The Nose on the Senate's 'porn rock' hearings, 30 years later

City Paper

The parents of many, if not most, of the Nose’s gentle readers might not yet have had the sex that spawned them when, in 1985, the issue of raunchy rock lyrics erupted in the U.S. Senate’s “porn rock” hearing. It was a free-speech rock fan’s wet dream, this highly public spectacle that prompted the Recording Industry of America Association (RIAA) to affix “Parental Advisory” stickers on musical releases it deemed possibly offensive to the sexual sensibilities of the parents of minors. Rock stars sparred with U.S. senators as bawdy lyrics such as those from the Mentors’ scat-rock classic ‘Golden Showers,’ with its Nose-flaring reference to “anal vapors,” were recited into the Congressional Record. If a DVD of the hearing were released today, the Motion Picture Association of America would likely feel compelled to give it an “R” rating.

Baltimore’s connection to the “Contents of Music and the Lyrics of Records” hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation was twofold. Its native son, the late freak-rock champion Frank Zappa, in whose memory a bust sits along Frank Zappa Way in Highlandtown, was one of its star witnesses. And the legendary Baltimore-Washington radio DJ Cerphe Colwell also gave the committee some things to ponder. A month prior, in August 1985, the two sat down in Baltimore for a videotaped interview that has surfaced on the internet in recent years.

“Let’s be reasonable about this,” Zappa told Colwell 19 minutes into the interview, “sex is good for you. It’s a natural function. There is no reason to think that a person shouldn’t know about how his own body works at the earliest possible age. Just because you know about intercourse, masturbation, or any of that, doesn’t mean you have to go out and do it when you are 5 years old. It doesn’t hurt to know.” He added some sage advice: “Don’t be afraid of words that make you think about sex. You’re not going to die from it, you’re not going to go to hell from it.” 

At the hearing itself, Zappa expounded on this theme, saying, “there is a tendency in the United States to hide sex, which I think is an unhealthy thing to do.” He partly laid the problem on parents: “Many parents do not give their children good sexual education,” he said, and that “makes the child vulnerable, because if you do not have something rational to compare it to when you see or hear about something that is abberated, you do not perceive it as an aberration.”

Zappa descended on the hearing because a coven of connected women in D.C., who he called “the Washington wives,” had come together earlier that year to form the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), which quickly whipped up public sentiment against what it considered to be offensive lyrics, releasing its “Filthy Fifteen” songs by artists ranging from Prince to Sheena Easton and clamoring for a way to enable parents to screen such smut before their kids could hear it. 

Ultimately, as well all know, the PMRC succeeded in getting RIAA’s concession: what quickly became known as “Tipper stickers,” a now-dated idiom referring to PRMC co-founder Tipper Gore. She’s the wife of then-Sen. Al Gore Jr., who sat on the committee—he even copped to being a Zappa fan—and went on to become the country’s vice president. While the stickers might have helped some parents avoid being offended over the years, they mostly helped kids know what to buy. When seen on record-store racks by pimple-faced teenagers, they all but screamed, “Buy me! Buy me!”

Thus, the Nose finds the Tipper stickers eminently emblematic of America’s conflicted personality when it comes to sex. On the one hand, our censorious leaders work to hide it. On the other, we just plain want it. Badly. 

Exhibit A: Disney-fied boy-band token Nick Jonas sheds his purity and gets his first “Parental Advisory” sticker on his late-2014 solo release, and his name promptly appears on the top-10 list of the Billboard charts.

But back then, 30 years ago, Zappa told the senators that he worried the stickers would stigmatize artists, and curtail sales of their work. He also feared that the PMRC-driven political climate would lead ill-conceived copycats in state legislatures to run up the flagpole measures that would transform what the stickers amounted to—privately mandated public education—into actual government censorship. And indeed they did, with some state legislatures later considering, but declining to pass, bills that would have used the stickers as a way to select which recordings would be deemed illegally obscene.

Come 1986, Zappa’s legislative concerns arrived in Maryland. State Del. Judith Toth of Montgomery County had gotten a measure passed in the House of Delegates that would have reformed the Free State’s obscenity laws so that recordings deemed obscene could not be sold to minors. The Nose’s favorite lobbyist, since-convicted felon Bruce Bereano, wooed Zappa to come testify against the bill in the Maryland Senate in February 1986, and it was a satisfying appearance, thankfully preserved in Zappa’s “Video from Hell”.

Zappa took direct aim at Maryland’s obscenity laws, most memorably the section that defines which portion of a women’s breast that is to be kept from reproduction for commercial distribution: the areola, in the middle of which sits the nipple. 

“I like nipples, I think they look good,” Zappa proclaimed, “and if you are going to look at a women’s breast, if you take the nipple off, which is the characterizing determining factor, what you got is a blob of fat there. When you’re a baby, probably one of the first things you get interested in is that nozzle right there. And you get to have it right up in front of your face. You grow up with it, so to speak. And then you grow up to live in the state of Maryland and they won’t let you see the little brown thing anymore.”

Toth’s bill died in the Maryland Senate. In the words of the immortal Zappa, found in his song ‘Broken Hearts are for Assholes,’ Toth had to take her bill and “ram it, ram it, ram it, ram it up your poop chute.” 

The Nose is thankful that, all these years later, the clamor has subsided and we remain free to enjoy whatever sexy rock lyrics we choose to, and that the Tipper stickers help us to easily discern the more promising options.


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