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.