Frank Zappa Rates the Ratings

By Anne Clark

Rockpool, November 22, 1985

One of the issues addressed at this year’s New Music Seminar was the efforts of the Parents Media Resource Center (PMRC) to get the record industry to agree to place stickers on albums rating them for sex, violence, drug and alcohol abuse and the occult. On November 1, the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced that many of its member companies agreed to implement more general warning stickers.

This is hardly the end of the issue. The women of the PMRC, many of them married to government officials (the count, according to Dave Marsh, is ten Senators’ wives and six Representatives’ wives), will undoubtedly continue to apply pressure to force all this “objectionable” music underground. On the other side, the Musical Majority and other people who support rock ’n’ roll and free speech will fight for the music and lifestyle they believe in. Frank Zappa has spent the past few months making people aware of the issue and trying to get them to realize that it’s their music and they have to fight for it. He’s done interviews, debated PMRC spokespeople, given the keynote address at the NMS, done voter registration public service announcements and on November 15, his latest album, which deals with the issue, will be released.

Zappa continued his involvement and on September 19 testified at the Senate Commerce Committee’s hearings on objectionable lyrics. Five members of the Commerce Committee are married to PMRC members. One thing that wasn’t clear was the purpose of the hearings; were they considering legislation (something constitutionally shaky) or just  threatening the music industry. According to Zappa the  committee couldn’t seem to agree. “One guy says we’re going to legislate. Another guy says we’re not going to legislate.

So, the net result is that nobody says we’re going to come and get you, they just threaten to come and get you. It’s just that you can’t say, ‘Hey come and get me.’ They tried to keep it vague.” But during his keynote address, Zappa pointed out that Senator Hollings was more direct in saying, “If I do away with this music constitutionally, I would, and I’m going to be looking for ways to do it.”

With so many government-associated people out to get rock ’n’ roll (not any other forms of music) one can’t help wondering if it’s the attitude of rock that bothers them, not references to lust. One of the PMRC objections to Twisted Sister is the attack on authority figures such as teachers and parents. Zappa is sure there is a hidden agenda. Referring to the PMRC letter of May 31, he said, “Originally, they were talking about defiled sexuality, satanic worship, violence and rebellion. If they equate rebellion with defiled sexuality and satanic worship and violence, they’ll put a lid on all lyrics unless it’s boy-meets-girl – and then he can’t spank her.”

These people who want to squash rebellion have formed an efficient organization and seem to be well-financed. “The fact of the matter,” said Zappa, “is that they’ve got a real nice budget for what they’re doing. All their little speeches and their PR is very well-organized and none of this is ever free. There’s big bucks involved in this.

The PMRC has managed to shape the issue. Many newspapers that normally print fervent editorials supporting the First Amendment accept the PMRC view that the only issue here is protecting innocent youth. At the NMS panel on rating records, Danny Goldberg, founder of the Musical Majority, objected to that focus. “I think this whole issue of young children is absurd,” he said. “Young children don’t have $8.98 to buy a record. It’s a lie that’s being propagated by people who want to restrict freedom of speech and who’re cloaking it in a concern for children.”

Zappa agrees that the argument is being twisted. “They’re trying to put the record store in the same theoretical legal classification as the adult bookstore. There is no connection between the reason for selling a porno magazine with a girl fucking a pig, and selling a record. There’s no science to back it up. Their basic premise is that this music causes anti-social behavior, in some cases death, but there is no science to this.”

But though rock has long been accused of being the path to hell, the record industry used to ignore the critics. On the NMS panel, Dave Marsh noted that, “The biggest difference between 1957 and 1985 is that in 1957 the RIAA was not up there with home taping legislation on Capitol Hill.” In a Village Voice article Marsh disclosed that he had obtained an RIAA memo which made clear the link between the seriousness given the PMRC and a bill (HR 2911) that would implement a federal tax on blank tape that will be voted on by PMRC spouses.

If you read my bill,” Zappa said, “you’ll notice there is a direct connection between that bill and the US Treasury. The US Treasury holds the bag. I believe it is no coincidence that the wife of the Treasury Secretary is involved in this.”

The RIAA did agree to implement warning labels, as announced November 1. Though this is a move towards ratings it is not a total PMRC victory. There are many loopholes: the agreement requires no compliance, there are no guidelines – each company decides what “explicit” means, and not all artists must comply.

This last point Zappa considers unfair. “It’s discriminatory. For example, (the agreement states) ‘Those singers whose contracts give them control over design of the album cover are free to ignore the understanding.’ What about the little guy who’s getting his first recording contract, has no leverage, and can’t say he doesn’t want it? He’s going to be stuck with it whether he likes it or not. Some people get away with it, some people get stuck with it.” And, Zappa noted, the pro-rating people haven’t given up hopes of full implementation of their plan. “On November 2nd the New York Times runs an article quoting Senator Hollings’ assistant as saying that they’re still interested in legislation. They’re still threatening.”

Aside from threats of legislation, what does Zappa think the PMRC will do now? “The pressure will be applied at the retail and distribution level. I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to pass some sort of regulation governing interstate commerce.”

Zappa thinks the real focus will be city ordinances. On November 11, San Antonio votes on the minimum age at which it would be “healthful” for a person to attend a rock concert. This, if passed, could become a model for similar ordinances across the country. “The real action is in the local elections,” Zappa believes, “little shit they whiz right by, because the only people that go to vote are your enemies. And if the kids don’t pay attention to what’s going on, they’re going to be handed a world that they won’t be too enthusiastic about living in. There’s so many little groups and little ordinances that when you add them up you’re in Poland before you know it.”

With all this happening, what has Zappa found to be the response of the music community? “Chickenshit. Back in the beginning when I called people about this everyone said it was going to blow over, no big deal. The other thing is, I think a lot of managers said to their acts, ‘Keep your mouth shut, because you don’t want to be on the wrong side of this.’”

Same thing with the musician’s union. I called them and they said ‘It doesn’t apply to us because we don’t sing.’ And then later on, after the Senate hearings, the president of the union came out and made a statement and said he opposed it because it might cost American musicians their jobs. Why didn’t he come out and make noise before it went to the Senate? I’ve said all along that when the ladies first attacked we should have gone after them with bazookas.”

After the NMS keynote, Zappa did get positive feedback but, he said, “Whether or not they act on it is something else. The idea of joining something to fight it is stupid because when you join an organization you think, ‘Oh, now the organization will take care of it.’ Then you go out and have a party. You can’t turn this over to somebody else. That would be like what parents are doing, turning it over to Tipper and the girls.”

The problem here is most of the people who are directly affected by the results of the actions of the PMRC, the kids who just want to listen to some music and have that be a part of their lives, don’t give a fuck about politics and don’t understand what’s really going on here. It’s party time for them. And that’s what these guys are counting on.”

Zappa recently made spots urging young people to vote, because that’s the way to get elected officials who oppose rating (only LA Mayor Tom Bradley has spoken against it). “If there’s a massive swing on the part of young people to register to vote they wouldn’t even have to cast a vote. You would see these same elected officials who kept their mouths shut suddenly start saying things that make them more palatable to that voter block. And then you have to let them know that you’re watching them and how they vote on issues that apply to your life.”

Though Zappa has been working hard on the censorship issue, he can’t change things alone. Neither can the Musical Majority. Zappa has the bottom line for all of us: “The people who consume rock music are the ones that are going to have to fight for the right to consume it.” That means you.

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