back to start
4 words kicked off this whole gnarly tale. The story goes that one day, Tipper Gore (wife of former Vice President Al Gore) came home to find her sweet, virginal daughter listening to “Darling Nikki” off of Prince’s classic album Purple Rain. In its first verse, the lyrics read: “I knew a girl named Nikki / I guess you could say she was a sex fiend / I met her in a hotel lobby / Masturbating with a magazine.” That song (particularly the line about masturbation) was the trigger for Tipper Gore’s parent rage. Gore took action immediately, writing missives and inviting like-minded people to join her. Within months, the PMRC was formed.
The PMRC had a few key financial backers. Some, like Joseph Coors (then owner of the Coors beer empire) used the opportunity to publicly align themselves with the PMRC’s family-oriented mission. Other financiers attempted to hide their contributions. Beach Boy and colossal asshole Mike Love secretly provided seed money to the PMRC. It was a modest amount - reportedly $5,000 - but Love’s contribution and support remained the only example of a rock star supporting a campaign of censorship against other rock stars.
Within a few months of their formation, the PMRC released something called ‘the filthy fifteen’, a list of songs they felt were offensive AND in heavy public rotation. Here’s the full list. None of the artists in the sex/violence/drugs categories were being subtle, so there’s that. But Occult? While it may be super spooky, America’s constitution is built not just on the right of the individual to free expression, but also freedom of worship. This was the where the PMRC overplayed their hand, as arguments against their campaign were heavily based on this obvious constitutional violation. Not only that, but this is precisely the point where satanic imagery in rock music kicked into overdrive. Because whatever pisses parents off is exactly what kids are going to listen to most. So if you’re throwing up the horns and don’t know why, you’ve got Tipper Gore to thank for that.
By September of 1985, Gore had freaked so many people out, the matter was taken in front of the U.S. senate. Keep in mind, there were no laws being violated, no arrests and no legal precedent for any of this. But the PMRC had gained so much traction with their alarmist messaging, these hearings were an attempt to put dumb, violent rock stars on display for all to see. What they got was something very different: the stars who gave depositions included genius Frank Zappa, chill-as fuck country star John Denver, and Twisted Sister frontman, Dee Snider. All of them gave fiery speeches, calling the PMRC out for an oppressive campaign of draconian censorship that would damage Americans’ fundamental right to free speech.
Gore’s belief about the sticker was that it should work the same way MPAA’s movie ratings worked. There should be letter grades that indicated the nature of the offending lyrics, and in cases where an album received a certain kind of rating, it should not be sold to minors, under penalty of prosecution. Sensing that it was just a matter of time before these rules were implemented, stores like Wal Mart, Sears, and J.C. Penny either refused to stock albums with the label, or took it upon themselves to only sell those albums to adults.
By 1986, the PMRC’s cause had become such a hot button issue, it was being given massively popular venues. Once again sensing an opportunity to put rock’s depravity on display for all of America’s housewives, Tipper Gore agreed to debate with punk icon Jello Biafra on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah did her part, playing clips of violent hip hop and metal videos. The rest was up to Gore. Unfortunately, Gore seriously underestimated Biafra’s tenacity and preparedness, as he repeatedly called her lies and motives out with Gore looking like a deer in the headlights.
Jello Biafra’s contributions to the fight were unfortunately the most costly of any rock star’s—he was actually arrested by the LAPD for ‘distributing harmful material to minors’ in 1986. Biafra goes into detail about his arrest in the Oprah videos, but the short of it is the PMRC complained about the album cover for the Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist (by late Swedish artist HR Giger). The belief is that since the Dead Kennedys were on an indie label, they wouldn’t have the money to fight those charges and would once again be made an example of. And even though the court case ended in a mistrial (with seven to five jurors in favour of a full acquittal), the costs of the trial nearly bankrupted Biafra (and label Alternative Tentacles) and played a part in the Dead Kennedys’ split.
That picture is of Beyonce, Khloe Kardashian and supermodel Jourdain Dunn sporting a shirt created by designer Alexander Wang in 2014. Over 30 years, the image has been a popular fixture of shirts, mugs, hats and any other merch almost since its creation, becoming a pop culture icon in exactly the opposite way it was intended to.
Even though the whole process for the parental advisory sticker was over within a couple of years, artists rail against it to this day. In every generation since, artists in every genre have made very loud statements about Gore and the PMRC, from Danzig’s “Mother” (a tribute to Gore), Rage Against the Machine’s silent, naked protest at a Lollapalooza stop in 1993, to Eminem’s “White America” (‘Fuck you Tipper Gore!). Even though mainstream popular music is more vulgar, violent and explicitly sexual as ever, its industry has not forgotten that at one time, government and police were hard at work, desperately trying to stifle it.
Thirty years ago, Tipper Gore and the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) tried to ruin music for everyone.
A collective of politicians and religious leaders, the people who made up PMRC were almost as worked up as they were privileged. In fact, they were so up in arms about the naughty words they were hearing in modern music, they crusaded to destroy it because Jesus, probably. After years of talk show smackdowns, senate depositions, and nude protests, the PMRC’s only tangible victory was the parental advisory warning, a barely-noticeable black and white sticker on the bottom right corner of albums that were deemed offensive.
For such a tiny sticker, its creation was a huge pain in the ass for musicians. Here are some of the most ridiculous things that happened along the way.