Mike tells Sarah the real reason Congress called a bunch of rockers to Washington D.C. Digressions include cartoon violence, sleeveless tees and Trixie Mattel. Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" are dissected at length.
Support the show (http://patreon.com/yourewrongabout)
Mike tells Sarah the real reason Congress called a bunch of rockers to Washington D.C. Digressions include cartoon violence, sleeveless tees and Trixie Mattel. Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" are dissected at length.
Support the show (http://patreon.com/yourewrongabout)
Sarah: I think that if we were going to have a big Senate hearing about something irrelevant in the mid-eighties, we should have had one about Gremlins.
Welcome to You're Wrong About, where often our problems come back to the Gipper, but sometimes they come back to the Tipper.
Mike: That was our first homemade, satanic rhyme. It’s a tribute to Michelle, this week.
Sarah: It's a tribute to Michelle's sweet Satan.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes, I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall, I'm working on a book about the satanic panic.
Mike: And if you want to support the show, we're on Patreon at patreon.com/yourewrongabout, and you can find us in lots of other places with t-shirts and mugs and other options.
Sarah: Yeah. Or not, whatever. But here we are. We're going to talk about the war on porn rock, and I think we're going to have a good time.
Mike: Just like the senators had on September 19th, 1985, when they had the hearing.
Sarah: We're going to party like it's 1985 and we're in the Senate.
Mike: Yes. Can you catch us up? What did we cover last week?
Sarah: Okay. So our story begins when a mom and wife of Senator Al Gore, by the name of Tipper, innocently purchases the Purple Rain soundtrack for her 11-year old daughter, who presumably had not seen the movie and was horrified by the lyrics to the song, “Darling, Nikki”.
Mike: “Masturbating with a magazine”.
Sarah: A great lyric. And we discussed in the previous episode how I think we on this show are pro explicit masturbation descriptions in lyrics.
Mike: Certified freak, seven days a week.
Sarah: Yeah. And this leads Tipper to have what I think is a very reasonable and good idea, which is that music should have ratings. So this is just kind of attempting to regulate corporate offerings, really, in a way that feels pretty central to the Democratic party's ideas.
Mike: And she's also very explicit about the fact that she doesn't want legislation. She wants the record companies to do this themselves, just like the movie industry did themselves.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, what is the literal chain of events from there? Like immediately after deciding music should have ratings, what is her first move?
Mike: Their first move is sending a letter to Stan Gortikov, who's the head of the Recording Industry Association of America. And this is where they make the demand for the specific ratings. You know, they want V for violence, DA for drug alcohol, O for occult.
Sarah: Dicks and ass.
Mike: Basically this whole summer, as they're doing this huge publicity blitz notifying the entire country of all of the transgressions of rock music and all of the women in bikinis on the covers, et cetera, they are in the background negotiating with the record companies about how exactly this should work.
The main argument that the record companies have against this, and this is a very good point, only 350-ish movies come out every year in 1985. Whereas 3,500 albums featuring 25,000 songs come out every year. So the recording industry, part of their pushback to this is just logistical. And like, what do we do if there's an album with 20 tracks on it and one of them is really bad, does that mean we label the whole record?
I mean, one of the central bullshit nuances of this hearing - which I feel like doesn't come up enough when you read these sort of like VH1 countdowns, like “The time when heavy metal pushed back against Tipper - is that okay, the hearing is on September 19th, 1985, in August, the recording industry had already caved. So basically as they've done this like months long negotiation with the Washington wives who were pushing all this, the recording industry said, “Look, it's not going to work to have these specific ratings warning parents of the specific content of the albums, because logistically it's just too hard. However, we are open to the idea of a generic warning label.” And we know that this is what we ended up with.
Sarah: That's pretty good, you know.
Mike: This had already been done a month before the hearing. So basically everything that they talk about at the hearing is essentially a moot point.
Sarah: And yet they managed to make this seem very exciting somehow.
Mike: I also think it's under covered that this hearing is straightforwardly corrupt. In Tipper Gore’s book, because she's writing her book two years after the hearing, she says, “In September 1985, Senator John Danforth of Missouri scheduled a hearing before the Senate’s Commerce Committee, which he chaired. The Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over communications issues and wanted to investigate the prevalence of pornographic, violent rock lyrics for its own information, not to consider any legislation. So the way that she presents it is just like, well, this guy, John Danforth, was just walking down the street one day, chewing gum, and he said, “Let's have a hearing on this.”
Sarah: Why don't I do three things at once? And just “wow” everybody even further.
Mike: What she doesn't mention is that his wife is a member of the PMRC. We should think of the PMRC exactly the way that we think of PETA or the NRA or any other interest group. It's pretty fucked up for a Senator to call a hearing at which one of his Senate colleague’s wife testifies.
Sarah: It's for the kids. You’ve got to cut a few corners to save the kids.
Mike: Like if his wife was a ballistic missile consultant, and all of a sudden, he's doing a hearing on ballistic missiles, which is like only tangentially related to the mandate of this actual committee. Like, this is the Ccommerce Ccommittee. This is not the free speech committee or the music committee.
Sarah: Or she works for the corn syrup lobby and he suddenly is like, “Let's have a hearing on more Fruit Loops in our schools.”
Mike: Exactly. And also, tell me if I'm totally off base here, but I actually think that the misogyny inherent in the critique of Tipper Gore and the other Washington wives is central for why this wasn't a bigger deal.
Sarah: The fact that we're calling them “Washington wives”, even now, kind of indicates that I have this recurring mental image of the female characters in All the President's Men.
Mike: Yes. Like all of the backlash to the PMRC has this very patronizing tone. It's like a bunch of housewives, they're drinking box wine, and they're mad about their rock lyrics.
Sarah: They're trying to slap our wrists.
Mike: Exactly. And it puts me in a weird position because I agree with that critique. I do think that this is frivolous and that they should have spent their time on something else, but it's also the reasons why people are calling them frivolous and the reasons why people do not take them seriously as a legitimate lobbying organization. It is because they are a bunch of big haired, shoulder pads, eighties wives. And it's just like, “LOL, the wives want us to have a hearing. I guess we'll have a hearing.”
Sarah: I mean to be fair, in the eighties everyone liked equally ridiculous. Don’t you think also that this is a symptom of the only kind of political action that you can really move forward as a woman at the time? But like, if you also mock women for having the sort of frivolous shared cause it's like, well, they were denied the opportunity to really be invested in more significant causes. It feels as if everyone sort of latched onto this, partly because they knew it was something that couldn't be taken away from them.
Mike: Well, I mean, I think it is one of those things where the framing is always that your identity as a Washington wife comes before anything else. I do think that's one of the ways that people were able to infantilize this entire movement, even though eventually this movement gets basically everything they want.
Sarah: Well yeah, because it aligns with interests that already exist. It's censorious, it's basically Christian or at least it aligns extremely well. And it's for the children, which is the best way to do kind of any kookie thing you want to do, which we've talked about.
Mike: So this drives me nuts. This is how Tipper describes her sort of behind-the-scenes conversations in her book when she's talking about the hearing. So she talks about how this Danforth guy has scheduled the hearing. She says, “The hearing put me in an awkward position because my husband, Albert Gore Jr., was a freshman member of the Commerce Committee. Some critics mistakenly assumed that he had asked for the hearing when in fact both he and I had reservations about it. I thought the PMRC would be better off working with artists in the industry on their own terms, instead of dragging everybody before TV cameras on Capitol Hill”.
Sarah: I believe you, Tipper, but you know, I wouldn't blame someone who doesn’t.
Mike: I do not believe a word of this. An organization that does nothing but raise awareness of an issue. They don't have researchers. All they are doing is giving interviews to the press and trying to whip up public panic about this issue. She's like, “Now why would I want a congressional hearing?”
Sarah: I wouldn't want to bring my little ‘ol issue in front of cameras. Yeah. There can be good faith in there to the extent that like, maybe it would be nice to be able to do something, anything in politics, without creating a media frenzy. But we all know you have to, so sorry.
Mike: So the rest of this episode, we're just going to walk through sort of speaker by speaker, what happens at this hearing, and we're going to watch a bunch of clips.
Sarah: Yay! I was going to say, I hope we're going to get clippies.
Mike: So we started with the opening statement of John Danforth, who is this Republican Senator from Missouri. He basically lays out the fundamental contradiction of this hearing. So listen to this, “The reason for this hearing is not to promote any legislation. Indeed, I don't know of any suggestion that any legislation be passed, but to simply provide a forum for airing the issue itself for ventilating the issue, bringing it out into the public domain. The concern is that the public at large should be aware of the existence of this kind of music and that kids of all ages are able to buy it.
Sarah: And therefore we need to use our time in the Senate to raise awareness, which is something that is not our job, which could easily be done by practically anyone else. Thank you.
Mike: So it's basically, my wife is working on this issue, I'm not going to legislate about it, but I will direct an avalanche of attention to her weird pet issue.
Sarah: And then you take a drink from one of those comically tiny bottles of water. +
Mike: We also get an opening statement from Paula Hawkins, who's a Republican Senator from Florida. She says, “As chairman of the Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism subcommittee, this is a subject I'm very familiar with. We decided as a committee in the last 18 months to hold hearings, discussing the role of the media in drug abuse and prevention and education. There we learned that by the fourth-grade children have already decided whether or not to take drugs. Citation needed, Paula. I don't know where that's from. That sounds like some DARE Propaganda.
This is one of the statements of the entire hearing that I agree the most with. She says, “It’s the parent we blame if the child gets on drugs, it's the parent we blame if the child commits suicide, it's the parent we blame if a child burns down a building. Just how much guilt can we place on these parents without giving them some assistance?” It's like, follow that thought Paula, keep going Paula.
Sarah: And the way we can assist these struggling American parents is by putting little labels, say “dicks and ass” on their CDs.
Mike: We then get to our visual aid portion of the hearing, which I love. So Paula shows three albums. One of the albums we already looked at, that's the Wendy O Williams one where she's in the road warrior bikini.
Sarah: I love it.
Mike: She then shows them - I'm going to send these to you - again, I'm not going to post these on our website, but you can easily Google to them. This is Def Leppard, Pyromania.
Sarah: Oh, Oh, it's a building on fire. Yeah. And we're looking at it through a scope on a gun, I guess, or like a flame thrower or something.
Mike: It looks like Terminator vision and those movies.
Sarah: Yeah. So basically it's the POV, presumably of whoever has just launched whatever you need to launch at a building to take out several floors and just put a gaping fiery hole in a skyscraper.
Mike: Yes. So this album is glorifying violence, something something, terrorism. I mean, this is before we have school shootings as a phenomenon, and before we have terrorism as a moral panic.
Sarah: Yeah. I'm thinking of 9/11, which this looks uncannily like.
Mike: So the third album cover that she shows, I know you’ve seen this one.
Sarah: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I forgot that it looked like this, but of course it does. Oh my God. It's funny because on so many episodes I'm like, “Why is it that heteronormativity feels so violent?” And then I'm like, “Well, yeah.”
Mike: So what album is it, Sarah?
Sarah: it's Animal (F**K Like a Beast), and it depicts a gentleman who is wearing a codpiece that is tiger print. And actually looks like a chastity belt, but it's like a reverse chastity belt because a circular saw is coming out of it. Just like, yeah. And he's got blood all over him.
Mike: Really fake blood, like neon red blood.
Sarah: It’s gorgeous. Yeah. Like aspiria tempera blood.
Mike: Do you think this is misogynistic? I don't know that I know what this album is supposed to mean.
Sarah: I think it's just scary. It's an album cover that makes you sort of put a hand over your area, like Don Cheadle and Oceans 11.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. Because it's not clear to me if the circular saw is coming out of his junk, or if the circular saw is attacking his junk.
Sarah: Right. Like what if this guy is a saw victim. I also would like to mention that the song that this is depicting, like this actual song is about masturbating and fantasizing about dominating women. Like the first lyric, the first line of it is, “I got pictures of naked ladies.”
Sarah: There could be like a conversation to be had again, without an eye toward legislation about like, why is there so much violent sexual fantasy? Let's take some time and talk about that. But you know, nobody wants to watch that, I guess.
Mike: It so reminds me of the morality that I grew up with, where it's much more about vulgarity than it is about mortality, right? Like the only thing she's interested in is this extremely narrow version of basically Christian morality, where you said a swear.
Sarah: The weirdest thing is that this WASP album is really, this cover is almost upholding Christian morality. Because I feel like the message that Christianity and sort of conventional American sexual mores have toward girls having sex is like, if you ever have sex even one time, you'll be different forever, and essentially maimed. And it's like, that's not far off from like a circular saw coming for you.
Mike: That's true, actually.
Sarah: They should love this picture.
Mike: This is really insightful. Because you're basically casting the male crotch as fundamentally threatening in this very thunderingly obvious way.
Sarah: As opposed to just, you know, what it is. Which is this sort of cute, embarrassing little organism.
Mike: It’s also I think one of the most important aspects of this, is this indicates how full of shit the PMRC is to me. Because these are not song lyrics, these are record covers. And everything that we're ostensibly talking about today is supposed to be about the question, should we put warning labels on music with offensive lyrics? And here we have two album covers that are like pretty blatantly offensive, and in some ways that gets rid of the need for a warning label. There's no way you would buy this WASP album for your 11 year old daughter and be like, “I have no idea.”
Sarah: If he bought this WASP album for your 11-year-old daughter, then like, I want to know every single other thing that ever happened in your family.
Mike: That’s the thing. It's sort of like, this album cover is doing what you say you want. It is warning you this is inappropriate for children.
Sarah: Right. And that is what metal covers are. You know, they're like a colorful bird.
Mike: So after our presentation of the three album covers, we then get our first medley of music videos. Do you know which videos they played for the committee?
Sarah: I have no idea. I'm really, I guess. Oh my God, I can't wait. They didn't play “She Bop” did they?
Mike: No. They played; they chose very weird videos to play. So the first one is Van Halen's, Hot For Teacher.
Sarah: It's a cute video.
Mike: It's cute. So do you remember the video? Have you seen it? Do you know what it's about?
Sarah: Yeah. It's a little dweeb going to school and being hot for teacher and Eddie Van Halen is bouncing around. And the teacher is hot and dances around in a bikini a little bit. It's hard to distinguish it from literally hundreds of other videos of the time, which were just like, let's not try that hard and let's hire one or two beautiful women and put them in some shiny bikinis and have them jump around a little bit. And there you go, there's your video. It's not rocket science.
Mike: You know, I wish that in these presentations in the congressional hearing, they had said more about why this video is offensive. Because it feels to me like the reason they find it offensive is because it features a woman in a bikini.
Sarah: I mean, she's got kind of a pageant sash, which reminds you of the bikini or the bathing suit competition in Miss America, which she's not really wearing anything fundamentally different from what you see in that. So I guess you could argue that it's inappropriate to suggest to children the idea that their teachers can be hot, but like they know that.
Mike: Video number two is, “We're Not Gonna Take It”, by Twisted Sister.
Sarah: Hey, this is a classic.
Mike: Okay. We're going to watch this together.
Mike: You got it?
Sarah: It's got a James Woods-looking motherfucker. Three, two, one, go.
*video plays* “All right, Mister, what do you think you're doing? You call this a room? This is a pig stye. I want you to straighten up this area now! You are a disgusting slob! Stand up straight, tuck in that shirt, adjust that belt buckle, tie those shoes. You're doing nothing. You are nothing. You sit in here all day and play that sick, repulsive, electric twanger. I carried an M-16 and you, you carry that guitar. Who are you? Where do you come from? Are you listening to me? What do you wanna do with your life? I want to rock.”
Sarah: Okay. So the little boy spun around and became Dee Snider. He looks like Trixie Mattel.
Sarah: I guess Trixie Mattel looks like him.
Mike: Imagine this being played in Congress, Sarah.
Sarah: You know what? I'm sure it was one of their better sessions.
Mike: There's something extremely funny to me about people playing this video and these like panicked, hushed tones. Like, “This is what your children are listening to.”
Sarah: Like they're watching a leaked beheading video. Like I cannot stress enough how much makeup Dee Snider is wearing.
Mike: He's going through like three pallets a week.
Sarah: Yeah. Like just the vividness of the hues. Like I've always loved this song. Like, it's just like a nice...
Mike: It's a good song.
Sarah: It also has the lyric, “We've got the right to choose”, I think. And it always makes me think of abortion. That was fantastic. And like, I'm sorry, like how many American children have a dad who's mean and scary that way? Like millions, millions upon millions. Like how is this a threat to them?
Mike: So later on famously, Dee Snider will testify at this hearing. And the case against the song of course, is that it glorifies violence and that it glorifies sort of standing up to authority.
Sarah: Well, that's terrible.
Mike: So first of all it’s fine. Secondly, he calls it road runner violence.
Sarah: Right. The first thing that happens to the dad is that the kid is playing guitar and then he's like, “I want a rock” and then he strums his guitar and the power of his rock and blasts his dad backward and pushes him through a wall.
Mike: And then he lands on the ground in this sort of like cartoonish way. And then mom comes by and dumps water on him. Like it's very obviously meant to be funny.
Sarah: And also like, I'm fine with having images of violence against dads. Just because you guys work for the government doesn't mean that you have to defend the idea that all parents in America deserve the authority that they expect from their children. Like that's a ridiculous proposition.
Mike: It seems noteworthy that the only reason this song is on the sort of “filthy 15” of the worst offending music in America, is because of the video. Which again is irrelevant for the ostensible reason we are here today, which is to talk about warning labels on CD covers at the record store.
Sarah: Once again, I realized we're not allowed to look at country music because you don't want to come from Nashville, but the country music is about that, too. Like, this is the basic experience of being human is wanting to have some kind of say in what you do with your existence. You know, like this is not a Twisted Sister problem.
Mike: I mean, a lot of people do point out, if you want to talk about music with violent themes, have you been to operas? Many operas have extremely violent themes in them.
Sarah: My favorite opera, Don Giovanni, ends with a statue coming directly up from hell and pulling the protagonist into hell, Just literally drags him to hell, you know? That’s the end.
Okay. So they watched the videos for We're Not Gonna Take It and Hot For Teacher, that's going to persuade anyone of anything.
Mike: And then we get one speech by Susan Baker, who's one of Tipper’s colleagues on the PMRC. She does basically just like boilerplate, “This is bad for kids. I'm in the PTA, dah, dah, dah.” And then we have Tipper give a little speech. Although Tipper sort of doesn't do the sort of moral panicky stuff, she mostly talks about the logistics of the various labeling ideas. She also brings up this sort of Plan B solution to the problem, which comes up a ton in the rest of the hearing. Which is this absurd idea that they're going to require every record store in America to keep a copy of all the lyrics of all of the albums behind the counter, available to parents at any time.
Mike: It's like, ma'am, do you know how many albums stores carry? That's going to be a stack of paper like 15 feet high. Like your kid says, “I want to buy this Pink Floyd album”, and you have to go look at the lyrics to the entire “The Wall” before you buy it for them? It’s going to take 45 minutes.
Sarah: It's funny because there are some parents who are already that ridiculously dedicated and they're already doing their thing. And if this kind of thing happened, then the people who would look at the record store copy of the lyrics are the ones who would be figuring them out anyway, because that's an amazing amount of time to drop on something that really doesn't matter all that much.
Mike: There's so much of the rest of the hearing is people talking about how the publishing rights for the lyrics are different than the music rights to the songs. So this would actually be a huge challenge for the record companies to do. And there's all this sort of back and forth about how to do this.
Like one person proposes like, “Oh, well we should require artists to have the lyrics in sort of the album sleeve that comes with the album.” But then somebody else points out that by the time you can read the lyrics, you've already bought the album, so there's no point in doing this. Like, it's just a bad idea, but instead of anyone just being like, “Sorry, guys, this is bad”, they just sort of debate the particulars on it.
Sarah: And then they're like, “Uh, the electoral college It is.”
Mike: Yeah. So now we get into the famous phase of the hearing where we have a number of celebrity guests.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: So our first testifier testimony is Frank Zappa? I always wondered, like, Frank Zappa doesn't really make the kind of music that they're shitting on in the hearing. Like he's not really a heavy metal or hair metal guy. You know, none of his songs have been singled out by Tipper Gore. So the reason why he's there, and the reason why he's deputized to be sort of the face of the pushback, is that no other artist was doing this. He mentions in his memoir that this whole summer when the PMRC was doing their massive campaign, 150 news stories, he was the only musical artist that pushed back in any concerted way.
Sarah: Why do you think that was?
Mike: I mean, he seems to think that most other artists are just chicken shit, and they don't want to be seen as political. And a lot of them just simply underestimated that this would go anywhere, partly because, you know, it's a bunch of Washington wives and nothing's going to happen.
It is interesting actually that like, you know, Madonna, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, like big artists were being targeted by this. They didn't do any of the pushback. And so Frank Zappa was kind of like a one man fight back against the PMRC machine. Like he started putting out open letters. He would publish full-page ads in newspapers.
Sarah: This is what I mean about how big the shift to Twitter and social media is, because it's really hard to go back to remember what it was like when you could not hear directly from celebrities. Like you didn't have that ability and they didn't have that ability.
Mike: And you could just go months without hearing from like massively famous artists. Like if they didn't want to put out a statement, they would just not be heard from.
Sarah: You could be like, I wonder what Catherine Oxenberg is up to, and then you just wouldn't know.
Mike: And so we are going to watch a clip of Frank Zappa testifying. Yay. Here we go. Three, two, one, go.
*video clip plays* “The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense, which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposals design. 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 demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation. No one has forced to Mrs. Baker or Mrs. Gore to bring Prince or Sheena Easton into their homes. Thanks to the constitution, they are free to buy other forms of music for their children. Apparently, they insist on purchasing the works of contemporary recording artists in order to support a personal illusion of aerobic sophistication. Ladies, please be advised the $8.98 purchase price does not entitle you to a kiss on the foot from the composer or performer in exchange for a spin on the family Victrola.
Sarah: That was great. I love Frank Zappa. I do think that having some kind of indication that there's going to be scary, sweary stuff in an album is a good idea. And we did end up with that. But also this idea that like, If you purchase any media in the world without research or foresight, and then listen to it and it shocks your sensibilities, that you have the right to squeeze the artist out of a livelihood or something like that. Like that is a very insidious point of view and we can see it growing in the American mind at this stage. Certainly it's stronger and weirder now.
Mike: Oh yeah. It's also fascinating that this whole thing comes up because Tipper Gore accidentally buys Purple Rain for her 11-year-old daughter. As Frank Zappa points out in his memoir but not in his Senate testimony, Prince was already an extremely controversial musical artist whose sexually explicit lyrics had been the subject of protests and stuff for years. So the idea of just like I innocently bought Purple Rain. It's like, Purple Rain is an R-rated movie. If Tipper Gore had done any work at all, she easily could have found out that that was not appropriate for an 11-year-old.
Sarah: I don't know. It's interesting too, because like kids kind of know what they're bothered by, and adults can kind of figure that out by asking them. But there's no indication in this story that the daughter was disturbed. You could find lots of stories about kids being terrified in the media by what they encounter, but probably not a lot of it has Madonna lyrics. Because how scary can a Madonna song really be?
Mike: Exactly. He also brings up the sort of logistics of children getting this music. Because everything that's on the radio is already censored, right? Like the radio has a completely different set of standards. The only sort of explicit stuff that kids can really have access to is what they buy at a record store. And then it's like, well what 11-year-old has their own money to go into a record store by themselves?
Sarah: I mean, an 11-year-old could I think reasonably have the money for like one album. So if we're worried about the random rich kids who are able to go into a record store and buy work, these kids probably also have access to Quaaludes or whatever. So think about that.
I mean, what I feel like citizen Zappa is expressing is that like, this is not about I have no choice but to buy Sheena Easton records. But this idea that like, something is popular that I don't like, and that is bad, and I don't want it. And it's like, well, sorry.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. Frank Zappa also makes a point that I feel like has gotten overlooked in all of this. He's talking about this sort of specific rating system, they want, V for violence, et cetera, he doesn't put this in the best terms. What he says is, “The establishment of a rating system voluntarily or otherwise opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on things certain Christians do not like. What if the next group of Washington wives demands a large yellow “J” on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zioness doctrine”?
Sarah: And I know for material made by lasers, space lasers, of course.
Mike: I mean, you're never supposed to make Nazi references, we all know about Godwin's law, et cetera. But the Church of Satan is a real religion. There are people who identify as pagans.
Sarah: And Wiccans.
Mike: Yes. So if you have an “O” on a record, you're literally warning Americans that the content of a specific religion is contained on this album. Like, not a great road to go down as a country.
Sarah: That is a great point. Because then that's the American government having to come out and admit, like, we can't say ‘I love Satan’, because then actual Satan will grow stronger. And it's like, are we constructing our choices as a nation around what will or will not empower the literal Satan, who we all agree to believe in based on this?
Mike: Who walks among us. Yes. Frank Zappa also points out the real reason for the hearing. Do you want to hear this?
Mike: So the actual context for this hearing is that parallel to all of this music lyrics, bullshit, nonsense, the record companies are lobbying Congress for a blank tape tax. Which is exactly what it sounds like.
Sarah: Yeah, it's a tax on blank tapes.
Mike: So we have completely forgotten about this, but the entire movie and recording industry freaked out with the introduction of cassette players and VCRs. Because all of a sudden you could record movies from TV and you could record songs from the radio.
Sarah: But they didn't realize that the average American is either too lazy or too confused to program a VCR. That's how things went for 20 years.
Mike: So Universal Studios actually sued Sony over this. It was called the BetaMax case. So in 1984, the year before these hearings, the Supreme Court ruled that it was fine for TV broadcast, but we still didn't have a clear ruling on recording music. So at the time that this is happening, the House is debating bill HR2911, which would charge manufacturers of cassette players 1 cent per minute for blank cassettes. And, you know dual cassette tapes like boom boxes, it would have two and you could record from one tape to another. Those would have a 25% surcharge on top of them.
Sarah: Oh my God. This is shameless.
Mike: It's so shameless, dude. And the recording industry would have gotten $250 million a year from this tax. Four of the senators who are at the committee hearing are also on the committee that is working on the blank tape tax. There's no clear smoking gun, but it's very clear that the record companies were like, “Uh, we need all of these senators to do us a solid later in the year. Their wives are campaigning against us, so like, why don't we just cave to their wives and then come back to them and be like, Hey, uh, we helped you out with that whole wife thing, so could you help us out on this blank tape thing?”
Sarah: Wow. That's the perfect crime.
Mike: Yes. And one thing Frank Zappa points out is that Congress is considering doing something extremely unpopular, making cassette tapes much more expensive. And so what's a good way to distract the public from the very unpopular thing you're about to do that's going to be a giveaway to these massive already rich record companies? Have a hearing about porn rock. Talk about masturbating with a magazine.
I mean, you know, the PTA was lobbying on this beforehand and like, I don't think Tipper knew about it. I think it's much less conspiratorial than Frank Zappa says that it is.
Sarah: And because it's already kind of hard to interest people in issues around manufacturing, taxes, tariffs, copyright law, like these are all of the phrases that immediately bore people. Even if it affects their lives directly and they end up being bled dry.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. So next celebrity guest, do you know who this is?
Sarah: Bette Midler.
Mike: Uh, actually not super far off. So testimony from Frank Zappa and later we'll have Dee Snider, the lead singer of Twisted Sister. And in between we have John Denver.
Sarah: What? Why? I feel like this would be someone who, like Tipper Gore, is the least interested in censoring of almost anyone.
Mike: Exactly. So I think they did this strategically because they have like two rockers. They have Frank Zappa and they have Dee Snider. And in between they wanted somebody who's like one of the good artists.
Sarah: A guy with normal hair.
Mike: Yeah. And who’s going to be like, “I, too, am really sick of this heavy metal stuff. I have kids. I am disgusted by all of this, too.” Like, they wanted both sides.
Sarah: I am indifferent to rock as well. But not like that.
Mike: To give you a sense of how loved John Denver was at the time, John Denver couldn't stay for the entire hearing because right after his testimony he had to go to NASA to interview to be the first musician in space. So here is a clip of his testimony.
Sarah: Good looking guy. Good looking guy. Three, two, one, go.
*video clip plays* “I'm here to address the issue of a possible rating system in the recording industry. Labeling records where excesses of explicit sex and graphic violence have occurred, and furthermore references to drugs and alcohol or the occult are included in the lyrics. These hearings have been called to determine whether or not the government should intervene to enforce this practice. Mr. Chairman, this would approach censorship. May I be very clear that I'm strongly opposed to censorship of any kind, in our society or anywhere else in the world. I've had in my experience two encounters with a sort of censorship. My song, Rocky Mountain High, was banned from many radio stations as a drug-related song. This was obviously done by people who've never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains, and also had never experienced the elation, the celebration of life, or the joy in living that one feels when he observed something as wondrous as the perceived meteor shower on a moonless and cloudless night, when there are so many stars that you have a shadow from the starlight. And you're out camping with your friends, your best friends, and introducing them to one of nature's most spectacular light shows for the very first time. Obviously, a clear case of misinterpretation. Mr. Chairman, what assurance have I that any national panel to review my music make any better judgement?”
Sarah: Oh, I love how he's blaming ignorance of Colorado. He’s like, I know what you need, a little mind vacation.
Mike: Isn't that lovely?
Sarah: Oh, I love that. I really loved that now. I love Denver. I got it.
Mike: You know my thing that I get the most moved when someone is given the opportunity to be pitted against somebody else and they don't take it.
Sarah: Yeah. Hey sweetie, guess what, bad news your boyfriend is cheating on you with me.
Mike: Yes! Like this makes my heart so full. And so it's very clear that they invited John Denver on to talk shit on heavy metal and he just didn't take them up on it. And he's like, “Nope, that's a form of creative expression.” He literally compares this effort to the Nazis at one point.
Sarah: I think what they don't realize is that John Denver was Dee Snider 15 years ago. He had longer than collar length hair and he sang about feelings. And I also, I guess, really love that he goes on for so long with this little tangent about camping. And he could have just been like, “Obviously they had never been to the Rocky Mountains”, and he could have just continued. But he was like, “Let me tell you.”
You look at these people sitting in this crowded, like relatively small room, and you're just like, thank you, John Denver. It feels like he's offering everyone's fevered brain a little sip of water.
Mike: He's such a glorious normy. He ends his testimony with, “We can end hunger. We can rid the world of nuclear weapons. We can learn to live together as human beings on a planet that travels through the universe, living the example of peace and harmony among all people.”
Sarah: Probably not on the PMRC hearings though.
Mike: Probably not today, but it's a nice thought for him to end with. It's like, okay.
Sarah: It is really great. Yeah. He's sort of coming up and being like, “Listen, you hired John Denver, and you are getting John Denver.”
Mike: I also love that, so both Frank Zappa and Dee Snider say in their memoirs that they had no idea what John Denver was going to say. So they are backstage at this hearing, like jumping up and down and hugging like, “Yes, Denver coming through!”
Sarah: Oh, what if after this they had formed this like a Traveling Wilburys like supergroup, Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver.
Mike: Okay. So now we're gonna watch the opposite of the John Denver testimony. So we're gonna watch a bunch of clips from the Dee Snider testimony, because his is the longest and potentially most interesting. But I feel like we have to just watch his entrance because it's incredible. He says in his memoir that the reason why he didn't wear a suit wasn't as some sort of statement, it's because he literally didn't own a suit.
Sarah: And then if you buy one special for this, then it's like they’re winning. Okay. Three, two, one, go. Oh yeah. Dee fucking Snider. Oh my God. I know he didn't own a suit, but he probably did own something more professional than like a tank and a denim vest. Ah, no worries, he’s taking off the denim vest. He is just poured into this outfit. He's like, he's a big guy and he is just, you know, he is just very tight everything.
Mike: He looks great.
Sarah: He does.
Mike: Also the logistics of having hair that long. I just feel like it must get caught in doors all the time.
*video clip plays* “I don't know if it's morning or afternoon, but I'll say both. Good morning and good afternoon. My name is Dee Snider. That's S N I D E R. I’d like to tell the committee a little bit about myself. I'm 30 years old. I'm married. I have a three-year-old son. I was born and raised a Christian, and I still adhere to those principles.
Believe it or not, I do not drink, I do not smoke, and I do not do drugs. I do play and write the songs for a rock and roll band named Twisted Sister, that is classified as heavy metal. And I pride myself on writing songs that are consistent with my above-mentioned beliefs.”
Mike: So, are you familiar with a song called “Under the Blade” by Twisted Sister? Much of his testimony is about this song because it's one of Tipper’s favorites. So, okay, I'm gonna send you a link. Do you want to read some of it?
Sarah: I sure do. Okay. “Under the blade, a glint of steel, a flash of light, you know you're not going home tonight. Be it jack or switch, doctors or mind, nowhere to run. Everywhere you'll find you can't escape from the bed you've made when your time has come. You'll accept the blade. You're cornered in the alleyway. You know, you're not alone. You know it's going to end this way. The chill goes to the bone. Now here it comes that glistening light. It goes into your side. The blackness comes tonight, the night. The blade is gonna ride.”
It's funny how, like, even, you know, the most like allegedly menacing songs, when he just read the lyrics with no music, they all sound like Longfellow, basically.
Mike: So what is, what does that say to you? Like, what do you think the song is about?
Sarah: I don't know. Like, is it about mugging someone, maybe?
Mike: So to Tipper, this is a song about sadomasochism, like BDSM. I definitely didn't get that. I mean, if you want to find it, you can find it. But like, there's stuff in there about a bright light is in your eyes and your hands are strapped. And like, I don't think a bright light is like a BDSM thing.
Sarah: Right. So that's like an interrogation thing, is what that makes me think of. “You're cornered in the alleyway, you know, you're not alone.” I mean, I guess feel like, yeah. I am not part of that scene, but I don't feel like people corner each other in alleyways that much has a submissive or a bondage thing.
Mike: So the thing that D Snider says in his testimony that gets him super-duper shouted at is he says, As the creator of Under the Blade, I can say categorically that the only sadomasochism, bondage, and rape in the song is in the mind of Ms. Gore.” People freak out.
Sarah: Well, if you didn't write it, you're allowed to say that you didn’t write it. Seriously. Like if I write a novel and then there's like a Senate hearing that's like, “Ms. Marshall is trying to tell America's youths to do this thing”. And you know, I have the right to be like, “Excuse me, art is based on interpretation and you can get a message out of a piece of art that the author didn't put there.” And like, that's kind of a universally accepted concept. Like he can put it more delicately, but like why bother?
Mike: Yes! I keep thinking about the thing in Parks and Recreation, where Rashida Jones goes to speed dating. And she's like trying to ask how it works. And the lady is like, “Are you asking me how to flirt with men?” Like this is, “Are you asking me how to listen to music?” You can't just say to somebody like your song is about this.
Sarah: A lot of people think you can though.
Mike: I guess so. So, okay. We are going to watch Al Gore skillfully interrogate Dee Snider about the real meaning of this song.
Sarah: Nice. Oh my God. I feel like this is a dream I’ve had. God, really? This is amazing.
Mike: Okay. Here it comes.
*video clip plays* “I'm aware that Frank Zappa and John Denver cover quite a spectrum and I do enjoy them both. I am not, however, a fan of Twisted Sister and I will readily say that. Mr. Snider, what is the name of your fan club?
The fan club is called the SMF Friends of Twisted Sister.
And what does SMF stand for when it's just spelled out? It stands for the “sick motherfucking friends of Twisted Sister”.
Is this also a Christian group?
I don't believe that profanity has anything to do with Christianity. And sir, you say your song, “Under the Blade” is about surgery. Have you ever had a surgery with your hands tied and your legs strapped?
The song was written about my guitar player, Eddie Ojeyda. He was having polyps removed from his throat and he was very fearful of this operation. And I said, “Eddie, while you're in the hospital, I'm going to write a song for you”. I said it was about the fear of operations. I think people imagine being helpless on a table, a bright light in their face, the blade coming down on them and having them totally afraid that they may wake up, who knows, dead, handicapped. There's a certain fear of hospitals. That's what that's in my imagination, what I see the hospital's like.
Is there a reference to the hospital in the song? No, there isn't, but there isn't a reference to a woman, sadomasochism, or bond.. oh, bondage, yes.
You raised a reference to someone whose hands are tied down and whose legs are strapped down. And he said going under the blade to be cut.
Yes, there is.
All right. So it's not really a wild leap of the imagination to jump to the conclusion that that's about something other than surgery or hospitals, that neither of which are mentioned in the song?
No, it's not a wild jump. And I think what I said at one point was that songs allow a person to put their own imagination, experiences, and dreams, into the lyrics. People can interpret it many ways. Ms. Gore was looking for sadomasochism and bondage and she found it. Someone looking for surgical references would have found that as well.
Sarah: Boy, how did this man fail to capture the love of the electorate? I'll never understand it.
Sarah: That's the sweetest thing I've ever heard. He wrote a song about his bandmate’s polyps.
Mike: I know. I would also say Al Gore is like, “Is there a reference to a hospital in there?” It's like, really dude, does a song have to have a reference to a hospital to be about doctors? Sarah: And also it says the word doctor in it. I love how Dee Snider's just like, “Well, Senator Gore, this is what songs are.” And then Al Gore’s like, “Oh right. Yeah, that's true.” Oh, my God.
Mike: I also feel like if it was written as a BDSM song, I feel like there would have been like two verses about consent and safe words. Nobody takes that shit more seriously than fetishists.
Sarah: And it would have been wildly beloved by BDSM people because there's like never enough media about them, and when it is it's about Madonna putting wax on. I feel like music is being represented by people who are like being very sharp and also very human. Kind of representing like, this is why we need music in the world.
Mike: Okay, we have one more clip. This is another attempted roasting of Dee Snider.
Sarah: I’m so excited.
Mike: This is Senator Rockefeller reacting to Dee Snider saying that, you know, the rape is in the mind of Tipper Gore or whatever.
*video clip plays* “The vehemence with which you attacked Senator Gore’s wife, I detected sort of a defensiveness somehow on your part, as sort of the lack of unsureness of where you stand in this. Why was it, why did you feel it necessary to attribute some of the qualities to her that you did? Why was that important to your testimony?
First of all, I wasn't attacking Senator Gore's wife. I was attacking a member of the PMRC. Okay.
You said Senator Gore's wife by name.
Her name is Tipper Gore, isn't it?
Okay. I didn't say the Senator’s wife, I said Tipper Gore.”
Sarah: That was great.
Mike: He's a very good representative for this.
Sarah: Yeah. And also like having, I mean, all of us have spent a lot of time I think in the last couple of years, probably more so than before, watching and hearing people being grilled and giving exactly this kind of testimony. And most people who actually work in government for a living, like 90% of them, I would say do much worse than Dee Snider who theoretically is not trained for this at all.
Mike: Yes! He only found out about this hearing like days in advance.
Sarah: That's amazing.
Mike: I also think it's so telling that the Senator is like, how dare you attack his wife? And then Dee Snider’s like, “Ah, this is a head of a lobbying organization.”
Sarah: Dee Snider reveals that he's capable of understanding her as like operating here in a professional capacity.
Mike: Yes. And if we're not here because of Al Gore's wife, why are we here, dude? She has entered a public debate about an issue of national import. It's okay to criticize her ideas. Like it's weird to then hide behind, “You were mean to my wife”.
Sarah: You were mean to someone's wife.
Mike: She's a head of an organization.
Sarah: And she's the wife. And it's also like that it's insulting to Al Gore, right? Like even if you're not taking her ideas seriously, you're like, “Hey, don't say that about Al Gore’s wife!”
Mike: So after the rockstars, we have some other boring stuff. Like the head of the PTA shows up, the head of the recording industry shows up. I'm skipping them all because they're just boilerplate and they don't really say anything interesting.
But at the end of the day, they bring on two expert witnesses who are like some of the most atrocious congressional testimony I've ever seen. And like, I've seen some congressional testimony.
So the first person that goes is somebody named Dr. Joe Stussi, who's a professor of rock and roll history. Which sounds like, okay, he's going to give us some historical context. This is the fucking quote, “Today's heavy metal music is categorically different from previous forms of popular music. It contains the element of hatred, a meanness of spirit. Its principal themes are extreme violence, extreme rebellion, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and perversion, and Satanism. I know personally of no form of popular music before which has had as one of its central elements, the element of hatred.” This was in Congress.
Sarah: Define hatred.
Mike: He also, the only other thing about his demented testimony that I'll mention, is that he brings up as it's a real, subliminal messages. So he says, “There's all these satanic messages in the songs, sometimes sub audible tracks are mixed in underneath other louder tracks. These are heard by the subconscious mind, but not the conscious mind. Sometimes the messages are audible, but are backwards, called backmasking. There is disagreement among experts regarding the effectiveness of subliminals. We need more research on that.” Nevertheless, there's no evidence that this is true. But anyway, I'm just gonna read it into the record at a Congressional hearing.
Sarah: This is what led me to want to start doing the show in the first place. You know, my horror from childhood that like, there's a lot of things that just have persisted as ideas people have just because self-proclaimed experts have gotten up in public and confidently sworn to the existence of something that they have no ability to swear to the existence of. Mike: They’re just saying stuff. People come up and say stuff, and then he writes it down. And we're like, “Oh, it's written down. It must be real stuff.” Like, no.
Sarah: Yeah. And backmasking is, you know, it's a whole element of the satanic panic, too. Like one of the things that you can actually hear if you play Stairway to Heaven backwards is you can hear the phrase, “Here's to my sweet Satan”. Which is just like, I don't know. That song has a lot of words in it. It feels like it's kind of difficult. So like if you're trying to do a really good song, because that’s what that is, it seems like it's adding another extraneous element of difficulty to add a backwards message about Satan that no one's brain is capable of picking up. And even if Led Zeppelin did that and believed that, that still doesn't mean that it's capable of influencing anyone. And even if it did, they're just going to have the idea, “here's to my sweet Satan” in their heads.
Mike: Also if this worked, wouldn't we all be doing whatever Missy Elliot was saying in that song where she talks backward in the chorus?
Sarah: I wish we were doing whatever she was telling us to do.
Mike: So, second expert, somebody named Dr. Paul King, who is a child psychologist who treats children with drug problems. One of his quotes, you're going to think that I'm making this up, “Young people in our treatment program recovering from drug problems, we do ask them to give up heavy metal for at least a year. So they're not, again, overtaken by feelings of resentment, hate, and the urge to party.” That's a real quote.
Sarah: I can't believe that. I can't believe that.
Mike: It's like the dialogue for like the cartoon evil dad in the Twisted Sister video.
Sarah: Yes. That is funnier than any attempted parody of this could be, too. This is why, you know, you realize that a lot of the good SNL sketches are people just sort of repeating the news. But also, it's just so funny that someone who works with youths is like, “The urge to party comes externally into the child, and it comes from the records they're listening to.” And it's like, I really think that heavy metal, like disco, the point is not the content so much as like the place of emotional release that you get to. Which Dee Snider talked about. And I mean, if you want measured fact-based testimony, you call Dee Snider. Okay. If you want someone to get up there and just wing it, you call an expert witness.
Mike: That's a very good way of putting it. So okay, I got kind of obsessed with this question and I went down like a little bit of a research rabbit hole. Because the fundamental question at the heart of these episodes, and this hearing, and this moral panic is, does music affect kids.
So I tried to look into this and there's a sort of a miniature little “you're wrong about”, with a two-layer debunking.
Sarah: You should work at Shape.
Mike: The first layer is that Tipper Gore is actually right about heavy metal. There is research, very consistent research, finding that kids who listen to heavy metal have higher rates of depression and like higher rates of aggressiveness.
Sarah: Well yeah, but can we say that the heavy metal is causing these things?
Mike: Well this is the thing. It's a very consistent correlation. There's been a couple of attempts to find causality. So there's one study where they took sort of like a random sample of people. And then half of them they played classical music for, and then the other half they played heavy metal music for. And they would give them these sort of personality tests. And the kids who heard heavy metal were like higher in aggressiveness and had worse ideas about gender after listening to heavy metal regularly.
Sarah: You know, this is music that I think is appealing if you have like some anger to deal with. You know, which all of us do to some extent. And if you just want to sort of be in your angry place or in your place of aggression or release of those things, then like, yeah, I do think it's that music is going to help you be in that place.
Mike: Yeah. There is a real thing called the ‘amplification effect’ where if you're feeling sad and then you listen to sad music to try to sort of alleviate your sadness. Like oftentimes people use the emotional content of music after they're feeling the emotion. It doesn't cause the emotion. Right? Like you listen to angry music when you're already angry. And then afterwards you feel like you've had this vicarious thrill.
Sarah: Yeah. The blues, famously, are not a cause of sadness.
Mike: But among certain kids that can actually amplify the feeling and keep them from getting out of it, and can actually be a way of sort of celebrating these negative emotions. You can use music and other forms of entertainment to sort of fester a little bit.
Sarah: Or you can find lyrics that validate this worldview or that expand upon it. Yeah.
Mike: But then it's very interesting about this, is that Tipper Gore is right about heavy metal and other forms of music that are sort of “aggressive”. But she's wrong, dead wrong, about lyrics.
So one of the most interesting things about that study where they compared classical music to heavy metal. They didn't just compare classical music to heavy metal, they compared classical music to normal heavy metal, to Christian heavy metal, which has like super normy lyrics. It's like growling about the Bible. And the same thing happened. The kids got more aggressive, they had worse ideas about..
Sarah: Yeah. And the Bible famously has great ideas about gender.
Mike: I know it's weird. But so this is kind of obvious, but the way that music affects you is how it feels. It's not about the explicit lyrics of the songs.
So one of the really interesting musicology articles that I read said that one of the most dangerous songs for this sort of amplification effect is something like, “All by Myself”, or “Everybody Hurts”. These songs that are about breakups, that are about romantic rejection, which is the number one precipitating cause of suicide, especially for teenagers. That it's a way of just feeling like no one's ever going to love me again, I'm ugly, I'm not worth loving. These are ideas that people really wallow in.
Sarah: “When I was young, I never needed anyone”.
Mike: Yes. But these songs can sort of feed into people's existing predispositions to depression or predispositions to catastrophize something that's happening to them. But, none of those songs contain “you should kill yourself” lyrics. And also, if you believe in this effect, right, like if you think that this is the way that music affects us, then you have to ban all of the sad songs. You have to ban all of the heavy metal regardless of its actual content, which is deranged.
Sarah: And then you're gonna stand up in the musical world of, you know, the patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which famously was great for them. And also like, it's not even a new music thing. Because like from the time that we have been able to record music on discs, we have been recording things to make us feel sad, or to allow us to sort of dig deeper into feeling sad. It's complicated because we're getting technology involved. But I think that like feeling sad as a human right.
Mike: And also, writing a song about a bad breakup and how you felt afterwards is also a human right. Like, All by Myself is a jam. That's a great song. Like, I'm not comfortable banning probably the majority of music, like has the potential to make someone sad.
Sarah: I mean, we have to throw away all Aimee Mann at that point. And like, I don't want to live in a world, if Aimee Mann is wrong then I don't want to be right.
Mike: It's just weird that it's like Tipper never thought through the implications of the work that she is doing. That if she actually believes what she's saying that it’s causing teen pregnancy, and causing violence, it's causing sad moods, et cetera. Then it's like, Tipper, we got to shut down all of the music.
Sarah: Yeah. And just, and I feel as if that comes down to this place of like, “Well, you know, yes, that's true, but we're going to go ahead and try and restrict heavy metal because I don't like it.”
Mike: Yes. I also think that so many of our political beliefs are just trying to backfill our aesthetic judgments. If you listen to a Venom song or Motley Crue song and you're like, “This fucking sucks”, and then you have to build this whole worldview about like, no, it doesn't just suck because that's my preference for music. It's, “Oh, it's bad for the kids and it’s bad lyrics. And it's harming everybody and it's demonic.” And it's like, no, you just don't like it. It's fine.
Sarah: Yeah. And like newsflash, your kids don't like your stupid music, but you don't see them trying to get it banned.
Mike: The other nail in the coffin of Tipper’s argument about how music lyrics are bad, is there's actually very comprehensive literature that indicates that no one listens to the lyrics of songs. So there's a really good study from 1984 where they ask kids about their favorite song, like name your three favorite songs. 37% of the kids could not say what their favorite song is about. People don't know what people are saying in music.
Sarah: The only reason I know what my favorite songs are about is because they're all about being cheated on by Lindsey Buckingham.
Mike: There's a really good part of the article where they're talking about sort of asking kids, like, “What is your, what is your song about?” And all of them just repeat the title of it. So they're like, “What is Like a Virgin about?” And the kids were like, “It's about a Virgin.” Like, uh, okay. They asked the kids what Stairway to Heaven is about. And one of them says, “It's about going to heaven through a stairway and the stairway has problems along the way.”
Sarah: And that's why the song is so long, because if it were a functioning stairway, it would be short.
Mike: And to be fair, I have no idea what that song was about. Maybe it's about that.
Sarah: It's about a bustle in the hedgerow.
Mike: There's actually interviews from the eighties where they asked kids about Satanism, like kids' views on Satanism and kids views on heavy metal. The kids are saying much more sophisticated things about Satanism than any of the adults are, where the kids are like, “Well, it's obviously an affectation. Part of it is to sell records. And what they're really talking about is a connection with sort of like the other worldly and the occult and sort of like the afterlife. They're not really talking literally about Satan. And so I'm not taking that meaning from the song.” It's like, can some adults please repeat some of this?
Sarah: Yeah. I think the problem with the way that adults speculate about teenagers is that I think adults really tend to project all the elements of themselves that they remember from when they were young and all the things that make them cringe about who they used to be and who they still are. And they just like, they don't see the teenager, they see just this ball of their own insecurities and they just assume they're talking about someone who's like really dumb and not thoughtful and just has nothing going on mentally. And really like, the kids are obviously most of the time better at talking about their own lives because they're the ones living them, and they are human beings.
Mike: So are you ready for the aftermath?
Sarah: Yeah, I am.
Mike: This is the epilogue.
Sarah: I'm feeling epiloguey.
Mike: Six weeks after the hearing the record industry basically caves. And in exchange for Tipper Gore holding off on any more press for one year, the record industry agrees to those silly little stickers that we all saw on albums in the 1990s.
Sarah: And then we all ignore them forever.
Mike: Well, this is what's very interesting. Between 1986 and 1989, only 49 albums get them.
Sarah: Oh, really?
Mike: Yeah. Because every record company has a different standard for them. So like Bruce Springsteen gets one for one of his albums. The Captain and Tennille get one.
Mike: The first album famously that comes out with an explicit warning sticker is by Serge Gainsbourg, and all of the lyrics are in French.
Sarah: I mean, that does make sense though. He wrote really filthy stuff.
Mike: There's this weird period where like, nobody is taking it seriously. But at the same time, what starts happening is exactly what Frank Zappa and everybody else predicted would happen. So States start passing laws that kids have to show ID to buy records with the warning label on the. And huge record chains, so famously Walmart, says that it won't sell any record with the sticker on it.
This was the whole thing that Tipper Gore refused to reckon with during her entire campaign. I've seen a bunch of interviews with her where people ask her about this. Like, “Well, aren't you afraid that once you start labeling records, massive stores will stop selling them?” And she's like, “Oh, well, we're not interested in that. All we're concerned about is we just want there to be information for parents.”
Sarah: Really interesting idea, not any of its implications or consequences.
Mike: Yes. There's also a bunch of efforts. Like this starts in San Antonio, but a bunch of other cities pass straight forward censorship laws against live shows. Tipper even mentioned this in her book and she's like, “Oh, well, that doesn't count as censorship because it's not federal.”
Sarah: Okay. No one said it had to be federal, Tipper.
Mike: And so the way that we get these like much more widespread stickers on everything, is because States start proposing laws that will criminalize any store that sells explicit records to kids.
South Carolina passes a law that establishes a $1.00 tax on any explicit album. And so after these laws passed the legislature, the PMRC to its credit, steps in and convinces the governors to veto these laws.
Mike: Tipper Gore actually sees like, this is off the rails now, this is not what we intended. And so she shows up at these legislative hearings and says like, “No, no, you should not be doing this. This is too far. This is not what we intended.”
Mike: She actually kind of tries to clean up the mess.
Sarah: Which people don't typically do. Like, I really like that.
Mike: But so the record industry basically says, “Okay, we're now going to start taking this seriously and actually labeling a much larger percentage of music.”
Sarah: Stop all the downloading.
Mike: This is also how we get the law in Florida under which the 2 Live Crew obscenity case.
Sarah: Oh, are we going to have an episode about that too?
Mike: Absolutely. Tipper is conspicuously absent from the gangster rap controversy of the 1990s. The reason turns out to be in 1988 Al Gore runs for president in the primary. He doesn't make it, but he's sort of now a presidential contender. And so apparently him and Tipper go to Hollywood to get money from big entertainment rich people who are going to fund their campaign. And nobody wants to give them donations because she led this big crusade.
Sarah: Who would have foreseen that?
Mike: Exactly. So the sort of conspiracy theory explanation of this is the reason why Tipper dropped all of this and quietly resigned from the PMRC, is that this just wasn't palatable to her husband's political ambitions.
Sarah: I feel like this is something that initially made sense as something for her to pursue, because it seemed politically safe enough for a senator's wife. So it's interesting that choosing the mathematically most safe thing turned out being something really alienating and damaging.
Mike: A big reason is just that it became so associated with the religious right, eventually. I think that it sort of wasn't in 1985 when she took it up, but it got so bad and there were so many freakouts about this led by like the worst people, that it's like, “Oh, who's this democratic lady who basically started all of this?”
Sarah: It’s like, “She's the one who bought the mogwai and got it wet?”
Mike: There's also a weird thing where it looks bad for Al Gore that like his wife did stuff. This is a line from The New Republic in the early nineties, “Having a wife who has made herself the surgeon general of rock and roll makes Al Gore a faintly ridiculous figure. In some subtle and no doubt deplorable way, it unmans him.”
So it's seen as emasculating that he had an ambitious wife. She's kept off the campaign trail in ‘92. Like she never really recovered from this.
Sarah: We always talk about how everyone hated Hillary, but we never talk about how everyone hated Tipper Gore. And it's funny because on the one hand, Hillary Clinton, to my knowledge, never waged a facile culture war against Prince. I don't know. Maybe if the public hadn't been so poisonously obsessed with either of them or the role they played, they could have done less ridiculous and highly scrutinized things, and everyone would have been happier.
Mike: That’s the thing, I fundamentally disagree with what she did, and I think that the book is bad. And I think that this had measurable negative effects on the country. But also it does seem weird that like other people have done much worse things and are still around.
Sarah: I just can't get over the fact that she was given this very strict, small space within which it was considered appropriate and non-emasculating for her to try and work politically. And she actually did that. And then that still was too much.
Mike: What's interesting to me is, in a lot of the historiography around the PMRC, it's seen as sort of a joke, right? It's all these Washington wives, they're using their Rolodexes, but it was an extremely effective political campaign. They got exactly what they wanted.
Sarah: Too effective, clearly.
Mike: Yes. In less than six months they completely transformed the way the record industry worked and the way that we regulated music. Like they opened a door to a completely different way of legislating around artistic expression.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean it really shows that if you stop women from playing real roles in society, we'll use all our pent up energy to do something kind of unnecessary and weird.
Mike: That's a pretty good lesson. So that's it. That was Tipper. That was porn rock.
Sarah: Alright. Well, gee Tipper. I guess I wish she could have done something less silly, which I feel is if you would have preferred yourself.
Mike: Yes. And you know, all the stuff that she does now is like homelessness and mental illness and stuff.
Sarah: And no one gives a shit.
Mike: I know, nobody notices anymore.
Sarah: Well, I guess I learned that Dee Snider is very good at whatever skill set you need to give testimony before the Senate. And I am a better person for knowing that.
Mike: The only thing that I learned is that the Rocky Mountains are beautiful this time of year. We should go camping.