Industry Threatened : ‘Porn Rock’: The Sound Draws Fury
On an October weekend in 1983, a 30-year-old junior executive for a Cincinnati machine tool company stopped in at the local record store to pick up “1999,” the latest record album by Prince, the self-proclaimed “bad boy of rock and roll.”
When Rick Alley put his favorite song, “Little Red Corvette,” on the family stereo, there was no hint that he was about to start a snowball rolling that would end up as an avalanche of criticism, threatening the $4-billion-a-year recording industry.
“The whole one side of the album had what you would call Top 40 hits,” Alley says. “We didn’t get to the four-letter words until I turned it over.”
It wasn’t until he played the flip-side song “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” that Alley and his wife, Mitzi, became alarmed. Before the couple could hustle their 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son out of the room, Prince’s impassioned four-letter invitation to simulate marriage came out loud and clear, again and again, over the speaker system.
Later, when the Alleys re-read the lyrics on the album sleeve, they found that Prince’s blunt suggestion on “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” had been expurgated from the printed lyrics.
At that point, the Alleys began their crusade against “porn rock.”
Alley acknowledges that what started as a simple request for accurate printed song lyrics finally mushroomed out of control this summer. Everyone from John Denver and President Reagan to the Rev. Jerry Falwell and motion picture director Martin Scorsese has interjected opinions into the controversy.
Pop stars usually as different in their life styles and credos as Donnie Osmond and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider agree on this issue. Like dozens of other recording artists, they have joined the American Civil Liberties Union in decrying the possibility of any kind of legislation regulating lyric content as a direct violation of First Amendment rights.
But the national Parent-Teachers Assn., which took up the Alleys’ crusade more than a year ago, says parents have some rights too--specifically, the right to protect their youngsters from profanity in an era of flagging innocence.
This summer, the 5.6-million-member PTA joined forces with a fledgling lobbying effort in Washington, D.C., known as the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC). Nowadays, the two organizations maintain, lyrics openly glorify everything from Mephistopheles and masturbation to flatulence and four-letter words.
Together, the PTA and the PMRC have forced a showdown with the record industry.
At the National Press Club in Washington today, the two organizations are scheduled to make an announcement on the issue of “porn lyrics.” The press conference follows more than a month of negotiations between the hierarchies of the two groups and the Recording Industry Assn. of America over the labeling and/or rating of questionable pop albums.
Neither the PMRC nor the recording industry group would disclose what will be announced, outside of saying that they will jointly announce “a reasonable compromise” in the controversy.
Although the Alleys and the PTA have been fighting the battle for two years, they had made little headway until last spring. It was then that a coalition of 20 women married to influential Washington politicians formed the Parents’ Music Resource Center.
Almost immediately, the Alleys--along with the PTA and PMRC--found a strong ally in the National Assn. of Broadcasters.
In May, Edward O. Fritts, president of the broadcasters association, wrote letters to 4,500 commercial radio stations, implying that they risk their licenses if they broadcast songs with explicit lyrics.
Second Letter Written
He also wrote a second letter to each of the 45 record companies that release 90% of the nation’s albums. Fritts requested that they send lyrics to each radio station that receives promotional copies of records so that station programing executives might screen out any objectionable material before it hits the airwaves.
With the National Assn. of Broadcasters’ intervention, the issue of porn rock was at the top of every industry association agenda for the rest of the summer. Whenever the National Radio Broadcasters Assn., the National Assn. of Recording Merchandisers, the National Assn. of Broadcasters or any of a host of other national or regional organizations gathered for any sort of convention, the subject of censorship and porn rock occupied much of the proceedings.
The debate came to a head Sept. 19 when the Senate Commerce, Technology and Transportation Committee held a day of highly publicized hearings on pornographic song lyrics. During the hearings, senators heard arguments for and against rating or labeling records from pop singers Frank Zappa, John Denver and Dee Snider, as well as officials of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, Recording Industry Assn. of America, Parents’ Music Resource Center and the Parent-Teachers Assn.
No Legislation Produced
Although no legislation emerged from the session, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.)--ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee--reportedly has been considering the introduction of a kind of federal truth-in-advertising statute. The law would require record companies to print lyrics on the outside of an album or otherwise make lyrics available for public inspection so that consumers would know what kind of album they were buying.
“If we follow the logic of the Hollings proposal, the next thing we do is require all publishers to print the words of all books on the outside so customers know what they’re buying,” said Bob Merlis, corporate public relations director for Warner Bros., Prince’s record label.
“So we print ‘nigger’ on the cover of Huckleberry Finn to make sure people know what kind of book they’re taking home to their children. And, of course, all motion picture producers should be required to print their screenplays and distribute them to parents before they send their kids to a movie,” he added.
At least as important as the persistent First Amendment debate over porn rock is the potential economic impact of a consumer boycott.
James Bonk, executive vice president of Ohio-based Camelot Music, told his fellow retailers in a speech before the National Assn. of Recording Merchandisers last month in San Diego that shopping mall owners have begun including a clause in their leases that gives them the right to ask record shops to pull out merchandise that is “morally objectionable.”
In addition to boycott threats from the PTA and the PMRC, Falwell has added his voice to the outcry. Last month, he asked his Moral Majority followers to boycott pornographic rock and the sponsors of any radio or television broadcasts that play such music.
And, in the November issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, an article entitled “How Parents Can Stop Obscene Rock Songs” counsels parents to follow PMRC President Pam Howar’s advice by sending “a clear dollar-and-cents message to artists and recording companies. . . .”
Good Housekeeping suggested that parents send protest letters to such industry groups as the Recording Industry Assn. of America and the National Assn. of Broadcasters and listed their addresses at the end of the article. The day after the magazine went on sale two weeks ago, the record industry association began receiving parental protests.
Not Being Taken Lightly
With the recording industry reporting a 4% drop in sales for the first half of 1985 and the Christmas shopping season just around the corner, such protests and boycott threats are not being taken lightly by record retailers or manufacturers.
Alley says he had no idea that the four-letter words on his Prince album would incite the latest pitched battle over artistic freedom and the First Amendment. All he ever wanted was the right to know what his family was about to hear so that he could ask his pre-teen children to leave the room--just as he would if he were running an R-rated movie on the family videocassette recorder.
“I think he (Prince) is a fantastic artist,” Alley says. “I bought ‘Purple Rain’ too. He’s an incredible musician, and my wife and I are big fans, so you can’t say this is a vendetta.”
Following his initial shock after hearing “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” Alley took his grievances first to the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper, where he learned about other parents who had had similar surprises when they put Prince on the turntable.
Enquirer reporter Frank Weikel urged Alley to take his complaint to the PTA at Delshire Elementary School, which Alley’s children attended. Later, Weikel persuaded him to go to the national PTA, Alley says.
200 Million Records
At a national convention in Las Vegas during the summer of 1984, delegates applauded the Alleys and asked the PTA governing board to draft a resolution calling for accurate song lyrics to be printed on the 200 million record albums the recording industry ships to retailers each year.
“I think we took the approach that we were just pointing out to them that they had a problem and would they please police themselves,” Alley says.
The PTA passed the resolution, but it was all but ignored.
“All our pleas for like a year fell on deaf ears,” he says. “The Recording Industry Assn. of America was fairly unresponsive. We kept promoting what we wanted to see done, and it was, like, last May that we tried to organize a meeting with the RIAA in New York City. We sent letters to 100 recording company executives and got two responses--both from gospel or religious recording companies.”
Major recording companies made no policy changes. The record industry association virtually ignored the PTA resolution.
In fact, the PTA drive almost died of frustration until last June, when a group of 20 women signed and sent a three-paragraph letter to the record industry group.
Grant From Beach Boy
They called themselves the Parents’ Music Resource Center and set up headquarters at 300 Metropolitan Square in downtown Washington, D.C. Their seed money was a $5,000 grant from Beach Boy Mike Love’s nonprofit Love Foundation.
Love has refused to comment on why he made the initial grant, but the contributions and letters of support that have come in since the center first opened have rendered moot any answer he might have given.
The PMRC letter asked that the record industry association seek voluntary lyric curbs among its member companies. The 20 women suggested a rating system, similar to that of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which could warn parents that an album’s lyric content might include references to explicit sex, violence, the occult or drug and alcohol use.
Suddenly, Stanley Gortikov, president of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, became responsive, chiefly because 17 of those 20 women are married to some of the most powerful politicians in Washington. Six members are congressional wives. One, Susan Baker, is married to Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III. And half the original 20 PMRC members are married to 10% of the Senate.
Political Impact Seen
The sudden turnaround in the attitude of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, it now seems, was caused by the political impact that the PMRC might bring to bear on record companies’ pocketbooks.
“The ladies’ shame must be shared by the bosses at the major labels who, through the RIAA, chose to bargain away the rights of composers, performers and retailers in order to pass H. R. 2911, ‘the blank tape tax,’ ” testified musician and anti-PMRC activist Frank Zappa during the Sept. 19 Senate committee hearing.
The hearing was purely “informational,” said the committee chairman, Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo). Nonetheless, wives of five of the committee members--including Mrs. Danforth--signed the original PMRC letter to the president of the record industry association.
The House bill, which has languished in Congress for more than a year, would impose a premium of 5% to 25% on the price of all tape recorders and 1 cent per minute on all blank audio cassettes sold in the United States. An hourlong cassette would cost 60 cents more than it does now. The premiums would be pooled and returned to record manufacturers and music publishers.
The RIAA, which drafted the bill that Rep. Bruce A. Morrison (D-Conn.) is carrying as H. R. 2911, argues that the recording industry loses millions of dollars a year to pirates who copy albums and tapes without paying the $8.98 that an LP album normally costs in a retail outlet.
Zappa’s interpretation of the Morrison bill differs markedly from the RIAA’s. During the Senate hearing, he openly accused the record industry association and the PMRC of collusion in imposing “a private tax, levied by an industry on consumers for the benefit of a select group within that industry.”
By bowing to the PMRC on the issue of rating or labeling record-album content, Zappa said, Gortikov was securing the considerable pressure that “the Washington wives” might have on influencing their husbands to support the Morrison bill.
Gortikov, through RIAA spokeswoman Trish Heimers, has repeatedly refused to discuss the charges with reporters or to speak to the press at all while the porn rock controversy remains unresolved.
By August, the record industry association took the step of suggesting to its members that they attach a warning sticker to albums with potentially offensive lyrics--a practice that such RIAA members as CBS Records and Warner Bros. have used on comedy albums for years.
A sticker on a current Eddie Murphy album warns that its lyrics might offend some listeners. Warner Bros. has also attached the sticker to Richard Pryor albums (though there are still no parental-discretion warnings on Warners’ “1999" album).
Comedy Album Sticker
Even A&M; Records has placed such a sticker on its newly released Billy Crystal comedy album--an action that is especially curious because A&M; was one of nine labels that formally renounced Gortikov’s concessions to the PMRC a month ago.
A&M; joined MCA Records and seven smaller labels in refusing to endorse the warning stickers, following the lead of an eclectic, ad-hoc coalition of rock stars and music industry managers who call themselves the Musical Majority. Danny Goldberg, president of Gold Mountain Records and founder of the Musical Majority, said stickers are the first step toward censorship.
“I don’t pretend to speak for all the artists or companies,” Goldberg said, “but I think I am correct in saying no artist is going to want to be under contract to any label where there is pressure to process lyrics and mass produce music like cans of Campbell’s soup.”
In mid-September, Goldberg teamed up with several other small record-label executives and such disparate entertainment figures as Scorsese, rock stars Daryl Hall and John Oates and Bob Guccione Jr., son of the publisher of Penthouse magazine, to form his organization. Its only stated purpose is to persuade voters to write their congressmen and urge them not to support any legislation limiting musicians’ freedom of expression.
‘Might Be a Healthy Thing’
“Making the lyrics available to consumers might be a healthy thing,” Goldberg conceded, as long as it is not written into law.
He said his chief concern in creating his ad-hoc pressure group was to prevent “blacklisting or cultural control.”
Ironically, the controversy has only seemed to have helped porn lyricists.
“Rock under siege is a terrific topic,” Warner Bros.’ Merlis said. “Nothing galvanizes the industry more than the threat of potential oppression.”
Although parental discretion warnings still are not attached to his albums, Prince’s notoriety as a profane Pied Piper has not hurt him. Sales of his albums have only surged since the controversy began.
Ratings, parental discretion stickers or other warnings only make an album more interesting, Merlis contended.
So far, the only clear loser in the fight seems to have been the Recording Industry Assn. of America.
“What the lyrics controversy has done is expose the cracks in the RIAA and the support of the membership,” said Roy Trakin, a former public relations spokesman for the group. “The issue has really been taken out of the hands of the RIAA. The association has lost control of its constituency.”
Trakin, who left the association last winter after a dispute with Gortikov over Trakin’s candor in dealing with the press, said the group’s willingness to make concessions is the key to any resolution because “there is zero chance of any legislation on this issue.”
“You’ve got a situation that is really bigger than either the RIAA or the PMRC now,” he said. “I think it’s really a problem that is not going to have any resolution that will satisfy anybody. I don’t know if any resolution--stickers, ratings or printing lyrics--would take hold.”
See related story in Calendar.