ZAPPING THE THREAT OF CENSORSHIP
The weirdest pop music trio since Alvin and the Chipmunks took center stage on Capitol Hill Thursday, berating the Senate Commerce Committee for even daring to hold its daylong dissection of alleged pornography in rock music.
Singer/songwriters Frank Zappa, John Denver and Dee Snider all spoke out against the censorship threat that they believed such hearings posed, even though the chairman, Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), repeatedly assured them that his committee was not considering any legislation. The hearing was simply an opportunity to “talk about it and ventilate our concerns,” he said.
The 5-month-old Parents Music Resource Center, which launched the current tempest over sex, violence and satanism in rock music, drove home its point early in the hearings with its own trio.
Following a showing of music videos that the organization offered as examples of what it considers too much sex (“Hot for Teacher” by Van Halen) and violence (“We’re Not Going to Take It Anymore” by Snider’s group, Twisted Sister), Susan Baker, co-founder of the Parents Music Resource Center and wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker, told the panel:
“We’ve come a long way from ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ to ‘I’m going to make you eat me at gunpoint.’ ”
Tipper Gore, whose husband, Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.), is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, presented a slide show of sadomasochistic, bondage and demonic album-cover art. And Resource Center spokesman Jeff Ling, a theologian and ex-rock musician, followed up with explicit readings from the works of such rock groups as Impaler, WASP, Motley Crue, Avatar and AC/DC.
“One of their fans, I’m sure you know, is the accused Night Stalker,” Ling told the panel, referring to California’s serial murder suspect Richard Ramirez.
A well-groomed, distinguished-looking Zappa immediately attacked the Resource Center’s initial call for an album rating system akin to the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s X, R, PG-13 and PG movie-rating system. Accusing the three Resource Center spokesmen of overreacting to a handful of mostly obscure rock musicians, he called their rating demands “the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.”
Looking more like a stockbroker than the former leader of the Mothers of Invention, Zappa criticized the stated intentions of at least two committee members to go ahead and propose restrictions on rock music lyrics, regardless of Danforth’s assurance to the contrary. Sens. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and James Exon (D-Neb.) did not back down from the threat during some lively sparring with Zappa.
“The whole drift that I have gotten based on the media blitz that has attended the PMRC and its rise to infamy is that they have a special plan and it has smelled like legislation up until now,” Zappa said. “There are too many things that look like hidden agendas involved with this.”
Exon said he would support a ban on pornographic lyrics if the recording industry did not “clean up your act,” he told Zappa.
“I’ve never heard your music,” Exon said. “I’ve heard of Glen Miller and Mitch Miller, but not you,” he said.
“I took lessons in grade school from Mitch Miller’s brother,” Zappa fired back.
“Well, that’s the first sign of hope,” Exon answered, amid laughter from the packed hearing room in the Russell Senate Office Building.
Zappa said he would support the printing of lyrics and the insertion of those lyrics in all albums so that parents could read them before their children played the records--but only, he added, if it were done at government expense.
John Denver, whose music even Exon and Hollings applauded as wholesome, used two personal experiences as examples of how far censorship can go.
When his song “Rocky Mountain High” first hit the charts, he said, it was banned on several stations because it was believed it might refer to drug use. And some newspapers refused to carry advertisements for the movie “Oh, God!,” in which he co-starred with George Burns, because it was believed to be blasphemous, he said.
Even lewd and violent material should not be banned, Denver said. “That which is denied becomes desired. That which is hidden becomes interesting,” he warned.
But the star of this unlikely pop music trinity had to have been Snider, the 30-year-old, frizzy-maned lead singer of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister. Amid applause and wolf whistles, Snider arrived decked out in a sleeveless black T-shirt, tight black trousers and a chrome belt. His gaunt and sallow face was not made up in rouge and powder, as it is when he is on stage, but his bleached and wiry trademark hair obviously stunned several members of the panel.
Nonetheless, he was very nearly as eloquent as Zappa, arguing for a “satisfaction guaranteed” approach to handling pornographic records. Snider’s proffered solution would ask record companies and retailers simply to refund the money of any purchaser who took his record home, played it and found that he or she did not like the lyrics.
Like Denver and Zappa, Snider cited his role as a married, moral parent of a pre-teen youngster before speaking out in his role as a rock star. Zappa is a father of four, Denver has two adopted children and Snider also is the father of a 3-year-old son.
“I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs,” he said, adding that he is also a Christian and a feminist.
Snider lamented the communication gap between his brand of music, which appeals to teens, and that of most of the committee members. The video “We’re Not Going to Take It Anymore”, which the Parents Music Resource Center objects to because it shows a boy blowing his overbearing father out of his room with a rock guitar riff, is simply a teen-ager’s fantasy, Snider said.
“It’s a cartoon based on the Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote theme,” he said. For his part, Stan Gortikov, president of the Recording Industry of America Assn., stuck to the one concession that his organization made to the Resource Center a week ago: a warning label on albums with potentially objectionable lyrics that reads “Parental Guidance--Explicit Lyrics.”
Beyond that, he rejected any and all other proposals that have been made in connection with the Parents Music Resource Center drive, including required lyric print sheets in all albums, suggestions to retailers that they warn buyers away from some albums, requiring record companies to send lyric sheets to radio programmers and the institution of an MPAA-type rating system.
The RIAA is the lobbying organization that represents most of the major record companies.
The Musical Majority, a recording industry group separate from the RIAA, joined with the American Civil Liberties Union last week in its own move to counter the Resource Center, but it was not represented at Thursday’s hearing.