Revisiting the PMRC and their “Filthy Fifteen” List 25 Years Later

The infamous "Parental Advisory" sticker:
Deterrent or enticement?

Yesterday was literally the 25th anniversary of the infamous PMRC hearings in Washington that debated obscenity in popular music and the possible regulation of subject matter through a ratings system. In the case of certain songs, like W.A.S.P.’s “Animal (F**k Like A Beast)” and Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” I could see how parents were upset. By the same token, Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” didn’t qualify for the PMRC’s Filthy Fifteen” list, at least to my ears. In the end, the “Parental Advisory” sticker you see to the right was voluntarily slapped on albums deemed obscene or explicit by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Looking back at the controversy, I see how many of the PMRC’s conservative crusaders were attempting to censor things by placing a heavy stigma on stickered albums. By the same token, parents had and have the right to know what their kids are listening to. (But let’s face it, crafty teens often find a way to work around that.) At the end of the day, the stickers were a good compromise. No censorship occurred, and the music industry actually got extra attention from the media sideshow. And CD sales soared in the Nineties. You can read my objective look back at the PMRC hearings on New York Magazine’s website.

Blackie Lawless: Every mother's
nightmare circa 1984.

In terms of my own upbringing, my parents were lenient in terms of what I watched and listened to, but they also trusted that I was smart enough to distinguish fantasy from reality, and they informed me if something bothered them. If I wanted my father to take me to an R-rated movie, they had to approve it first. While they saw my room covered with photos of the seemingly scary heavy metal bands that I worshiped at the time (plenty of whom I still listen to), my mother’s main concern was what people would think of her intelligent son going to school with the occasional Satanic t-shirt on. Well, I wore them often, nothing happened, I graduated with a 3.7 GPA (around B+/A- territory), attended NYU film school and eventually went on to a successful career as an entertainment journalist. I’ve even been published a few times in the New York Times.

My personal story underscores a basic problem with the PMRC controversy: Assuming that teens could not handle adult subject matter. Frank Zappa did note that it was up to individual’s parents how much sexual information they wanted to give to their children, which is a fair statement. By the same token, I understand the concerned parental viewpoint when it comes to young children, especially with a media machine that markets sex to the masses. But that is an industry issue more than an artist one. I believe in free speech and am staunchly anti-censorship, although I do think sometimes that studios, labels and radio stations could show more discretion in how they market some of their product.

As much as rock fans and free speech proponents were outraged (and rightfully so) over what looked like a descent into censorship at the PMRC hearings, I don’t think it ever would have gone that far, and the inconvenient truth we are faced with today is that as a culture we have become more vulgar than ever. But that has to do with a variety of factors, of which music, movies and television are only a part. It also has to do with parental permissiveness and a general lack of tact and respect that we now practice. Case in point: I heard a raunchy, misogynistic rap track being blasted in a RadioShack recently, and a ten year-old kid was in there with his father. No one said anything. Whoever was playing that stuff wasn’t being rebellious or cool, he was being a jerk, and the dad gets a Fail for not saying anything.

My bedroom circa 1986. My parents were thrilled. Not.
(Photo © 2010 by Bryan Reesman.)

In the end, art generally reflects society and its current values, so if we don’t like what we see, hear or read, maybe we need to address how we got here and how we can change that. And that change starts at home, not by turning other people into scapegoats.

Following are video or audio clips of every song on the PMRC’s Filthy Fifteen list. I’ve written some personal comments for each one, but you can decide for yourself whether they warranted scrutiny or not, or whether you care. Or you can choose not to listen to any of them. That’s the beauty of living in a free society: We have a choice.

Ironic disclaimer: Most of these tunes are not suitable for kids or preteens, so they shouldn’t be here. So get out! As much as people joke about these tunes being tame now, they’re still inappropriate for young listeners. It’s not like you’d want your 8 year-old listening to hardcore rap either. Right?

PRINCE “Darling Nikki”
Reason for inclusion: Sex.
I can see how the blatant nature of this song would shock parents, but was Prince looking to court a teen audience? He always had racy subject matter skewed towards young adults, although obviously many teens followed him thanks to his wide exposure through MTV. Masturbation should not be considered a horrible thing for teens to know about. It’s the safest form of sex. Perhaps using something metaphorical would have even made this song a little racier, but hey, we have the right to free speech, and this wasn’t written for kids anyway. I don’t remember if it was even played on the air since I only listened to specialty metal shows and hated commercial radio.

Reason for inclusion: Sex.
I was surprised to hear this one come from Sheena Easton, even as a kid. Then again, I went gaga over Olivia Newton-John when she did “Physical”. (I still possess the gatefold vinyl of that album.) I never thought songs like this were that big of a deal. Maybe it’s because as much as I was a male teenager with raging hormones, I did not spend a lot of time fantasizing about female pop idols I would never meet or obsess over their lusty lyrics. I had real-life girls that I had crushes on. I was also a bit of a romantic as a teen, so songs like this were just kind of there for me. Plus I liked metal, and this was lightweight pop.

Reason for inclusion: Sex.
This is my favorite band of all-time, but this is one of my least favorite songs of theirs. It’s blatant and unsexy, although it was undoubtedly meant to be raunchy. This is the only song from the group’s 1984 album Defenders Of The Faith that they did not play live, and this was a year before the PMRC, but they did finally whip it out for their 2008 tour, which is kind of funny. Honestly, I was a naive ninth grader and didn’t get the song’s implications (and explications), but I figured them out later. Other Priest songs about sex, like “Locked In” and “Love You To Death,” had a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that this lacks. I could see parents being unhappy about it, but let’s face it, Priest fans weren’t looking for happy-go-lucky bubblegum pop. They wanted to rebel.

VANITY “Strap On Robbie Baby”
Reason for inclusion: Sex.
I had never heard this song until compiling this list. A Prince protégé, Vanity was a similarly adult-themed vocalist who certainly was not meant for a young teen audience. I have to say, she certainly pushed the envelope back in the day. While I thought she was hot, I never ran out to buy any of her albums. Interestingly enough, she became a born again Christian in 1994 following a near-fatal drug overdose and has since renounced her years as a sexy diva. She reportedly receives no royalties from her recorded work anymore and is now a preacher. Isn’t it funny how many rockers and pop stars who live to excess end up becoming born again? It’s a small minority but still interesting to note. Moderation, people!

Reason for inclusion: Violence.
I was a Crüe fan for a short time in the mid-Eighties, and even then I thought this was an ugly song. (It was allegedly written about their former manager. But hey, better killing some in song rather than real life.) But let’s not forget that on the flip side, despite having a pentagram on the cover of the album, the title track “Shout At The Devil,” which people have interpreted with different meanings, from facing change to rebellion, was not about worshiping Satan. My problem with the band was their behavior away from the music, particularly the fact that singer Vince Neil walked away from a drunken car ride that killed his passenger — the late Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle, which destroyed that band’s rising career — as well as permanently injuring two passengers in the car he slammed into. Neil barely served any jail time, and that’s not only reprehensible, it’s more offensive than anything this band ever recorded. Many fans have conveniently forgotten that incident, although the band had the gall to release two box sets entitled Music To Crash You Car To.

AC/DC “Let Me Put My Love Into You”
Reason for inclusion: Sex.
A standard AC/DC double entendre, it’s one of their archetypal sex songs, although “Big Balls” is much more fun and funnier since that latter song is also a social commentary about how rich people can be as crass as everyone else. Was this different than so many other sex anthems from back in the day? Nope. Having a best friend who does anti-violence work, I have become more sensitive as an adult to lyrics like “Don’t you struggle/Don’t you fight/Don’t you worry/’Cause it’s your turn tonight”. Admittedly such words still don’t stir up misogynistic feelings in me. Is it irresponsible of me to shrug them off because they don’t affect me?

TWISTED SISTER “We’re Not Gonna Take It”
Reason for inclusion: Violence.
I have no idea why this anthem of rebellion and asserting individuality made the Filthy Fifteen. Unless that description is why. It’s a positive song of empowerment, and the video was hilarious. As far as it being violent, the video was like a Looney Tunes cartoon. It never made me want to throw my father out the window. Whether he wanted to throw some of my albums out the window was a different matter.

MADONNA “Dress You Up”
Reason for inclusion: Sex.
In retrospect, this is an archetypal Madonna tune and a standard sexy pop song from back in the day. I never thought she was a particularly good vocalist, but Madonna’s distinct singing and media savvy eventually catapulted her into superstardom. If the PMRC were going to be incensed about anything by her at the time, I would have presumed that “Like A Virgin” would have been the song, and it’s from the same album (of the same name). Either way, I never thought Madonna’s lyrics were so shocking — her subsequent Sex book really got prudes upset, though — especially when compared with the racier Prince and Vanity songs above.

W.A.S.P. “Animal (F**k Like A Beast)”
Reason for inclusion: Sex and language.
Okay, I don’t think anyone can deny that this song was meant to piss a lot of people off. I heard it numerous times as a teen, and I thought it was hilarious because it was so blatantly sexual and vulgar. I still do. Not that it received any airplay nor sold oodles of copies. I always listened to this one with headphones lest my parents found out; it was my dirty little secret. I’m sure they wouldn’t have been thrilled with it, but the thrill wore off for me after a time. Interestingly enough, lapsed born again Christian/W.A.S.P. frontman Blackie Lawless rediscovered his faith a few years ago and has sense renounced this song. That’s okay; it’s certainly not his band’s finest hour anyway.

DEF LEPPARD “High ‘n’ Dry (Saturday Night)”
Reason for inclusion: Drug and alcohol use.
This was a standard party-hearty rock tune that emerged during the group’s early, pre-stardom days. I wasn’t into partying as a teen, and I also didn’t like pretty boy bands moving in on real metal territory in the mainstream, so I never really got into it. It’s not like some kids weren’t drinking and smoking back when I was in high school. I just made the choice not to do it, and songs like this weren’t going to change my mind.

MERCYFUL FATE “Into The Coven”
Reason for inclusion: Occult.
I’m still a huge fan of Mercyful Fate. They sounded Gothic and evil, even though King Diamond’s falsetto really was an acquired taste that is understandably hard for some people to listen to; even me at times. I have always just loved the music and never took the Satanic angle very seriously, and I don’t know that I buy that King is a serious Satanist anyway. Even if he is or was, take a listen to the song “Melissa,” the title track from the album from where “Into The Coven” also hails. It is both incredibly moody and evocative, and unintentionally funny as it is about a Satanist mourning the death of his witch girlfriend and seeking murderous vengeance against the priest who killed her. It’s sad, yet funny. Seriously.

Reason for inclusion: Drug and alcohol use.
Sabbath has always gotten flack from people for being a seemingly occult band, yet they’re not. The giant cross that guitarist Tony Iommi has worn around his neck for decades should be the first hint. Further, “War Pigs” is one of the great anti-war metal anthems (“Generals gathered in their masses/Just like witches at black masses”), and while “Trashed” seems to glorify drinking and driving, it’s quite the opposite. It’s a confession about the protagonist’s dangerous behavior and the fatal path he’s racing down, akin to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution,” another misunderstood tune. While the video for this song shows a brazen young man recklessly drinking and flirting with loose women, they soon turn into zombies and chase him down to turn him into one of them, and he’s scared to death by it all. That’s certainly not an endorsement of partying hard at all, but the video’s horror imagery totally appealed to metal fans.

Reason for inclusion: Sex.
All I ever remembered about this video was four hot babes dancing around in sexy outfits outside a sleek, modern home. The lyrics weren’t racier than some soul songs from the Seventies — and certainly not as overt as “Superfreak” by the quartet’s funkmeister mentor Rick James — and I noticed that none of those earlier tunes were targeted. I think the PMRC probably objected to the video, and even then, it was tame. With the exception of a couple of shots, the girls were not even scantily clad. By the way, was the name Mary Jane Girls an homage to weed? Possibly, but I don’t recall anyone noticing.

VENOM “Possessed”
Reason for inclusion: Occult.
I doubt most or any of the metal bands professing to be Satanists in the Eighties really were. As the British would say, Venom were “taking the piss” and attempting to agitate some people with their evil shtick. While I liked some of their stuff back in the day, Venom weren’t particularly that good as musicians, at least early on, and they certainly didn’t inspire me to run out and practice occult rituals. It was just vicarious fun. The album this is from, Possessed, is a mixed bag. If I wanted truly consistent, evil sounding music, at least for my money, I listened to Slayer, Dark Angel or Mercyful Fate. Controversy about Satanic rock music ran rampant in the Eighties. Fans liked this stuff for the rebellious nature and the fact that religious folks were offended. Bands like Venom were perfect to produce a knee-jerk reaction from conservatives, although I’m sure some liberals were offended by the gratuitousness or perceived stupidity of it all.

Reason for inclusion: Sex.
I didn’t get what Lauper’s veiled homage to masturbation was about until I got older, although I honestly only heard it a few times and didn’t pay close attention. This tune’s harmless, and anyway, what’s wrong with a little self-love? Better that than hooking up with someone who isn’t good for you, like the reckless biker Lauper takes a ride with in this video while being pursued relentlessly by her disapproving family. This was an example of pinpointing something that wouldn’t have been an issue if it had been left alone, and I don’t think most people recall that there was controversy over it anyway.

Related Posts:

Flashback: The PMRC Hearings

Blackie Lawless Renounces His Past Sins

Ozzy Osbourne: Still Screaming

10 Responses

  1. Design That Rocks

    Excellent post. I remember going through the whole PMRC phase as a metal music fan and being so outraged…lol. With age comes wisdom, of course, and now I can see how some of the content was certainly not appropriate. However, I still believe that the judgment lies with the parents to be involved and aware of what their (and now my) children are listening to. My walls looked like yours…except nearly all KISS. Music, whether for shock or not, is a creative expression. We cannot limit that expression musically any more than we can tell an artist what they can and cannot paint. All we can do is teach our children well, explain things to them, and either enjoy or dismiss what we see and hear.

    As a side note…..I LOVE “Trashed” by Sabbath. I thought adding Ian to the BS mix was a great record (Born Again is one of my all time faves). Ironically, I had never seen the video before….classic cheese but I still love it. Won’t be sharing it with my 9 year-old daughter, but at least I am involved enough to make that choice.

    Again, great post!

  2. Jeff

    Nice treatment here of the “Filthy Fifteen”. I was really miffed when they published this list. I was not consulted on it and it was WAY too tame. Things like “She-Bop” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” would not have been on my list. My list would have been much more overt in every category. They had to find things that were more mainstream, and in doing so they diluted it.

  3. Aaron

    Ahh, memories! I, too, was outraged at the PMRC’s attack on my precious metal. And, who can forget how John Denver came to bat in defense of free speech. He rocked the Senate.

    And another vote for “Trashed”; always loved that tune, and “Zero the Hero”. Returning to the album years later, I wondered at the fact that every guitar solo fades in then fades out. It’s as if they let Tony shred over the whole tune and then just picked the best snippets.

    I’m tempted to post Betty Goo’s live version of “She Bop,” but… no.

  4. Jeff Kent

    Looks just like my room circa 1986. In fact there are still a few scraps up on the walls even though my parents just use the room for storage. Makes me smile every time I go back there.

  5. ned morlef

    I was a hormone raged young man. I didn’t even know the lyrics to most of the music I listened to. I got a line here and there, but for the most part I just wanted to hear ass kicking riffs and pounding bass lines. If ppl like Tipper would have kept their mouths shut most of us would have been none the wiser. I’m surprised anyone that sang old negro blues [like Led Zepplin, Stones got out of the way of these headhunters. It was just the beginning of a new age of McCarthyism. McCarthyism must have failed because the commies got into office and started making us pee in a cup to eat and hunting those of us down they couldn’t catch and shooting us in our bedrooms.

  6. andrews

    Alice Cooper was my vice, way before everyone else cottoned on to the commercial rock side of it around the Trash album. The blackened eyes and mouth just used to set everyone off… hahaha
    Hey, can anyone remember the title of the book that listed all the musos (even Cliff Richard!!) and why they were evil? It was a page-by-page assassination of anyone who was anyone in rock. I’m not sure if it was PMRC or not, but it was pretty popular around the end of the 80s. If anyone can remember I would appreciate it.

  7. Kristen

    What makes me laugh about the Filthy 15 is that it backfired against the PMRC. All the records that required the Parental Advisery sticker only guaranteed an increse in record sales for those bands, / performers. I was born in 1985, so I’ve only heard about the PMRC hearing years after the fact, but to see how songs such as “Dress You Up in My Love” by Madonna or “She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper and all the other songs listed are relatively tame by today’s standards. All those bored politicians who should have been focusing their jobs on the betterment of the country’s economy and building upon the United States’ infrastructure, had to waste their time picking on music stars, all because the fringe element of paranoid christian right fundamentalists fearing the devil in Rock N’ Roll and Pop music went to Capitol Hill to demand “these Evil people be dealt with!” Well guess what, it didn’t work! So, Sorry Paranoid people… the PMRC turned out to be a joke. Long live Heavy Metal and long may Satan reign!


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