, forty-one African-American members of the House of Representatives, and six African-American Fortune 500 CEOs. None of them were heard arguing with Bill Cosby as he’s traveled the country in recent years, bashing rap music and attacking poor blacks for being poor.


There was a wave of resistance to the PMRC, led not by liberals but by the very musicians and their fans who were in the crosshairs of the censors. Dozens of grassroots anti-censorship groups sprang up, mostly in small towns. Davis, California. Yellville, Arkansas. Linton, Indiana. Ashland, Massachusetts. Gulfport, Mississippi. This upsurge culminated in the National Anti-Censorship War Council, held at Chicken’s Night Club in Midvale, Ohio on August 8, 1992. There it was decided to present the 30,000 anti-labeling petitions the movement had gathered to the RIAA at its Washington headquarters and to demonstrate outside PMRC headquarters in Arlington, VA. This happened a few months later, led by the editors of Rock Out Censorship, a national newspaper based in the tiny hamlet of Jewett, Ohio. Boycotts of Marriott and 7-Up were launched in response to their support of the PMRC. Marriott pledged to never again give the censors money while 7-Up president John Albers tried to plead innocent by calling the homes of organizers to claim his company was a lover of rock & roll. At Occidental College in Los Angeles, students staged a five day takeover of administration offices after the school cancelled a scheduled cultural festival because it would attract “the wrong crowd.”


Things have been relatively quiet on the censorship front for the past several years. The overt attacks have greatly subsided and so has the media hysteria. The easy availability of downloaded music is one reason but the main factor is that there was a war and the other side won. A systemic censorship is in place, part of an ever-growing web of control that includes the Patriot Act, cameras on almost every corner, gang databases, post-Occupy restrictions on protest, privacy invasion as a fact of digital life, and a one-party political system whose corporate agenda resulted in two mothers who were running for office in 2012 (Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala of the Green Party) being arrested and handcuffed to chairs for attempting to enter the Presidential debates.


It’s not clear if the lyric committees still exist since star chamber proceedings are not subject to sunshine laws. But lyric committees may no longer be necessary. In a December 8 New York Times op-ed piece, Somali-born singer K’naan revealed that his record company summoned him to a breakfast chat in October where they told him that he needed to stop writing songs about politics and war and “avoid subjects too far from fun and self-absorption.”


In Russia, two members of the band Pussy Riot remain in jail for the band’s songs and videos which mock the Orthodox Church, a key cog in Russian president Vladimir Putin’s system of social control. Could something similar happen in the United States?  The legal basis for it already exists.


In 1988, Congress unanimously passed the Child Protection and Enforcement Act, which gives the federal government the power to arrest anyone connected with selling or promoting an album that’s “obscene,” the definition of which is left to the imagination of the music police. It also gives the Justice Department the right to take the “community standards” of south Florida established in the 2 Live Crew case and apply them to any city in America.


In 1996, the Clinton/Gore administration pushed through the Telecom bill, which makes it a crime punishable by up to five years in prison to distribute or promote by any means music that is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy.” The definition of those terms will be left up to prosecutors who are free to go after not just artists or record companies but bloggers and DJs as well. Among the 91 Senators who voted for the bill were John Ashcroft, convener of the 1985 censorship hearings; current Vice-President Joe Biden; Ernest Hollings, whose wife was a leader of the PMRC; and Carol Mosely-Braun, convener of her own Senate anti-rap hearings.


In 2003, under the leadership of Joe Biden, Congress approved the RAVE Act (98-0 in the Senate, 400-25 in the House). The law is actually not specific to raves and makes the organizers of almost any public event liable for prison time and $250,000 fines. The supposed target is drug use but prosecutors are not required to prove that anyone attending an event actually possessed drugs.


These laws were passed to be enforced, but not until a time when the conflict between the progressive agenda embedded in so much of our music and the reactionary nature of the government could no longer be papered over. That time is near. A majority of Americans oppose the war and endorse universal healthcare. Millions of immigrants marched in 2006. A million people demonstrated in the streets for public education in 2011 followed by the explosion of the Occupy movement. Millions of people are searching for ways to avoid foreclosure. A social explosion is coming as the 99 per cent staggers to its feet.


Music will be a big part of it, weaving its magic to inspire us with visions of a better future. The censors will once again fully bear their fangs and, since a dying mainstream music industry will no longer be an effective censorship partner, the attacks on music will necessarily be more vicious than before.


The heroic efforts of anti-censorship groups in the past failed because they were defensive and single issue. They weren’t linked to the struggles which were echoed and amplified in the music itself. Today those struggles are so close to each other they can feel each other’s breath. Yet they spring from communities which have long been separated. They need the connective power of music to highlight their commonality so their marriage can be consummated. From that union will come the ability to defend the music. The possibility of a different strategic path, a political and cultural offensive, is opening up before us.


Lee Ballinger:

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