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August 17, 2007

How John Denver Saved Civilization

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

litbrit's invocation of Frank Zappa reminded me of a spectacular moment in history.  In 1985, the Parents' Music Resource Center, led by Tipper Gore, was trying to impose a ratings system on music similar to the ratings system for movies.  The incongruous trio of Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and John Denver were called before Congress to testify in defense of music.  From Barry Miles' Zappa:

Pressured by their wives, the congressmen held an impartial forum to investigate the sorry state of the record industry. Senator Hollings (whose wife was a signatory to the RIAA letter) said, 'If I could do away with all of this music constitutionally, I would'.  The Senate hearing on 19 September 1985 was fixed in favor of the PMRC.  The five-hour event was a media circus with 35 television feeds, 50 photographers, plus reporters and members of the public. 

At the Senate hearing, Zappa was by far the most eloquent speaker, though he undermined his credibility by imitating the southern accents of some of the PMRC wives.  Dee Snider from Twisted Sister proved to be much more articulate than the PMRC had expected and was able to contradict much of their testimony, but it was John Denver who did the most damage to the PMRC cause.  Clean-cut and all-American, he held fast to the First Amendment, telling the Chairman, "Sir, we cannot have any kind of censorship whatsoever."

Dee Snider described Denver's testimony. "And here they were, falling all over themselves, complimenting him about the work he'd done for world peace and hunger and all his good efforts, and saying 'But Mr. Denver, don't you think we could have just a little bit, just some ratings on records?'  And he says 'Absolutely not.' He wouldn't budge.  He had everything backed up.  He was devastating.  But to watch the press coverage, you wouldn't even know that John Denver was there for the most part.  He was the most damaging, they gave him the least press."

John Denver's testimony (along with that of the others) is here, if you're curious to read more. 

August 17, 2007 | Permalink


Those hearings ended Snider's career.

Right from the beginning, rock 'n roll was about rebellion. Rock stars are supposed to be the modern-day outlaws, living by their own rules, sticking it to The Man. When Snider got up there and talked about how he didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't do drugs, and didn't bang groupies ... he was toast.

Posted by: Thlayli | Aug 17, 2007 4:33:49 PM

Does anyone ask Al Gore what he thinks about this sort of thing these days? He was a big booster of all this nanny-state ism and jawboning of the music & movie industries.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Aug 17, 2007 4:37:54 PM

One of the greatest things the PMRC did was force lyrics to be published with the albums. I loved reading those.

Posted by: crack | Aug 17, 2007 4:44:35 PM

Well, we have labeling these days-- now I'm old enough to be more annoyed than impressed by the 'EXPLICIT' labels on iTunes; what the hell am I supposed to listen for when there's only a 30-second preview clip?-- and the world hasn't ended, although I remember my mom being pissed at the time. But Tipper & Frank Zappa became friends before he died, IIRC.

Posted by: latts | Aug 17, 2007 4:48:04 PM

Those hearings ended Snider's career

Yeah, that and his terrible music.

Posted by: Jason | Aug 17, 2007 5:05:42 PM

Ratings for music was never a big deal, no more than for movies, which we somehow manage to live with, and which a fair number of people find useful. Zappa's testimony about this made him a hero to some, but I wasn't impressed by the adolescent attitude, name-calling, invocation of Nazism, and otherwise bad and superficial arguments. I didn't even know Denver testified too. Zappa got most of the attention.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 17, 2007 6:01:00 PM

It could've been a big deal, Sanpete, depending on the particulars of the rating system, and whether it carried any legal consequences for who could buy what music. I'm glad that my little sister (who just finished her freshman year at Chicago, and has some interest in music journalism) could listen to anything she wanted before she turned 18.

Of course, these days the internet makes it really hard to prevent music from going wherever people want it, but that wasn't the case until 10+ years after the hearings.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Aug 17, 2007 6:08:51 PM

Sanpete, the ratings as we know them today were actually opposed by the PMRC, which wanted a much more extensive rating system-- the hearings themselves occurred after the RIAA agreed to the "explicit lyrics" warnings, which were considered insufficient for the PMRC.

And Frank Zappa was awesome, if only for this piece of testimony:

"While the wife of the Secretary of the Treasury recites 'Gonna drive my love inside you' and Senator Gore's wife talks about 'bondage' and 'oral sex at gunpoint' on the CBS evening News, people in high places work on a tax bill that is so ridiculous, the only way to sneak it through is to keep the public's mind on something else: Porn rock."

The PMRC creating far more public hoopla than their cause warranted. But, as his usual with Sanpete, when the people involved are wearing ties, they are assumed to be Very Serious People whom we must listen to, regardless of the absurdities that are being foisted on the public.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 17, 2007 6:12:58 PM

My favorite exchange:

Born-Again Christian: Some of those things are not normal sexual relations.

Frank Zappa: It doesn't mean you have to do them. Information doesn't kill you...

BAC: They're too young to know the difference.

FZ: Children learn the difference by receiving information which they can store and sort with your help as a parent. If you don't let them know about this stuff, they'll grow up and be ignorant.

BAC: I would rather have them ignorant of some things. [Applause]

FZ: Anyone who would rather have their children be ignorant is making a mistake -- because then they can be victims.

That the "[Applause]" comes after the Born Again Christian's last line as opposed to Zappa's speaks (disturbing) volumes about our culture.

Posted by: Brian Cook | Aug 17, 2007 6:46:12 PM

Actually, Snider was there because Tipper overplayed her hand. Snider's music was all harmless generic rebellion-- he sang "We're not gonna take it", but he never said what we weren't gonna take. His other songs were about how "You Can't Stop Rock 'N' Roll" and "I Wanna Rock", hardly offensive.

But the thing was, the video for We're Not Gonna Take It featured the fantasies of a teenager, carrying out cartoon-style violence against his school's headmaster. Anyone could see this was a homage to Tom And Jerry and Roadrunner-Wile E. Coyote cartoons, but Tipper apparently missed the joke. So Al Gore, chairing the committee, hauled Dee Snider into Congress, only to find out that he was in no way a villain. There were people that they could have brought in who could have made their point (Ozzy Osbourne, Wendy O. Williams, etc.). But they brought in Dee Snider, and he turned out to be completely harmless.

I should say that this whole episode was all Al Gore's fault and a cautionary tale for those who like the modern, Hillary Clinton style first lady who has a policy portfolio. Tipper cared about this, so she was able to leverage her marriage to a powerful Senator into a McCarthy-esqe misuse of congressional power. Really, I think we will know when we have accomplished something on the feminism front when the standard political marriage is like Tony and Cherie Blair-- i.e., the first lady having a career, not the first lady having a policy proposal because of who she is married to.

Posted by: Dilan Esper | Aug 17, 2007 6:46:20 PM

Also, don't forget this one, from page 58 of the linked transcript (I still remember it 22 years later):

"Senator EXON. Mr. Chairman, thank you very much.

"Mr. Zappa, let me say that I was surprised that Senator Gore knew and liked your music. I must confess that I have never heard any of your music, to my knowledge.

"Mr. ZAPPA. I would be more than happy to recite my lyrics to you.

"Senator EXON. Can we forgo [sic] that?

"Senator GORE. You have probably never heard of the Mothers of Invention.

"Senator EXON. I have heard of Glen Miller and Mitch Miller. Did you ever perform with them?

"Mr. ZAPPA. As a matter of fact, I took music lessons in grade school from Mitch Miller's brother.

"Senator EXON. That is the first sign of hope we have had in this hearing."

Posted by: Dilan Esper | Aug 17, 2007 6:49:13 PM

Tipper stickers are dumb; but I'll take any excuse to post the video of Gwar on Joan Rivers.

Rrrgh, comment spam filters are pwning me. Google it. It's hilarious.

Posted by: Maxwell | Aug 17, 2007 6:53:48 PM

Neil, it's not that nothing was at stake, there was just way too much made of it on both sides. About rating music, I mean. The issue of the harmful effects of popular music, television, whatever, is a serious topic.

But, as his usual with Sanpete, when the people involved are wearing ties, they are assumed to be Very Serious People whom we must listen to, regardless of the absurdities that are being foisted on the public.

You mean Zappa, Denver, et al weren't wearing ties, Tyro, and that Tipper Gore was? Zappa's testimony was mostly a train of Silliness trying to be Very Serious too, including the part you like so much, which was primarily a bit of paranoia. He had some points worth making, but they were made better by others.

a McCarthy-esqe misuse of congressional power

Better than Zappa's comparison to Naziism, I suppose.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 17, 2007 7:11:13 PM

What about Zappa's Jon Stewart-esque performance on Crossfire some years back?

Posted by: Joe Klein's conscience | Aug 17, 2007 9:26:40 PM

Haven't seen it, and have dial-up so I can't easily view it online.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 17, 2007 11:18:51 PM

So happy to learn there are more than a few of us Zappaphiles out here. Since our gracious Brazil-bound host has given us Reservoir Bloggers the keys to the store for a little while, I'll gather together some of my favorite clips--the Vaclav Havel visit, the Crossfire appearance, etc., and put them in a post this weekend. Oh yes--I must also share with you Frank's brilliant testimony in the British courts, as recounted in his autobiography. He's wittier than my fellow countrymen by a mile of powdered wigs, which fact I'm admitting with equal parts embarrassment and admiration.

Posted by: litbrit | Aug 17, 2007 11:22:29 PM

Great find. My mom used to work at a nursing home and had a terminal patient who loved John Denver. Her family wrote John Denver and he made a personal tape for the woman to play at her bedside. John Denver was alright. My favorite part of the hearing...

Mr. DENVER. ...What most concerns me, aside from potential legislation which might be enacted, which we have heard today is not going to be the case, is that the whole presentation by the PMRC comes from in my experience a foundation of fear.

The only thing we have to fear, as President Roosevelt said, is fear itself. I am not afraid of anything. I am not afraid of what my children might see. I am not afraid of anything that might be shown them or done in their presence that would lessen my influence on them or their opportunity to grow, to be fine upstanding adults, and perhaps some day serve in this very august body.

Senator HOLLINGS. Well, most respectfully, President Roosevelt never heard these records.

What kind of fool do you have to be to find music to be a greater threat than fascism?

Posted by: joejoejoe | Aug 18, 2007 12:45:56 AM


John Denver, Carl Sagan and Jim Henson. Three giants who formed my understanding of how the world is SUPPOSED to work. All dead. All buried. All but forgotten.

Posted by: Chris Andersen | Aug 18, 2007 1:21:17 AM

that john denver's full of shit.

Posted by: farren | Aug 18, 2007 2:13:12 AM

On the subject of movie ratings, see here.

Posted by: hf | Aug 18, 2007 2:57:30 AM

The issue of the harmful effects of popular music, television, whatever, is a serious topic.

Well, really, no, it's not; there may be some serious discussion of the coarsening of our culture to be had, but the idea that "Darling Nikki" was going to destroy our kids was pretty much nonsense, something even Tipper Gore has had to back off from in the years that have followed. The point is that Denver - God bless him - was actually right. Censorship is censorship, and what the PMRC originally proposed was just that. And, as everybody knew then and now, slapping "warning: explicit" tags onto albums turns out to be... a great way to sell "explicit" content. Moreover, people who remain concerned about this should remember that Wal-Mart uses its market dominance to require labels and artists to release "cleaned up" versions of albums they find objectionable - which can be simply bleeping any dirty word, but has involved more significant alterations to songs (and the refusal of Wal Mart to carry product by certain artists)... and that, ultimately, has an effect on how labels do business and what kinds of acts they sign. This stuff materially affects sales.

I don't love how coarse and unpleasant the public dialogue has become, but giving singers and songwriters a hard time for putting dirty words or nasty thoughts into their lyrics is silly. We can't, really, stop it - especially not in a country where we put such a value (and it strikes me, correctly) on free speech. If there's a "serious" discussion to be had, this surely wasn't it. And if we want more "decency" it strikes me the place to start is, well, you know, being decent. That's pretty much how I approach it.

Posted by: weboy | Aug 18, 2007 10:39:11 AM

Weboy, what exactly is it about what you quoted from me that you're disagreeing with? The quote isn't about censorship.

It isn't only coarsening; it's also misogyny, violence, etc. And sex too, even if liberals hate the thought sex everywhere and at all times might not be a good thing. Is it really desirable for kids' worlds to be so saturated by sexuality everywhere they look and listen? It's hard enough growing up without that.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 18, 2007 2:19:49 PM

I'm quite happy with the sexual saturation of my media environment from age 13-18. In fact, I don't think it was quite saturated enough -- a little more nudity and sex would've been a great thing.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Aug 18, 2007 2:35:11 PM

Why, Neil? You think 13 is a good age to start having sex, or is there some other reason? And why do you specify any age range? This has no age limits. 10-year-olds are saturated in the same ways.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 18, 2007 3:18:25 PM

Maybe he was happy for the masturbation fodder. I was.

Posted by: mad6798j | Aug 18, 2007 4:07:50 PM

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