The White House Vs. Frank Zappa On Sex [1]

By Rosanne Less

Metro Times, September 11, 1985

While Washington vacationed and Reagan recuperated this summer, at least four prominent women with major ties to both the White House and the Senate continued negotiating with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to get that professional trade organization to agree to a series of rating systems for records and tapes similar in content to the ratings which designate motion pictures.

The demands of the Washington, D.C. based Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) also include: printing all lyrics on album back covers; keeping records with explicit covers under the counter in retail establishments; rating live concerts and then reassessing the recording contracts of those artists who display lewd or suggestive behavior while live on stage; and listing a rating along with all other video identification provided on TV broadcasts, such as those of MTV.

On Aug. 12, the RIAA – which represents about 85 percent of all the record companied in the U.S. rejected these demands, but opted for "advisories" which will be placed on those albums and cassettes which contain sexually explicit lyrics. No date has been announced for when these advisories will be implemented.

On Sept. 19, the PMRC – which to date consists of Susan Baker, wife of the treasury secretary and former White House chief of staff during the first Reagan administration; Tipper Gore, wife of the Democratic senator from Tennessee; Nancy Thurmond, wife of the Republican senator from South Carolina; and Pam Howard, wife of a Washington, D.C. contractor – will take their case before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. That 17-member committee is chaired by Missouri Republican John Danforth and consists, in part, of arch-conservative Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), Allen Gore, husband of PMRC member Tipper Gore, and Michigan's Donald Riegle, perhaps its most liberal member. Riegle's office said late last week that he had not yet received any mail or phone calls on this issue.

Strom Thurmond, long identified with the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party and husband of PMRC member Nancy Thurmond, is one of the Reagan administration's most ardent legislative allies. He is chairman of the influential Senate Judiciary Committee, which will later this year consider two other hotly-debated bills affecting the record industry. These proposed pieces of legislation include imposing a royalty tax on blank tapes and another measure attempting to control record piracy. The major force behind the suggested royalty tax is the RIAA.

In two telephone interviews from the White House on Aug. 28 and Sept. 6, Baker denied the claim that the PMRC is part of the Moral Majority ("This has nothing to do with abortion or prayer in the schools") and admitted that Nancy Reagan "probably supports us because of her own successful war on drug abuse. A lot of these stars have been through the Betty Ford Center themselves but still propagate these messages of drugs and alcohol." She said that she and the treasury secretary do not allow MTV into their home "because it is a shame; video is such a wonderful aesthetic addition to popular music but it's just too violent and sex-filled. " Baker cited lyrics from Sheena Easton ("Come inside my sugar walls"); AC/DC, Motley Crue, Marvin Gaye, Frankie Goes to Hollywood ("homosexual sex") and Cyndi Lauper ("She Bop" is an "ode to female autoeroticism. I can't explain that to you, if you don't know what I mean ... You'll just have to read the lyrics for yourself').

Meanwhile, famed music pioneer and social change advocate Frank Zappa has been the only recording artist to take on the PMRC. Zappa, a Juilliard graduate and the creative head of the '60s ensemble, the Mothers of Invention, has fought against censorship throughout his 20-year career. He will testify before the Senate committee next week along with the PMRC.

In a middle-of-the-night telephone interview with the Metro Times from his California recording studio, Zappa said that he wrote to President Reagan on Aug. 30 asking the president to make a public statement about the folly of the PMRC. Zappa said he told the president that the Senate has, by Reagan's own agenda, pressing things to do in other, more critical areas. "The only reason we are wasting government time on this is because these ladies are married to people in government. Other legislation needs to be put on the agenda that is not being put forth because the advocates of those issues are not married to someone in government. If these people are not subject to prosecution for this kind of connubial insider's trading, then they should at least be censored by their peers," said Zappa.

Research assistance for these stories by Martin Kihn and James Melton.

1. In Metro Times this topic included also two interviews. Interview with Frank Zappa – Frank Zappa In California – and interview with Susan Baker from PMRC.

Susan Baker in Washington, D.C.

METRO TIMES: How and when did the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) begin?

Susan Baker: It started because several of us who have young children were talking about how concerned we were about our kids buying records with inappropriate songs on them. And so we started to do some research, Pam Howard, Tipper Gore, Sally Nevius and me. We got in touch with some people who were concerned about it, including Jeff Ling, a young minister from Virginia, who was working with teenagers. He was distressed by the tone and the violence of some of the lyrics, especially sexually explicit ones. So he did a slide presentation for us and a bunch of other people on May 13. And the response from that was so great that we decided to form a group. We had not planned to form an organization. We were just talking to other parents.

MT: What are the objectives of the PMRC?

Baker: The main objective is to educate parents about the escalating trend in rock music.

MT: What is this escalating trend?

Baker: Towards more violence toward women, rape, sado-masochism. Basically songs like Motley Crue, a group that has the number three song on the charts right now, "Smokin' in the Boys Room." Their album Too Fast for Love has "Livewire" on it: ''I'll either break her face or take down her legs, get my ways at will. Go for the throat, never let loose, going in for the kill " And "Piece of Your Action" is on the same album: "Tight action we're traction. So hot you really blow me away, fast moving, wet and ready, time is right so hang on tight. Livewire, night prowler, lay back and take me inside, I want a piece of your action. "Then their Shout at the Devil album, which has sold over two million copies, has these two songs: one is "Too Young to Fall in Love": "not a woman but a whore, I can taste the hate. Well now I'm killing you, watch your face turning blue." And "Bastard" goes: "Out go the lights, in goes my knife, pull out his life, consider that bastard dead, make it quick, blow off his head." Because rock music is targeted to adolescents and even younger, we're concerned because of the message of violence against women.

 Here are kids that are just in the process of developing their own characters, their own value systems, how to relate to the opposite sex, what they think about sex in general and for them to be seeing these very popular rock stars giving them messages like that, we just think it's something parents ought to know about, it's something they need to talk to their youngsters about.

Most parents today have danced to rock and roll and loved it and while it was sexually, you know, suggestive, there wasn't this tone of violence and brutality and even the explicitness about sex when we we're dancing to it.

We also want to put pressure on the music industry to clean up their act, to do some self-regulating. We've asked them to put a warning label on the outside of all the albums that have material that's inappropriate for younger kids. Prince's album, Purple Rain, is a perfect example because "Let's Go Crazy" was a Top 40 tune and lots of little kids like Tipper Gore's then 11-year-old daughter wanted to buy it, so they did and then when they got home and listened to it there was darling Nikki masturbating with a magazine in a hotel lobby. Her mother was incensed about that. We're not saying sales should be restricted or anything; we're not legislating people's morality. What we're doing is saying look, for those of us who care, give us some information so that we won't buy these things for our younger children if it's noted on there that it contains inappropriate material.

MT: How do you respond to the claim that PMRC is effectively advocating a form of censorship?

Baker: We're not telling them they can't write the lyrics, we're not telling stores they can't sell the lyrics, we're saying just give us information to let us know what kind of lyrics they are. We're not asking that all lyrics are written on the back, only those that get a warning label. Why do they mind having the lyrics written on the back? We feel as consumers we should be given information to let us know when objectionable material is going to be on an album or cassette before we buy it. Listen, if somebody wants to buy their eight-year old or two-year-old child an album with an "R," that's their prerogative. But let us who don't want it have the information so we won't spend our money buying that trash.

MT: In terms of labels or ratings, what kind of records would this apply to?

Baker: Any mode of music that's singing about explicit sex, violence, glorifying drugs or alcohol or the occult.

MT: Would it go on country and western type records?

Baker: Of course. It would go on any kind, on anybody using "blatant, explicit lyric content." We have asked the RIAA to appoint a panel to define that. So it would cover any mode, even classical.

MT: How would these things be practically implemented? Who would be the people making these decisions? Who would decide who gets what rating?

Baker: We asked Stanley Gortikov (RIAA president) for several different classifications initially and he came back with the idea that only a generic label, warning one symbol would be possible. We said fine. That means that one designation would just be the signal to parents and consumers that that record would contain explicit material. So the panel would have to define the concrete uniform standards and then each record company would go back and say OK, does this album get it or not? The person who produces the album knows intimately each word on the album. They would say yeah, this gets it, this doesn't, this does. The record companies individually would put the label on. It would not go through a panel. You need a uniform standard and let people within the industry as well as a few people from the community at large get together and hammer out some specific guidelines.

Then each company can take those guidelines, go back to their company and decide. There are going to be plenty of gray areas where the companies are going to have to decide whether or not it should get a label or not.

MT: The next logical step down the line is in overall content. What happens if it's a political message that is unpopular or someone doesn't agree with, like Springsteen's ''Nebraska, "John Cougar Mellencamp's "Scarecrow''?

Baker: That's OK. In this country we are free to have differing opinions. I happen to have differing ones than the ones in the music industry and as a citizen I have a right to express that. We are asking the industry to give us consumer information. Political ideas are different.

MT: How does a group of only four women face down a huge multimillion dollar industry, like the recording industry?

Baker: A lot of people have been trying to do that for a long time. It seems to me Ralph Nader's done it. What's wrong with our doing it?

MT: Is the PMRC a lobby group? Are you lobbyists?

Baker: No we're not – we're mothers.

MT: How are you funded?

Baker: We're getting lots of little bitty contributions – $10, $25; we've gotten over 15,000 letters and a lot of them have a little money in them. Because people across this country are concerned.

MT: Pursuant to the Aug. 12 action by the RIAA agreeing to advisory labels, the contention is that the RIAA capitulated to your demands in return for some possible favored provisions in legislation pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee later on this year. Those two pieces of legislation are a royalty tax on blank tapes which has been a pet project of the RIAA, and laws against record piracy. The head of the judiciary committee is Strom Thurmond, whose wife is a member of your group. Are these conflicts of interest? What's going on here?

Baker: Let me tell you what's going on. The PTA tried to get the attention of the music industry. They have 5.6 million members and they had a unanimous resolution asking the industry to label obscene, profane music that glorified drugs and alcohol. They didn't even get the courtesy of a response. We got their attention. We're in a position to. I think it's really tragic that they are in a position where they could ignore somebody as important in this country and representing as many people as the PTA.

Do you know that AI Gore, who is the husband of one of our founding members is co-sponsoring the legislation that would give the industry the tax they want on blank tapes, So, this is not a quid pro quo at all. But I think it's a tragedy that it took us, because we live in Washington and are married to men who do serve in government that it took us to get their attention when other people had been trying to get their attention and couldn't.

I had to laugh when somebody, maybe it was Frank Zappa, said oh they're bored housewives or something. I have a lot of other things I'd rather be doing. I wish that this issue did not need to be addressed. I wish that the industry would have addressed it so we could go back to doing something else. People seem to think that I should be disenfranchised because I'm married to the Secretary of the Treasury. I think it's crazy. Why shouldn't I speak out about a major concern?

This is something that I believe very strongly, as do the other three mothers, it's not just because we're blue noses or prudes. It's because we care about our children.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)