Unwise Conventional Wisdom

In politics, there are some stories that just won’t die. Bill Clinton tied up all of LAX for a haircut. Not true. Al Gore claimed he invented the internet. Not true. Tipper Gore was pro-censorship. Not true.

A few times now, someone’s brought up the bit about Tipper, and her “crusade” against musical artists, most recently in comments last night, when Konagod asked, “Has Tipper Gore gotten past her inquisition phase regarding music lyrics?” And each time, it irritates the bejesus out of me that this story still won’t die, so let’s just get it cleared up right now.

In 1985, she, along with Pam Howar and Susan Baker, founded the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Their primary goals were a ratings system (similar to those issued by the MPAA for films), advisories about explicit/controversial lyrics on album covers, and obscuring covers depicting graphic violence or sex. Never, ever was their goal to censor artists—and, in reality, during the mid-80s, at the height of Reagan conservatism, there was a significant push in some quarters for censorship. That the PMRC was concerned with legislation that would allow artists to produce whatever they want, but still give purchasers (particularly parents, buying for their kids) fair information about the product, was completely obscured. They were lumped into the censorship camp. Unfairly.

Frank Zappa and Larry Flynt—two men who have been admirable defenders of First Amendment rights—led the charge against Tipper and the PMRC, accusing them of censorship, calling Tipper a “cultural terrorist” and names that were significantly nastier. It was a bad read of the situation, although, in some way understandable, considering that the culture was very divided then, much as it is now. (And, in truth, some of the allies who jumped on PMRC's bandwagon were significantly more radical, which didn't help PMRC's cause in the eyes of artists.)

It helps to understand the genesis of her interest. Tipper was moved to action when she bought Prince’s Purple Rain for her then-young daughter, because she liked the single “Let’s Go Crazy.” That song had no objectionable content, but the track “Darling Nikki” opens with “I knew a girl named Nikki; I guess U could say she was a sex fiend / I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine.” At the time, there was no way for Tipper, as a mother, to know that the album was not appropriate for a young child, because the single “Let’s Go Crazy” was appropriate. She thought it would be wise, if artists were to be free to produce whatever content they wanted, to give consumers a heads-up, like we had come to expect with movies (and now also expect with TV shows and video games). Not really such an insane idea, and certainly not akin to censorship.

(In fact, it was a lot less so than Hillary Clinton’s rumblings about video game internet code downloads. She should simply point to the ratings system and tell parents to stop buying shit for kids that they’ve been warned is for mature consumers.)

The issue that some artists had at the time was that the advisories would lead to diminished sales, which would then cause artists to self-censor in order to sell more albums. And that may have been a legitimate concern (though it turned out to be unfounded), but it was not the same as Tipper and/or the PMRC requesting that artists be censored.

In any case, by 1987, Tipper regretted that things has turned out the way they had, and apologized for frightening the artistic community, saying “if I could rewrite the script, I certainly would.” Though she couldn’t, the least we can do is not rewrite history in her disfavor. Even the most progressive parents in the world want the opportunity to expose their children to magazine masturbation in their own good time.

(And, as an aside, I should mention that I find none of the above-mentioned ratings systems flawless. I absolutely despise the double-standards the MPAA, for example, applies to male and female nudity and gay and straight sexual content. That is, however, a whole other discussion. The idea of a ratings system isn't intrinsically bad; its application, however, can be very problematic.)

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