Free Speech

That Time Al and Tipper Gore Teamed Up To Brand Prince a Public Menace

Prince's "Darling Nikki" was number one on the censorious PMRC's "Filthy Fifteen" list.

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Prince is dead and we look to see who might replace him and see no one on the horizon. As Brian Doherty so aptly puts it, "he was a bold rebel in terms of image and message, playing with still-prevalent social confines of propriety in behavior, dress, and comportment, mixing sex and religion like they were his own personal possession he was generous enough to share with us, destroying color lines in pop music and its fandom."

More than Michael Jackson and arguably even more than Madonna—to name two other '80s icons who challenged all forms of social convention in a pop-music setting—Prince took us all to a strange new place that was better than the one we came from. (In this, his legacy recalls that of David Bowie.)

In the wake of the social progress of the past several decades, it's hard to recapture how threatening the Paisley One once seemed, this gender-bender guy who shredded guitar solos that put Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton to shame while prancing around onstage in skivvies and high heels. He was funkier than pre-criminality Rick James and minced around with less shame and self-consciousness than Liberace. Madonna broke sexual taboos by being sluttish, which was no small thing, but as a fey black man who surrounded himself with hotter-than-the-sun lady musicians, he was simultaneously the embodiment of campy Little Richard and that hoariest of White America boogeymen, the hypersexualized black man.

No wonder he scared the living shit out of ultra-squares such as Al and Tipper Gore. In 1985, the future vice president and planet-saver and his wife were, as Tipper's 1987 best-selling anti-rock, anti-Satanism, anti-sex manifesto put it, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society. Tipper headed up the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), whose sacred document was a list of songs it called "The Filthy Fifteen." These were songs that glorified sex, drugs, Satan, and masturbation and could pervert your kid—or even lead them to commit suicide. At number one on the list was Prince's "Darling Nikki," from his massive soundtrack record to Purple Rain (jeezus, wasn't that movie a revelation? Of what exactly, I can't remember, but finally, it seemed, a rock star had truly delivered on the genius we all wanted to see emerge from pop music into film).

On page 3 of Raising PG Kids, Tipper explained why that particular song had moved her to create an organization that would use the the threat of government action to clean up "sex and violence in the media":

In December 1984, I purchased Prince's best-selling album Purple Rain for my 11-year-old daughter….When we brought the album home, out it on our stereo, and listened to it together, we heard the words to…"Darling Nikki": "I knew a girl named Nikki/guess [you] could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine." The song went on and on, in a similar manner. I couldn't believe my ears! The vulgar lyrics embarrassed both of us. At first, I was stunned—then I got mad!

Of course, when you're the wife of a second-generation U.S. senator, your mad counts for more than most of the rest of us. In 1985, the Senate wasted its time and our money by holding a hearing on the dread menace of dirty lyrics and the whole bang-the-gong medley of backward masking, rock-induced suicide, and sexual promiscuity. Just a few years later, Al and Tipper would reinvent themselves as diehard Grateful Dead fans, the better to look hip while campaigning with Bill and Hillary Clinton (another couple of revanchist baby boomers who burned a hell of a lot time in the 1990s attacking broadcast TV and basic cable as impossibily violent and desperately in need of regulation).

But before pretending to grok the Dead, Al would showboat at "the first session on contents of music and the lyrics of records," where he appeared as a witness in favor of the PMRC's record-labeling system. Strangely enough, Al stressed—in front of a Senate subcommittee, mind you—that the government need not be involved.

The two most important things I have learned which have changed my initial attitude to this whole concern are, No. 1, the proposals made by those concerned about this problem do not involve a Government role of any kind whatsoever. They are not asking for any form of censorship or regulation of speech in any manner, shape, or form. 

What they are asking for is whether or not the music industry can show some self-restraint and working together in a manner similar to that used by the movie industry, whether or not they can come up with a voluntary guide system for parents who wish to exercise what they believe to be their responsibilities to their children, to try to prevent their children from being exposed to material that is not appropriate for them. 

The second thing I have learned over the past several months is that the kind of material in question is really very different from the kind of material which has caused similar controversies in past generations. It really is very different, and I think those who have not become familiar with this material will realize that fact when they see some of the examples that involve extremely popular groups that get an awful lot of play, some of the most popular groups around now.

It's more than a little strange, isn't it, that a sitting senator would insist—during a Senate hearing!—that this wasn't a government thing at all. 1985 is a long time ago, but it wasn't the middle ages, so the censors never copped to wanting to censor anything (especially a chart-topping record). But Al invoked the MPAA rating system which, like the Comics Code before it and "voluntary" TV ratings after it, were pressed upon industries with the sure threat of actual government regulation. But don't you see, Ma and Pa Kettle, things are so very different today, and songs like "Darling Nikki" weren't happy, coded odes to anal sex like "Tutti-Frutti" or whatever the fuck the Kingsmen were singing about in "Louie, Louie." No, today's "Filthy Fifteen" were about sex and masturbation (Cyndi Lauper's "She-Bop" was called out for this, as was another Prince-penned ditty, "Sugar Walls," sung by Sheena Easton); booze and drugs ("High 'n' Dry" by Def Leppard and "Trashed" by Black Sabbath); and the occult ("Into the Coven" by Mercyful Fate and "Possessed" by Venom). Tipper devoted an entire chapter of her book to "Playing With Fire: Heavy Metal Satanism" and called attention to the threat of…Dungeons and Dragons. "Many kids," she wrote, "experiment with the deadly satanic game, and get hooked."

If all of this seems so, so, so long ago—and it does, thank god—we owe a huge debt to Prince and the people like him who soldiered on, expressing themselves as they saw fit, in free and unfettered ways. In fact, Prince did it not just with the content of his art, as he also experimented with new, direct ways of distribution, too, while (stupidly, IMO) eschewing the shift to digital and taking on what was at the time the most-powerful music label in the business. Depending on who you are, you might hate all or some of his music, or think his creative streak dried up somewhere around the time he became The Artist Formerly Known as Prince or started scrawling "SLAVE" on his cheeks…

Yeah, sure, maybe.

But there's no denying that those of us who actually believe in free expression are standing on the tiny shoulders of Prince as surely as we are on the broad shoulders of Thomas Jefferson or George Mason. And upon Prince's death, we owe it ourselves not only to praise his artistry and risk-taking but to shame the Al and Tipper Gores of the world, who tried so hard and so pathetically to force their narrow vision of what is right and proper upon this world of tears that beautiful, weird, and even dirty music makes slightly more bearable for a few minutes.

Watch Prince's full 2007 Super Bowl halftime show, which in its range of material (not just his own songs but those by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Queen, and so many more) and perfectly modulated energy and restraint ('nuff said) approaches the pure, transcendent social delirium of dionysian ecstasy.

NEXT: The Dark Side of Socialized Motherhood

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  1. Everyone makes the world a better place. Some while they are in it, the rest when they leave it. Prince was the first kind, the Gores the second kind. Hurry up Al and do your part.

    1. I’m stealing that thought; there are few more true in total application.
      Gracias.

    2. That comment is a winner.

  2. Strangely enough, Al stressed?in front of a Senate subcommittee, mind you?that the government need not be involved.

    Did he, really? It seems to me that what he was basically saying was “Government shouldn’t be involved in this because the music industry should have done this on their own volition. Since they will not, government has no choice but to step in.”

    1. A distinction without meaning. Also, Gore was just posturing. Every psycho everywhere says “see what you made me do, see how you made me bring the violence.”

    2. “Nice recording industry you’ve got there, it would be a shame if anything were to happen to it.”

  3. Also, Tipper Gore was the Nancy Reagan of the left. Except that Gore is reputed to be a big-time Grateful Dead fan, and you know what that means…

      1. Funny smell and bad skin?

        1. She has bad taste in music?

      2. Good answers, lads.

        1. What did the dead-heads say when they ran out of dope?
          “This music sucks!”

    1. small hands?

  4. The PMRC warning sticker probably sold more records than any actual record company marketing campaign. Youthful Tundra considered it a quality control sticker.

    DMSR, baby!

    1. Can we add “masturbating Satan” to the trio of weed, ass sex, and Mexicans?
      Just to clarify, Satan is the subject in that phrase, not the object.

  5. Cue up the footage of Dee Snyder pwning Al Gore on national television. One of the greatest moments in the history of Rock n Roll and hands down THE greatest moment in the history of C-Span.

    1. What’s even better was the follow-up. Dee was interviewed a few years back, and pointed out that Al and Tippers’ marriage fell apart and their kids had drug problems, whereas Dee’s marriage and kids were doing fine.

  6. Note that these two freakazoids Al and Tipper have been separated for like six years and have both been reportedly seeing other people for some time now, yet for some reason won’t get divorced.

    Yep, they’re absolutely the right people to be lecturing others about moral behavior.

  7. this gender-bender guy who shredded guitar solos that put Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton to shame

    Clapton yes, Hendrix no.

    1. that’s entirely subjective, but if you haven’t you should listen to or watch some of his more recent stuff. I didn’t think his guitar was anything special on most of his 80s stuff but he really just kept getting better and better

      1. No I know, he was a fantastic guitarist, probably one of my favorite of all time, right up there with SRV, Michael Hedges, Joe Bonamassa, and Tommy Emmanuel.

        But he’s just not even close to Jimi, especially given that Jimi was making a lot of that up for the first time.

    2. “…put to shame…?”

      Come on, Nick. Do you even guitar, bro? You could have made the point without going full derp.

      Prince was a great guitarist – a GREAT GUITARIST – far better than he got credit for while he was still alive and touring, but that’s because of his commercial and songwriting success. It happens. There are hundreds of guitarists who have never gotten the kind of pub they deserved for a whole host of reasons.

      But we don’t need to say dumb things to elevate Prince’s guitar playing. And – in honor of his Purpleness – here is that epic performance from “My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock n Roll HOF induction.

      1. Link failed.

  8. Very nice eulogy, Nick.

    1. No, he’s pining for the fjords.

    2. Which one? I keep asking but no one will tell me!

    3. On the Queens birthday.

  9. “…wasn’t that movie a revelation?”

    It was?

    1. Yes. It revealed several delightful bits of Apollonia Kotero.

      1. THAT I remember.

  10. You cannot talk about the moronic and superstitious Al gore without linking to the verbal curb stomping he received at the hands of Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister.

    Part 1

    Part 2

    Part 3

    My favorite part: the look of impotent rage on Al Gore’s face when Dee Snider explains to the world at large that Al Gore’s wife wants Al Gore to tie her up and spank her.

    songs allow a person to put their own imagination, experiences, and dreams into the lyrics. People can interpret it in many ways.

    Ms. Gore was looking for sado-masochism and bondage and she found it. Someone looking for surgical references would have found that as well.

    1. IIRC, John Denver did his part too.

      1. And Zappa excoriated them as well, if I remember right.

        1. Zappa excoriated the entire U.S. government with blistering effectiveness.

  11. “Into the Coven” by Mercyful Fate

    I actually do find Mercyful Fate offensive, mainly because I can’t stand King Diamond’s voice.

  12. Still not convinced the country would be any better off if Gore won. 9/11 would have still happened. Iraq War might still have happened, seeing as it was just a logical continuation of Operation Desert Fox and Clinton’s Iraq policies. Housing bubble would have still burst. If anything, he would have completely prevented the only thing that lifted our economy back up: fracking and increases in gas and oil production. I have yet to be able to vote in a Presidential election where I didn’t loathe both candidates. Has it always been that bad? Bah Humbug.

    1. So W. was the least harmful option? And it turns out he was almost as bad as Obo? And we can be thankful that Gore didn’t win?
      That makes me very sad indeed.

  13. The Filthy Fifteen? That’s an 80’s music compilation I’d like to see.

  14. who surrounded himself with hotter-than-the-sun lady musicians,

    If there was a ‘first thing’ that drew me to Prince…

  15. Tipper headed up the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), whose sacred document was a list of songs it called “The Filthy Fifteen.”

    Oh, and while we love to make fun of Millennials, it was my generation that was LIGHTNING QUICK to forgive Al and Tipper for these transgressions the minute they had their sights on the white house.

    1. “Oh, and while we love to make fun of Millennials, it was my generation that was LIGHTNING QUICK to forgive Al and Tipper for these transgressions the minute they had their sights on the white house.”

      I have to admit a certain guilty curiosity:
      Are we dealing with a certain fem who lusted for and never got porked in the ass? And therefore took out her frustrations on those who possibly might have?

    2. In 1992, Dems got so mad if you talked about the PMRC. Apparently even Zappa walked back some of his criticism of Tipper.

  16. Ah, the summer of 1958, when Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and I were all born. Coincidence? Perhaps.

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  19. This was one of the clearest examples of the confusion of “art” and deviance I have read. Thoughtful? No. Celebrating, not beauty, but purely shock. Yeah, that really has improved society.

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  23. As a guitarist I’ve had Prince in my top 10 guitarists for a long time

    GREAT guitarist

    He totally schooled all the other musicians in the 2004 group performance of While My Guitar Gently Weeps

    And his solo also blows away the original by Clapton

    Prince’s style is simple – mostly pentatonic, with almost ‘cliche’ bends and pull offs

    But the emotion, fierceness of execution, and lyricality are amazing

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  26. Becoming a parent I realized the harm of hypersexualized culture. It has especially adverse effects on girls, just as the drug war has especially pernicious effects on minorities. Girls are growing up far more obsessed with vanity and sexuality than generations prior, and this is not having a salubrious effect on the relations of the sex, much less the romantic relations of the sexes. It’s not that porn is satanic, or Elvis’s hips were subversive, or other red herrings, it’s about the capacity of girls and young woman to perceive themselves, and be perceived, as something more substantive than sexual characters. 1/2

  27. 2/2

    My younger self would have scoffed at the idea, but the societies that led humanity out of the thicket of privation and ignorance tended to be more prudish than not. They were consciously self-denying, or gratification limiting. They overdid it, I think, but now we go too far in the other direction. I can tell the difference between the Hatrack article that Mencken championed and porn in which young women are slapped and gang-banged. For that matter, the hypersexualization of Black men, which is now manifest, is doing those men no damned good, either. The shockingly disproportionate rape rate by Black males and the ferocious backlash by racists are problems too grave to be waved aside by facile pop culture cheerleaders.

    It was a good thing that censorship of literature and movies, was abolished and attenuated. It is not a good thing that a society is drenched in sexuality from dawn to dawn. As with welfare, the most vulnerable are those who are most likely to be harmed. It is as foolish for libertarians to ignore that as it is for liberals to ignore the harm of a culture of welfarism.

    1. My younger self would have scoffed at the idea, but the societies that led humanity out of the thicket of privation and ignorance tended to be more prudish than not. They were consciously self-denying, or gratification limiting.

      I disremember who it was, but someone once wrote that Puritans got a bad rap – that they were actually responsible for the modern system of objective laws we enjoy, as opposed to a midieval subjective one..

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