Censorship And Zappa

By Patrick Quinn

The Note, March, 1989

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. 

(Passed by Congress 25 September, 1789)


The conservative assault on freedom of expression in rock and roll continues to win little-publicized legislative victories on both the state and national level, scoring its biggest success last year with the passage of the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act. Attached as a rider to the 1988 Omnibus Drug Bill by Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act permits, for the first time on a federal level, the possibility of establishing 'auditory pornography' as a criminal category. The bill, though slightly modified in its passage through the House of Representatives, establishes penalties for producers and purveyors of 'audio porn' similar to those established for drug dealers.

"I'm sure there are some constitutional problems with this thing as it's written now," says Howard Bauleke, Washington D.C., Staff Director for Congressman Jim Slattery. "A number of the provisions in the Senate version that really disturbed the music industry have been softened, but there are a lot of questions about what exactly this bill means."

"They slipped this one by when no one was looking," says iconoclastic rock pioneer Frank Zappa, who has invested significant time and resources in the battle to protect artists' First Amendment rights. "The tragic thing about this is that no one voted against the bill." Wrapped in the popularity of the anti-drug campaign, the Omnibus Drug Bill and its "audio porn" rider swept through the Senate by a vote of 97-0.

Zappa has been in the forefront of the fight against censorship for more than three years. In 1985 he established the PUMPKIN LINE (1-818-PUMPKIN), a telephone service from which concerned music fans can obtain updates on the state of freedom in music. Callers can also receive, for the price of postage, an informational packet called a Z-PAC that contains excerpts of many of the more outrageous anti-rock propaganda publications. "I've probably spent between $50,000 and $70,000 of my own money dealing with this bullshit since it first popped up," he says. "I believe that I've at least created more of an awareness in the public about it."

Zappa argues forcefully that the threat of censorship in popular music is far more pronounced now than at any time in rock history. "You have all these right-wing religious groups promoting individual pieces of state legislation and creating this maze, this network, of weird, contradictory laws," he said. "This country is not in good shape."

"Whenever you bring up the word 'pornography' people panic," he continues. "The right-wing attaches that label, or the one that says 'save the children', to every issue they promote. It's a very common tool, and it's very much like the McCarthy era, when all you had to do was say the word 'Communist' and everybody shut up and bent over."

"That's exactly what happened," agrees Bauleke. "Nobody, obviously, wants to be perceived as being in favor of child pornography."

1985: The Weasels Come Out of the Closet

The anti-rock crusade, for years the province of a small number of religious extremists, attained mainstream media respectability with the information in May of 1985 of the Parent's Music Resource Center. Founded by Tipper Gore, Susan Baker, Sally Nevius and Parn Howar (a group that quickly became known as the 'Washington Wives'), the PMRC set out to "address the issue of lyrics found in some rock music which glorify graphic sex and violence and glamorize the use of drugs and alcohol". They also expressed public concern over the possible existence of hidden messages being "backmasked" on popular recordings.

Four months later the PMRC entered into a coalition with the National Parents-Teachers Association. The NPTA was at that time lobbying for the institution of a records rating system similar to that used by the motion picture industry. The coalition quickly decided that a records rating system would be unworkable and shifter their efforts to instituting a "consumer information labeling system".

One week after the formation of the coalition, the PMRC and NPTA were invited to testify before the United States Senate Commerce Committee during hearings on the subject of record labeling and lyric content. The purpose of the hearings, which did not address any kind of proposed legislation, was described as "public information". Musicians, medical professionals, and representatives of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) were also asked to testify.

Contrary to what might be expected the RIAA did not go to Capitol Hill ready to do battle on behalf of artistic freedom. According to an article by Dave Marsh in the October 5, 1985 Village Voice, then-RIAA president Stanley Gortikov had essentially accepted the PMRC position as early as June of 1985, when he distributed a six-page memo to the members of the RIAA Beard of Directors. Marsh writes:

"Gortikov went on, telling the record company executives that the proper industry course was appeasement ... Then he lowered the boom:

It is impossible to justify publicly some of the blatant and extreme recording examples protested by the parent groups. I recommend that a renewed policy of sensitivity, discretion and reasonableness be applied in recording and releasing practices ... Artist contracts, new and old, might be examined to assure that future content makes such company discretion possible

The language is fuzzy, bu the threat is clear: A blacklist."

The RIAA easy acquiescence to the demands of the PMRC and other anti=rock organizations, even prior to the Senate hearings, was a product of the trade group's desire to see that session of Congress pass H.R. 2911, an anti-home taping bill written by the RIAA. H.R. 2911 proposed the imposition of a 10-25% surtax on the sale of all tape recorders and a tax on blank tape of a penny-per-minute.

"The recording industry," says Zappa, "was willing to bend over for a very simple reason. If the blank tape tax would have gone through, the record industry stood to make an estimated additional quarter of a billion dollars. Annually. That's a quarter of a billion dollars in found money, with no extra work. They wouldn't have to do anything for it. The government would have collected it for them. That's why they were willing to go to any extreme to pick up an extra quarter of a billion dollars."

"Now, let's look at who gets that money. It's not the little labels. That's money that would have gone to major labels like CBS or Warner Brithers. Doesn't this thing just smell real bad?"

The RIAA's determined effort to avoid alienating the Senators who would soon be voting on their anti-taping proposal left artists essentially without industry representation during the Commerce Committee hearings. It was left to the artists themselves (notably Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister) to speak in defense of basic creative freedoms.

Immediately after the hearings were concluded Stanley Gortikov announced that agreement had been reached between the RIAA and the PMRC that instituted the labeling policy now in effect. The RIAA policy statement said:

To facilitate the exercise of parental discretion on behalf of younger children, participating RIAA member recording companies will identify future releases of their recordings with lyric content relating to explicit sex, explicit violence, or explicit substance abuse. Such recordings, where contractually permissible, either will be identified with a packaging inscription that will state: 'Explicit Lyrics - Parental Advisory' ... or such recordings will display printed lyrics."

H.R. 2911 was voted down.

1989: Just Say No, You Can't Sing That

"Things are better now than in 1985," says Danny Goldberg, chairman of the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The reality is that '85 was a bad time politically, because all those events occurred after the Reagan re-election but before the '86 Senate elections. It was a dangerous period when fundamentalists and social conservatives had a free hand."

Goldberg is a veteran of the "porn rock" wars. Long a prominent figure in rock and roll circles (he has served in the past as president of Gold Mountain Records and managed national acts such as KISS), Goldberg responded to the PMRC actions of 1985 by founding the Musical Majority, an ad hoc organization sanctioned by the national ACLU and comprised of performers, journalists, industry executives and radio programmers. The Musical Majority constituted itself as a formal opposition to the PMRC. Goldberg considers the labeling agreement a victory in that it avoided the institution of an outright record rating system.

"The labeling compromise is pointless," he says. "It's just not important. I'm adamantly against any kind of record ratings system, however, because there's no way to subjectively rate lyrics.

"I feel no sense of crisis now, but we've definitely witnessed an erosion of freedom in the Reagan years. Fundamentalists and social conservatives have adopted an attitude that this is their country and they can tell the rest of us how to live our lives - what music to listen to, what TV shows to watch, what churches to attend."

Goldberg sees the major task facing popular music as one of education. "Rock fans need to realize that it's the nature of rock to be attacked by older generations. They need to realize that the positions of fundamentalist groups and the PMRC is essentially incompatible with American traditions."

"Rock fans need to realize that there are a lot of crazy people out there who don't believe in freedom."

Zappa disagrees with Goldberg's contention that the state of musical freedom is better now than in 1985. "I'd have to say things are definitely worse now, if for no other reason than the passage of that audio pornography bill last year. Even though the publicized attacks are being directed at rock and roll, there's a climate of repression out there that's affecting all forms of music, even classical."

"Let me give you an example. I was recently invited to a meeting with the woman who runs the Civic Light Opera in Chicago. They wanted me to write something for the Opera, but the woman was afraid that what I would write would be too 'hot' for them. It came down to the fact that they decided not to do this because they're financed by what they call 'old money'. Old money is money from respectable families going to finance the arts, so basically they want to avoid anything that might embarrass them politically or sexually. Certain things never get produced, because they never get funded.

"It's like music under Stalin in Soviet Russia. Certain types of music are forbidden. Figure it out."

The links between music, money and power recur frequently in conversation with Zappa. He believes that the steadily growing number of state and local laws limiting or even banning rock performances and recordings are the result of monumental apathy  on the part of the American record industry. "The record industry is what, a three billion dollar industry? If they got up on their back legs and said 'hey, we're not going to put up with this shit anymore', they could've certainly blocked that piece of legislation last year.

"This whole thing isn't about the Constitution, it isn't about reality - it's about power. That's all these people care about. Basically my opinion of the people who run the record industry is that they're bunch of paltry, chickenshit, mercenary motherf**kers.

"I don't get invited to many parties."

He exhibits no surprise that he remains virtually the only major artist who continues to fight against rock censorship. "Let's take a look at who the artists are today, and what they're in it for. Basically you're talking about some guys with pretty good hairdos who lip=synch their hits. You can't expect these guys to get up on their back legs and scream about things - they're not going sing about anything anyway. It doesn't matter to them. They're only going sing about girls and cars.

"They won't touch politics with a ten-foot pole. If they write anything regarding the environment all you usually get is an English group screaming 'Save the Whales.' As far as I'm concerned it's a pose."

In the absence of strong public or industry opposition, the right-wing has succeeded in enacting a series of state and local laws containing musical "pornography" provisions that boggle the mind. Las year in Kansas, the state legislature enacted "Promotion to Minors of Obscenity Harmful to Minors" statute (commonly referred to as the Child Protection Act). The provisions of the law are such that a musical performer is subject to prosecution if, in the course of a performance open to minors, he grabs his guitar player's butt.

"Let's say I went on the road," said Zappa, "and I went to Kansas. If I didn't know that law existed, where do you think I'd be spending the night after my performance?"

Zappa doesn't deny that he's painting a black picture. "You want the facts or cotton candy? If you want cotton candy talk to somebody else. The only thing that really can be done is to get some legislators in there who have some idea about what to legislate and why they're legislating. You have to have people running for office who have some balls."

He sees little to look forward to. "George Bush is in a difficult position. He has to live up to the Reagan glory, and for most Republicans Reagan was a star. George Bush isn't a star, he's merely a Republican. And what you've got in Dan Quayle is a time-bomb - that guy's an idiot.

"As far as the First Amendment goes, I think it's basically an unreservedly b;ack picture. There's nobody in Washington D.C., no one in public office right now, who will stand up and make a noise whenever guys like Orrin hatch hit the 'save the children/pornography' button. They all bend over for that.

"There are maniacs who wind up making money by keeping tjhis an issue. Remember, every time this gets brought up as an issue, usually some place you don't know about, in a church or someplace, someone ends up taking up a collection. This is big bucks. You add up all the money that's collected to 'save the children', or to save people from pornography, somebody has a real good thing going here."

Zappa agrees with Danny Goldberg's observation that 'there are a lot of crazy people out there who don't believe in freedom'. "I think that's an accurate statement. There's a lot of people out there who are not only crazy, but they're smart.

"And the inverse also seems to be true - there are a lot of people out there who believe in a freedom but are dumb as f**k, and don't realize that if you want to have freedom you have to protect it all the time."

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