The Parents Music Resource Center was formed to fight obscenity in popular music. The parental warning labels were their doing. Musician and notorious non-conformist Frank Zappa fought back the only way he could: with music.
A moral panic is when people latch onto something as the cause of the moral degradation of society. That something becomes a convenient target, and a good distraction from – ya know – actually addressing the real problems of society. So in the 1980s, the decade that saw the rise of neoliberalism, the big moral panics were… Dungeons and Dragons, (fictitious) Satanic ritual abuse, and dirty lyrics in music. And the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was founded to fight that last one.
The group was started by the partners of four influential American politicians / businesspeople. They included Tipper Gore, wife of the future vice-president Al Gore. And they were very concerned about the possibility that kids were buying music that they shouldn’t. Gore was particularly concerned about a song from Prince’s album Purple Rain after she caught her daughter singing along to “I met her in a hotel lobby / masturbating with a magazine.”
Their proposal was to put warning labels on music, and many musicians saw this as the thin end of a wedge that would result in censorship and worse. Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider testified against the idea at a Senate hearing, but Frank Zappa took his protest a little further.
The 1985 album Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention came with the following warning:
This album contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress. In some socially retarded areas, religious fanatics and ultra-conservative political organizations violate your First Amendment Rights by attempting to censor rock & roll albums. We feel that this is un-Constitutional and un-American.
As an alternative to these government-supported programs (designed to keep you docile and ignorant). Barking Pumpkin is pleased to provide stimulating digital audio entertainment for those of you who have outgrown the ordinary.
The language and concepts contained herein are GUARANTEED NOT TO CAUSE ETERNAL TORMENT IN THE PLACE WHERE THE GUY WITH THE HORNS AND POINTED STICK CONDUCTS HIS BUSINESS.
This guarantee is as real as the threats of their video fundamentalists who use attacks on rock music in their attempt to transform America into a nation of check-mailing nincompoops (in the name of Jesus Christ). If there is a hell, its fires wait for them, not us.
That same album also included excerpts from the PMRC Senate hearings on a track titled “Porn Wars”:
His protest was unsuccessful; beginning in 1985 albums with explicit lyrics sold in the United States carried that black and white warning label. This made it a lot easier for kids to choose what albums to buy. Hey, explicit lyrics! That one’s a keeper.