Playing God
Treating Dandruff by Decapitation

prince catching a girl in a hotel lobby pleasuring herself with a magazine and singing to the world about it was an epochal event. More than 20 years have passed since Tipper Gore and other Washington wives created the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC), based on the song’s dirty lyrics. And while the PMRC is now largely forgotten, the Parental Advisory stickers or “Tipper Stickers” remain on the covers of records judged to have explicit lyrics. Tipper, wife of then-Tennessee Senator Al Gore, led the attack after hearing Prince sing to her 12-year-old daughter Karenna about “Darling Nikki” who lived in a castle with “so many devices / Everything that money could buy / She said ‘Sign your name on the dotted line.’” Formed to advise the recording industry on how children were vulnerable to morally questionable music and to guide them into watching what it released, the PRMC had an enormous impact, climaxing in a U.S. Senate investigation into the “pornographic content of rock music.”

At the hearings, the arrows flew—opponents accused the PMRC of advocating indirect censorship and violating the First Amendment. A coalition of opponents like Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, John Denver, and Frank Zappa were called in. Zappa put it this way: “It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC’s demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.” He later carped, “Taken as a whole, the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of ‘toilet training program’ to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few. Ladies, how dare you?”

The issue of placing warning stickers on releases was battled out for the next five years. Many major retailers refused to stock labeled records until the Recording Industry Association of America finally compromised and had its members voluntarily put the Tipper stickers on album covers. To many eyes, they were seals of quality. While the PMRC mainly chased metal and hard rock, the carnage and rage heard in the gangsta rap of artists like N.W.A. and Ice-T looked much sexier to rebellious adolescents with those black-and-white labels. Zappa himself may have had a slight defeat, but he earned great sympathy when his 1986 album Jazz From Hell, became the one and only instrumental album labeled with “explicit content.”

Stylus has decided to revisit the moment when the PMRC first shouted its name. In 1985, they issued a list of 15 songs with lyrics they deemed immoral and dangerous to the vulnerable minds of youth. Today, most of the “Filthy Fifteen” seem downright quaint. If anything, the Tipper Stickers made much music more explicit: everything is permissible as long as parents are warned. Few of the “Filthy Fifteen” songs (written long before the stickers) contain curse words, while many are laden with clever innuendo that the PMRC publicized (and popularized) as hidden filth. To be fair, the PMRC did have a valid argument that music and other mass media art can affect children and adult’s impressionable minds in ways that parents can barely control. But it’s hard to say how the “Filthy Fifteen” negatively affected teenagers who are now going on age 40. Let’s take a look and try to find out what all the fuss was about.

15. Cyndi Lauper – “She-Bop” [Sex and Masturbation]
“No, I won’t worry, and I won’t fret / Ain’t no law against it yet,” our girl coos. Indeed, there is no U.S. law against women privately gratifying themselves or who just “wanna go out with a lion’s roar.” The synth-pop beat and melodies that shove everyone to make way are too loud and showbizy to make anyone on the junior high dancefloor notice that Lauper is telling them that she can play with herself anytime she damn well wants.

14. Venom – “Possessed” [Occult]
This is music that televangelist shows like the 700 Club would play to scare God-fearing and credit card-armed parents into buying the latest guide to warding off Satan and getting their little Dungeons & Dragons gamers out of their basements. Venom’s Conrad “Coronos” Lant first gets on his knees to tell a possessed lad to look into his eyes. “Look at me, Satan’s child / Born of evil thus defiled / Brought to life through Satanic birth / Raised in Hell to live on Earth.” He then takes him on a golf cart tour of the apocalypse. “We drink the vomit of the priests / Make love with the dying whore / We suck the blood of the beast / And hold the key to death’s door,” he informs. The band trudges along with a rudimentary metal sound that could convince many that they too can walk with the devil if they just knew a few chords.

13. The Mary Jane Girls – “In My House” [Sex]
Maybe if the Girls wore shoulder-padded power suits and called themselves the Virginia Slims Girls, the PMRC would’ve left them alone. In his Spice Girls/Village People-style creation, producer Rick James typecasts the ladies as porn stock characters who were proud to be holla back girls. He did craft some ace electro-funk with their sugar daddy ode “Candy Man,” and “In My House” treads the same waters. The randiest they ever get is the line, “When it comes down to making love / I’ll satisfy your every need,” though. Other than that, they sing out Hallmark card greetings sappy enough to cause marriage proposals that’ll lead to happy nuclear families with 2.5 children and a good credit rating.

12. Black Sabbath – “Trashed” [Drug and Alcohol Use]
Ozzy was long gone when his replacement Ian Gillian proposed this toast to drunk driving at 105 miles-per-hour. It is a pitiful sound, the former knights of the court charging the battlefield with rusted swords and armor. “Ooh Mr. Miracle, you saved me from some pain / I thank you Mr. Miracle, I won’t get trashed again / Ooh, can you hear my lies / Don’t you bother with this fool, just laugh into my eyes,” Gillian sings to his empty bottle. Bless his soul.

11. Mercyful Fate – “Into the Coven” [Occult]
Another tourist trip to Hell, but this one is quite startling for how King Diamond wails his falsetto. But it makes sense in this cartoon of a song, where his vocals swing between Jekyll and Hyde. “Howl like a wolf / And a witch will open the door / Follow me and meet our high priestess,” he beckons. The Danish band follows a typical Judas Priest-style metal rumble and the lyrics take their cues from scriptures written by ex-lounge singer/Church of Satan founder Anton LeVey. “Suck the blood from this unholy knife / Say after me: ‘My soul belongs to Satan.’” I’ll wait in the car.

10. Def Leppard – “High ‘n’ Dry” [Drug and alcohol use]
Good lord, I remember Iron Maiden’s TV public service announcement where Bruce Dickinson told the kids something like, “Remember, don’t drink ‘n’ drive, you don’t want to end up like Eddie.” He pointed to the giant face of the band’s famous zombie mascot that grinned away. God knows how many Eddies became undead after hearing Def Leppard tell them they are Somebodys with Demon Whiskey in their veins. “I'm not a loner, I'm not a fool / Don't need a reason, reason to be cool / I got my whiskey, I got my wine / I got my woman, and this time the lights are going out / Saturday night,” Joe Elliott tells the world. The song’s bright guitar hook actually does well in evoking that drunken moment of escape and complacency before bitter reality interrupts. It’s interesting how songs that cheer boozing rarely cause any controversy these days.

09. W.A.S.P. – “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” [Sex]
The PMRC made these desperate LA shock-rockers a household name when their ode to smut-inspired mating made the Filthy Fifteen. This is the first song on this list that actually feels dirty, a little like lying down in some lonely, sexually frustrated bloke’s bed with sheets that haven’t been washed for years. “I got pictures of naked ladies / Lying on their beds / I whiff that smell and sweet convulsion,” Blackie Lawless yowls. He later announces, “I'm making artificial lovers for free / I start to howl I'm in heat / I moan and growl and the hunt drives me crazy.” Ladies, mace him when he gets within two feet of you.

08. Madonna – “Dress You Up” [Sex]
Like the Mary Jane Girls’ “In My House,” this is a baffler. “Gonna dress you up in my love / All over your body,” Maddie proposes in a charming off-key warble. That’s the most risqué part of this song that can play at any 8-year-old’s birthday party or hawk khakis at The Gap. Madonna? Bulletproof.

07. Twisted Sister – “We’re Not Gonna Take It” [Violence]
Dee Snider told Sen. Al Gore and the rest of his senate committee that he was a Christian man. Gore asked him what the “SMF” in the SMF Fans of Twisted Sister fan club stood for. “It stands for the Sick Motherfucking Fans of Twisted Sister,” Snider replied. The senator asked, “Is this also a Christian group?” Dee responded, “I do not believe profanity has anything to do with Christianity, thank you.” Nonetheless, Snider was quite the demon for Middle America; his harpy warpaint and “I’m going to swallow you whole” grimace sold it well. But this song is no more than old-fashioned, kiss-my-ass-ma-and-pa defiance that is tailor-made for any awkward 13-year-old who lost half of his childhood to his Atari and is bound to drop out from a community college during his first semester—and later convert to Christianity.

06. AC/DC – “Let Me Put My Love Into You” [Sex]
The obscene word is “love.” Brian Johnson squeals: “Let me put my love into you, babe / Let me put my love on the line / Let me put my love into you, babe / Let me cut your cake with my knife.” The tribute to womanizing conquests continues, “Don't you struggle / Don't you fight / Don't you worry / 'Cause it's your turn tonight.” Be a virus, see the world.

05. Motley Crue – “Bastard” [Violence]
Since when is revenge against a rapist obscene? Motley Crue displays their stand for social justice and women’s rights in this early song where they go medieval on the culprit. “Make it quick, blow off his head Got your neck in the noose / I got nothing to lose / We're really gonna screw you / Consider that bastard dead,” Vince Neil assures. Any riot grrrl band could’ve sung that, one might suppose. But then again, they later returned to the meat market in “Girls, Girls, Girls” and lost their brownie points.

04. Vanity – “Strap on Robby Baby” [Sex]
This is a difficult song to find as Denise “Vanity” Smith disowned her musical past because Jesus Christ told her so. The Prince protégé is best known for her ode to being a boy toy in Vanity 6’s hit, “Nasty Girls.” She went solo and ditched the offer to be his Barbie doll in the musical comedy Purple Rain, before releasing this number with a self-explanatory title. Britney ought to cover it to save her career.

03. Judas Priest – “Eat Me Alive” [Sex]
This monster truck rally-rawk tune is justified in being listed here. It doesn’t matter that frontman Rob Halford was in the closet and that his band was filled with homoerotic overtones all along: rape is still rape. “Gut-wrenching frenzy / That deranges every joint / I’m gonna force you at gun point,” he wails. “Bound to deliver as / You give and I collect / Squealing impassioned as / The rod of steel injects…Lunge to the maximum / Spread-eagled to the wall / You’re well equipped to take it all.” Quite grotesque, much more than………

02. Sheena Easton – “Sugar Walls” [Sex]
“That's the place where all the good children go./The houses are of silver, the streets of gold / But there's more where you come from—my sugar walls,” Easton croons to Prince’s teasing synth-funk riff. Zingers like “Come inside my sugar walls” and “Blood races to your private spots / Let’s me know there’s a fire” were more than enough to win her the silver, although the Freudian touch is still up for interpretation. But this is PG-rated fluff: parents could explain away to the kids that Easton was singing about her sugarcube house, just like the ones they made at school, right?

01. Prince – “Darling Nikki” [Sex and Masturbation]
He made Appolonia cry and run out of a club when he played this dedication to her in Purple Rain. The song is basically a generic plot for a Playboy Channel flick with Nikki getting caught with the magazine in the hotel lobby (Which title? Forbes? Junk bonds were sexy in the Eighties, you know), and then taking Prince to her manor for the usual. Who knew they were such revolutionaries?

By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2006-01-23
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