Thirty Years After the 'Filthy Fifteen': Remembering the PMRC Hearing of 1985
(all photos: Mark Weiss/Hulton Archive)
This story is being featured as part of our “Yahoo Best Stories of 2015” series. It was originally published in September 2015.
Thirty years ago, as Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider was called up to testify in front of the U.S. Senate against the proposal to have warning labels placed on supposedly offensive albums, his hands started shaking.
“I was wearing a cut-off fest and snakeskin boots, and I put on mascara before I went in, but when they called my name, I was actually nervous,” he tells Yahoo Music. “I was born in the 1950s, and even though Watergate had already happened, there was still the illusion that Washington, D.C. was like Oz – a great city where great people were doing great things for our benefit.”
The Senate hearing, which began Sept. 19, 1985, was orchestrated by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group headed by then-Senator Al Gore’s wife Tipper that also included Susan Baker, wife of Treasure Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of influential Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of ex-Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius.
The PMRC first got together after Al and Tipper were listening to Prince’s Purple Rain album with one of their daughters. When they heard the song “Darling Nikki,” they noticed that it mentioned a female “sex fiend” who was “masturbating with a magazine.”
Incensed, Tipper Gore contacted her influential friends to talk about how graphic and offensive popular music had become, and after researching the issue, they came up with a list of artists whose songs contained lyrics unsuitable for children. Realizing that the First Amendment of the Constitution protected an artist’s right to free expression, the Washington wives devised a system for rating records that was similar to the way the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rates movies R, PG-13, PG, and G.
“Had it been kept plain and simple like that, I think a lot of people would have said, ‘Yeah, this is common sense,’” says Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford, whose song “Eat Me Alive,” was listed among the Washington Wives’ “Filthy Fifteen.”
“Of course, it turned into this serious forum that made us, the musicians, appear to be the bad guys,” Halford continues. “That was why we were so furious. We were going, ‘Whoa, this is a First Amendment issue. The way they twisted the subject had a very negative effect on some very important, talented musicians.”
As soon as the PMRC went public with its complaints, the media swarmed. “These women were getting all this attention all of a sudden,” Snider says. “Suddenly they weren’t Washington wives anymore. They were important. They had something to say.”
One of Snider’s biggest problems with the Senate hearing was that the forum was an unlawful use of the Senate. Before the hearing was even scheduled, he says, the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) agreed with the PMRC to place general “Parental Advisory” labels on albums that artists voluntarily agreed to have stickered.
“Senate hearing and Senate committees are only to be used when something is being discussed and considered for legislation,” Snider says. “The committee chair, Senator Danforth, said in his opening statement, ‘We are not considering any form of legislation.’ That means it was an illegal use of a forum of a Senate hearing. So basically, these people used their influence to get a hearing about something that never should have happened. Public funds should never have been spent on this.”
Snider was one of three musicians invited to testify at the PMRC hearing. The other two were Frank Zappa and John Denver, for whom both Al Gore had expressed admiration. Conversely, Al Gore made it clear during his questioning of Snider that he didn’t like Twisted Sister’s music or their lyrics. He specifically mentioned one of the songs by Twisted Sister, “Under the Blade,” which Tipper said was about bondage and sado-masochism. The track included the lyrics: “It’s not another party head, this time you cannot rise/Your hands are tied, your legs are strapped, a light shines in your eyes.”
Snider gleefully pointed out that Tipper had misinterpreted the meaning of the song. “That was one of my favorite moments of the forum,” Snider laughs. “I was very happy to inform them that the song was about my guitar player’s throat operation. He was getting an operation and was scared. I said, ‘I’m gonna write you a song,’ and I wrote ‘Under the Blade.’ So when I gave my testimony, I said, ‘I can’t help it if Ms. Gore has a dirty mind.’ Man, if Al Gore had laser beams in his eyes, he would have blown me out of my seat. He was so upset and he couldn’t really say anything, because he was there as a Senator and she was there as a member of the PMRC. But he was very upset.”
While he was on the stand, Snider mentioned that he’s hardly the irresponsible demon-rocker he’d been made out to be. He revealed that he’s a good Christian, doesn’t drink or do drugs, is married, and has a family. His intent was to prove to the subcommittee that not all heavy metal musicians are hedonistic troublemakers, but he says being so forthright was a double-edged sword.
“Testifying was initially damaging to my career,” he admits. “Me showing myself as an intelligent, sentient human being did not have appeal to the rock community. They like lifestylers. They like f—ups onstage and offstage. And I can’t deliver that, because I’m not that and never was. I never hid it, but being on that forum on a grand scale, people found out what I was like and they went, ‘What kind of rock star is that?’”
Eventually, though, Snider realized that his hearing participation was good for his career. “My phones were tapped, my mail was checked. I was not in a good place after that hearing. In the short term it was bad for me, but in the long term it was beneficial,“ he says. “It was the first time people got to see I was not a one-note horn. I have a brain. And that’s when people started to think, ‘Hey, maybe there’s more to this guy than just a screaming face full of makeup and one catchy tune.’ I’ve had a long and storied career since then.”
There’s a widely held belief that stickering albums with warnings provides an incentive for kids to purchase albums they know will contain graphic (read: titillating) content. Some musicians even believe that the "Parental Advisory” label has increased their album sales. Snider, however, says that’s not the case – he says not only have the stickers reduced sales for artists, they’ve caused some stores to commit outright acts of censorship on their records.
“The joke was, ‘Well, now I know which records to buy,’ Snider recalls. “That was a silly thing to say. These musicians didn’t understand what could happen and how the sticker could and would be misused. It wasn’t about informing parents; it was preventing art from being mishandled and misrepresented and not presented. As I feared, the stores used the stickers to segregate records, and they wouldn’t carry records with stickers. And then it went one step further. I couldn’t have imagined this in my wildest streams, but Best Buy and Wal-Mart forced record companies to make alternative edited versions of the records for their stores. So when you went to Best Buy to purchase, say, Kid Rock’s album Devil Without a Cause, it did not have the song ‘F— Off’ on it because they had it removed. And there wasn’t any sticker on it that said, ‘Hey, this is an edited version.’ So if you, as an adult, went to buy a stickered record by a particular artist, you would not know that the profanities were either bleeped out or the songs deemed unsuitable for the general public were removed entirely.”
When Snider left the Senate chambers that day in 1985, a reporter stuck a microphone in front of his face and asked, “Dee, how are you feeling?” Without thinking about the question, the rocker replied, “Dirty.” To this day, he insists that the PMRC hearing was an illegal media circus that strived to make musicians look like irresponsible fools, and failed.
”I’m not at all anti-American,” he says. “I’m patriotic and I love my country. But politics is a dirty, ugly business and politicians are not better, smarter, or greater than any of us. If anything, they’re not as good, they’re not as smart, and they’re anything but better. They’ve got agendas; they’ve got their own reasons for constituencies and trying to get things done that they want done. And they don’t have our better interests at heart. It’s sheer manipulation, and I went away feeling very disenchanted.”
Three decades after the PMRC hearing, record companies are still stickering albums, while musicians are writing songs with far more graphic lyrics than those the Washington wives opposed. At the same time, Snider continues to uphold the family values he embraced that day on the stand.
“My wife and I are celebrating 34 years of marriage,” he says. “Al and Tipper Gore cannot say the same thing. None of my children have been busted for possession. Al Gore’s son was busted for possession. And am I bragging? Yes, I am. I didn’t throw stones at their glass house. They were throwing them at mine.”
THE PMRC’S FILTHY FIFTEEN:
1. Prince, “Darling Nikki” (sex, masturbation)
2. Sheena Easton, “Sugar Walls” (sex)
3. Judas Priest, “Eat Me Alive” (sex)
4. Vanity, “Strap On ‘Robbie Baby’”(sex)
5. Mötley Crüe, “Bastard” (violence, language)
6. AC/DC, “Let Me Put My Love Into You” (sex)
7. Twisted Sister, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (violence)
8. Madonna, “Dress You Up” (sex)
9. W.A.S.P., “Animal (F— Like a Beast)” (sex/language)
10. Def Leppard, “High 'n’ Dry (Saturday Night)” (drug and alcohol use)
11. Mercyful Fate, “Into the Coven” (the occult)
12. Black Sabbath, “Trashed” (drug and alcohol use)
13. Mary Jane Girls, “In My House” (sex)
14. Venom, “Possessed” (the occult)
15. Cyndi Lauper, “She Bop” (sex, masturbation)