rock and rap censorship

While the censorship of art is not a new phenomenon, recent years have witnessed renewed and intensified attempts to control popular culture. In particular, rap and rock music have come under increasing attack from various sides representing the entire left and right political spectrum, purportedly for their explicit sexual and violent lyrical contents. In this paper is investigated which moral codes underlie these claims against popular music, how social movements mobilize actions around these claims, and the way in which they are manifested in mechanisms of control targeted at rap and rock music. Moreover, I explore how the performers and fans of these musical styles have in turn articulated counter-claims, and how they have mobilized social forces in defense of the free expression of their art-form. The issue is addressed through an historical examination of the actions undertaken to censor and control rap and rock music since the founding of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in 1985.


Concerns over rock ‘n’ roll music have lead to public debate, political and legal actions, and law enforcement activities ever since its "invention" in 1955 (Jones 1991:75-76; McDonald 1988a:294-302). However, since the formation of the PMRC in 1985, a new, more organized and systematic attack to control popular music has been launched.

1. The Invasion of the "Washington Wives"

The Parents Music Resource Center was founded in 1985 as the result of the unusually combined efforts of a few concerned parents (Coletti 1987:421-426; Gray 1989a:151-153, 1989b:6-8; Kaufman 1986:228-231; McDonald 1988a:302-106; Roldan 1987:222-231). Tipper Gore, wife of current Vice-President and then Senator of Tennessee Albert Gore, bought the album "Purple Rain" by Prince for her then 11-year old daughter. She was shocked to find out that one of the songs on the album, "Darling Nikki", contained a reference to female masturbation. The same Prince song was also listened to by the daughter of free-lance journalist Kandy Stroud, who was shocked to discover that her daughter was exposed to "unabashedly sexual lyrics" (Stroud 1985:14). Around the same time, Susan Baker, wife of former Treasury Secretary and White House Chief of Staff James Baker, overheard her 7-year old child sing along to "Like a Virgin" by Madonna, which lead her to realize "what’s going on in pop music" (quoted in Roldan 1987:223). Also around the same time, Pam Howar, wife of a wealthy construction executive, noticed the lyrical contents of the songs she was dancing to during her aerobics classes, and discovered that her daughter was listening to the same kind of music over breakfast. In April of 1985 the concerned parents, together with Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington D.C. council chairman John Nevius, and Ethelynn Stuckley, wife of former Congressman Williamson Stuckley, joined forces: on May 13, 1985, they formed the non-profit, tax-exempt organization Parents Music Resource Center. Under the Presidency of Pamela Howar, the PMRC compiled a mailing list to appeal to similarly concerned parents and to raise money.

Soon after its formation, affiliates of the PMRC included several U.S. Congressmen and Representatives. On the same day of the PMRC’s formation, Edward Fritts, President of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), wrote over 800 letters to radio and TV stations warning against pornographic record lyrics, and requesting that record companies affix lyric sheets to all recordings sent to broadcasters (U.S. Senate 1985:133; see Kaufman 1986:236). The main goals of the PMRC were to inform parents about the music their youngsters were exposed to through radio broadcasts, in record stores, or at concerts, and to request the record industry for voluntary restraint with regard to explicit and obscene music. The PMRC specifically proposed a rating system, similar to the movie ratings system used by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and requested that specific warning labels be placed on album covers (Coletti 1987:424-425). The PMRC also suggested that song lyrics be printed on the album covers, records with obscene covers be placed under the counters of record stores, record companies should reconsider their contracts with performers who displayed sex or violence during shows or on records, radio stations be furnished with lyric sheets, backward masking be banned from all