Angus Young, AC/DC’s master of the six-string power chord and the onstage two-cheek salute, doesn’t expect Tipper Gore to like him. AC/DC’s brand of brazen metalismo isn’t supposed to appeal to kempt, conservative moms like Gore, ramrod of the Parents Music Resource Center drive to corral rock lyrics. All Young expects is a little forbearance.
“People who want to strangle other people’s rights are possessed by one of the worst devils around—the Satan in their souls which is called intolerance,” Young maintains. “Rock ‘n’ roll is about one simple thing: freedom. When someone tries to murder that freedom, we’re against it.”
Young is not alone. Rockers may not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but they did need last month’s hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee to spur them to action. Though Frank Zappa, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and John Denver showed up to wave the First Amendment and decry the call for warning labels on records and tapes, the day belonged to the well-connected Washington wives who constitute PMRC. And how could it be otherwise? Among the sympathetic ears on the committee was Tennessee Democrat Albert Gore Jr., Tipper’s husband.
In response, a growing number of musicians, industry executives and rank-and-file rock ‘n’ rollers are rushing to the barricades, their message, in effect, borrowed from Twisted Sister: We’re Not Gonna Take It.
The most prominent counteroffensive is being waged by the Musical Majority, a coalition of artists and industry figures founded by Danny Goldberg, the 35-year-old president of Gold Mountain Records. Members include Hall & Oates, John Cougar Mellencamp, Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon, June Pointer, Andy Taylor of Duran Duran, Jack Blades of Night Ranger and former Eagles Glenn Frey and Don Henley. Goldberg was alarmed by the tone of the Senate hearing (“musical McCarthyism,” in Blades’ phrase). “I have a personal revulsion for violence or negativity of any kind in music,” Goldberg explains, “but I have an even stronger revulsion for anything that smacks of blacklisting.”
While Goldberg has been mobilizing his big-name lobbying effort, Michael Ross, 28, a Sacramento process server and founder of the 100-member Citizens Against Music Censorship, is launching a letter-writing campaign aimed at elected officials and record companies. In Los Angeles the anti-sticker forces have picked up additional support from Mayor Tom Bradley, who called a press conference to express concern “about this imposition on free thought and on freedom of expression.” Meanwhile, Dusty Street, a popular deejay on L.A.’s influential KROQ-FM, has used her position to lash out at the PMRC.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the pro-rock backlash is the depth of its grass roots, a factor with which the women of the PMRC seem out of touch. PEOPLE’s own Sept. 16 report on the lyrics controversy generated 2,035 letters, the most of any article in the magazine’s history. What troubled 90 percent of the writers was not rock’s putative excesses but the specter of censorship. Ann Landers might be expected to have a fairly conservative readership, but when she asked for responses to a letter blaming pop music for teen suicides and drug abuse, among other problems, she got blitzed—the first 20,000 letters running 90 to 1 in defense of rock.
The competing issues in the debate are nowhere more clear than in San Antonio, where a 50-year-old mother and antidrug volunteer named Bobbie Mueller alarmed the city council last spring with tales of preteens at a Kiss concert singing along to a little number about getting wasted and repeatedly shouting an unprintable at singer Paul Stanley’s instigation. This led to a council resolution ordering the city attorneys to draft an ordinance barring the tender in age from raunchy concerts. How raunchy is raunchy and how young is too young? The city hired a child psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Demski, to advise them. Mayor Henry Cisneros, by most standards a liberal, explains: “We’re trying to determine the age group that might be inordinately influenced by certain rock groups, much as we’ve tacitly decided as a nation to limit what age groups can go to certain movies.”
While the ordinance has not yet been submitted, opposition has already crystallized. “How am I supposed to tell the difference between a 13 year old and a 14 year old?” asks Jack Orbin, 37-year-old president of Stone City Attractions, which books 90 percent of the city’s rock concerts. “None of the kids that age carries an ID.” Local fans are also taking up the cudgels. Mike Courtney, a 26-year-old construction worker, has formed a group called Rock, Inc., which sets up booths outside San Antonio concert sites to register voters against the proposed ordinance. Most of the 19 members of Rocking Youths Defending Equal Rights, or RYDER, are too young to vote. “But we will be able to vote someday,” says 18-year-old Mandi Cerda, one of RYDER’S three founders, “and we want these politicians to know that.”
To make the point that you don’t have to be a degenerate to like heavy metal, RYDER recruits most of its members from the honor roll. “We have goals, we want things, but we listen to heavy metal and it hasn’t ruined our minds,” says co-founder Rita Barrientos, 17. “I want to tell parents that we hear the foul language every day. We read it in books. There’s no way they can protect us from it.” Like her opponents, however, Rita’s tolerance does have its limits. “Country music just disgusts me,” she says. “Every other song on the country stations is about somebody losing his wife or about love. Why don’t they do something about those songs?”
Clearly, music appreciation is a highly subjective matter. Which is what worries rock’s defenders. “I wrote Building the Perfect Beast about genetic engineering and man’s obsession with his physical self,” says Don Henley. “Certain fundamentalist groups have branded the song occult.” Snipes Daryl Hall: “Dirty minds somehow see dirty lyrics where none exist.”
To be sure, dirty lyrics do exist, though many represent marginal cuts on albums or marginal acts. Rock’s supporters find it ominous and ironic that the attack should be coming now, in a year that has produced some of rock’s proudest—and most political—moments, with U.S.A. for Africa, Live Aid, Farm Aid and the antiapartheid anthem Sun City. “That is where the real mainstream of the music industry is,” says Goldberg.
“I think the Musical Majority is wildly overreacting,” counters Tipper Gore. “There are many aspects of the rock music industry that are tremendously positive. We have been highlighting the excesses.” But will that highlighting have the effect the PMRC desires? James Bonk, executive vice-president of Camelot, one of the nation’s largest record-retailing chains, thinks not. A warning label, he told an industry convention in October, will simply make teenagers “more likely to seek out that forbidden fruit.” Though Gore insists that “our approach is not censorship,” many observers fear that warning labels would lead to a kind of de facto censorship. Many record stores operating in shopping malls, says Bonk, are subject to lease clauses that give the landlord “the right to ask the tenant to pull any merchandise that is deemed morally objectionable.” Sears and J.C. Penney have reportedly decided that they won’t handle stickered LPs. A spokesman for the 810-store Wal-Mart chain, which wouldn’t carry recent albums by Mötley Crüe and Scorpion because of their cover art, acknowledges that Wal-Mart would “scrutinize” stickered merchandise much “more carefully.”
Right now the industry is waiting for the other sneaker to drop. The Recording Industry Association of America has been huddling with the PMRC and the National PTA to hammer out a compromise solution. It would probably involve warning labels of some kind, and 24 record companies have said they would go along with that. But nine others, including MCA, Geffen, Island and Goldberg’s own Gold Mountain, have refused to participate. To appease the Washington wives (compliance is voluntary in any case), the RIAA may offer an alternative—printing the lyrics on album covers or providing store clerks with lyric sheets.
That pill might be swallowed. “I would be willing to publish my lyrics,” says Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon. “You could compare it with listing ingredients in food.” But artists might still feel pressure to conform if most companies caved in to the pressure for labels. “The worst result,” says Goldberg, “would be that the level of creativity would drop so that we would be in a situation like that of the Soviet Union, which is not known for its great music.”
The PMRC has lowered its lance in the name of children. But according to RIAA figures, 10-to-14-year-olds—the group most often cited as in jeopardy by the PMRC—represent only 5 percent of record buyers. The question ultimately arises about whose responsibility it is to shield those youngsters—the recording artists’ or the parents’.
“It’s a shame that these parents have so little communication with their children that they have to try to force record companies to do their jobs for them,” says Henley. “If we want to get to the root of the problem, I think we should concern ourselves with finding out why so many of these kids are mixed up in the first place. Maybe we should sticker parents and school systems.”