On August 19, 1985, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee of the United States Senate opened public hearings intended to gather expert testimony on “the content of certain sound recordings and suggestions that recording packages be labeled to provide a warning to prospective purchasers of sexually explicit or other potentially offensive content.” Widely known as “The PMRC Hearings” after the acronym of an independent group—the Parents Music Resource Council—advocating for the “voluntary” adoption of warning stickers on record albums whose lyrics it deemed to be offensive, the hearings did not, in fact, end up leading to any kind of legislative action. They did, however, lead to a spectacle in which a most unlikely trio of popular musicians—Dee Snider, Frank Zappa and John Denver—presented a unified front before the committee against what they perceived to be efforts to undermine freedom of speech and artistic expression in popular music.
Though the PMRC was founded by several wives of prominent public figures, it was associated in the popular press most closely with Tipper Gore, the wife of then-Senator Al Gore of Tennessee. Alarmed by the salacious lyrics of the Prince song “Darling Nikki” (1984), which she heard for the first time while in the presence of her young daughters, Ms. Gore helped found the PMRC and spearhead the effort to place warning labels on music. Those labels came to be called “Tipper Stickers” by some, and Mrs. Gore was singled out for special attention in the testimony given before the Senate on this day in 1985. Dee Snider, for instance, the frontman of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister, disputed Ms. Gore’s reading of his song “Under The Blade,” asserting that “the only sadomasochism, bondage, and rape in this song is in the mind of Ms. Gore.” And of the artists whose songs ranked 1st (the aforementioned “Darling Nikki”) and 2nd (“Sugar Walls”) on the PMRC’s “Filthy 15,” Frank Zappa said, “No one has forced…Mrs. Gore to bring Prince or Sheena Easton into [her] home.”
Members of the Senate committee may have been surprised by how articulate and well-reasoned the critiques of the PMRC’s plans were. (Dee Snider later said, “They had no idea I spoke English fluently.”) What is certain is that the hearings failed to galvanize public opinion in strong favor of the PMRC’s plans. Although most major record labels would eventually adopt the “Tipper stickers” voluntarily, the PMRC warning system never gained widespread support from consumers or from music retailers.