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Sounds of Sex

Why Daddy took the T-Bird away

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“Good golly Miss Molly!” Little Richard howled with glee. It was 1959, and the self-proclaimed “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” was hellaciously flinging a truth at America. “When you’re rockin’ and rollin’ / You can’t hear your mama call!” Pop music’s first sexually ambiguous superstar wasn’t singing about dancing with Molly at the sock-hop, and this was no secret to outraged PTAs, church groups, and high school principals across the country. They burned his records; song after song of his went gold. Mama lost that round, and nearly every one since.

Now a new wave of concern over the attitudes espoused in rock music is gathering strength, triggered by the raunchiness of today’s pop songs and the blatant sexuality of accompanying videos. A group calling itself the Parents’ Music Resource Center has set up shop in posh offices in downtown Washington, D.C., its mission “to get the music world to clean up its act.” The PMRC is trying to spark a nationwide “Media Watch” to “monitor radio and TV stations consistently for a period of time” and “record the objectionable words/songs/scenes.” They want record companies voluntarily to label contemporary songs and albums with a ratings system similar to the one Jack Valenti set up for films 17 years ago.

Last year the national PTA sent letters to 32 record companies asking that rock music be clearly labeled for sexual content or profanity, but its plea was ignored. What makes the PMRC different is its well-connected leadership. Mary Elizabeth “Tipper” Gore (wife of Senator Albert Gore), Susan Baker (wife of the treasury secretary), and Pam Howar (wife of a Washington construction firm magnate) are the high-profile officers of the fledgling group. Money does not seem to be a problem. In a bizarre twist, the initial funding for the effort came from the Love Foundation, a charitable organization set up by the Beach Boys after the death from a drug overdose of their drummer Dennis Wilson in 1983.

Though it was founded just a little over three months ago, the PMRG has already received a lot of attention. Newsweek, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and National Public Radio have featured the group, and Phil Donahue pegged it for one of his on-the-air debates. In June the Justice Department’s new commission on pornography heard PMRC testimony on “porn rock,” and a special presentation documenting the transgressions of pop singers has been pitched to influential senators. Fearing the worst—there’s talk of congressional hearings in the fall—the president of the National Association of Broadcasters alerted 800 station group owners to the high-powered lobbying effort. Through the potent combination of prestige, access, and cash, the new group has taken off.

“You can buy me a daiquiri / You can take me home and tear my clothes off,” coos Terri Nunn of the trio Berlin. Lines like these, and far worse, are what have the Washington activists so agitated. They’ve listened with excruciating attention to the pop music scene, and are shocked at what they’ve heard. “You ought to see the file-card index I have of these kinds of things,” Pam Howar, the group’s president, told me. “It’s endless.”

The pop star who seems to shock everyone is Prince, one of the biggest names in rock history, and a very strange young man. Prince helped change the nature of romantic lyrics in pop music—he’s a master of the single entendre. “Head,” a dance tune from his third album, Dirty Minds, has nothing to do with sports equipment. On “Jack U Off,” he indelicately, if rather politely, makes the eponymous offer, “If you’re tired of masturbating . . . / If you like I’ll jack u off.” But the song that has parents most outraged is “Darling Nikki,” from the Grammy and Oscar award-winning album Purple Rain (ten million copies sold), which has a verse that goes, “I knew a girl named Nikki / I guess you could say she was a sex fiend. / I met her in a hotel lobby / Masturbating with a magazine. / She said ‘how’d u like to waste some time?’ / And I could not resist when I saw / Little Nikki grind.”

This is pretty strong stuff for ten-year-olds, and Prince doesn’t stop there. Oral sex, incest (“My sister never made love with anyone but me / Incest is everything it’s said to be”), and bisexuality are recurring themes in Prince’s music. He has also written steamy songs for other singers. Sheena Easton’s chart-topping “Sugar Walls” earned the Wrath of many a mother with these lines: “The blood races to your private spots / Lets me know there’s a fire / Can’t fight passion when passion is hot / Temperatures rise inside my sugar walls.” The song went platinum (one million copies sold), and made Phil Donahue roll his eyes and say, “Not so funny, huh?”

But Prince has plenty of raunchy company. The thundering beat of heavy metal is now the biggest-selling sound in America, and it’s pretty sick stuff. Judas Priest’s platinum album, Defenders of the Faith, includes a song called “Eat Me Alive,” a wimp’s delight: “Squealing in passion as the rod of steel injects ... gut-wrenching frenzy that deranges every joint. / I’m going to force you at gunpoint to eat me alive.” Misogyny is a big part of the heavy metal world. It’s a fantasy of unchecked, idiotic male power purveyed for its audience of working-class teenage white boys. “Burn, Bitch, Burn!” scream metal Vets Kiss; “Gonna drive my love inside you / Gonna nail your ass to the floor / On your knees!” grunts Great White. This stuff sells by the zillions. All the young metal dudes like it; in fact, they’re proud of it. At Twisted Sister concerts, Dee Snider leads the crowd in an endless chant of “I’M A SICK MUTHAFUCKA.” Howar’s condemnation of the metal scene as “very detrimental to bringing up a healthy generation of young people” could only be considered high praise by these guys.

In fact, most of the big hits of the past year or so have been scrutinized by the PMRC and denounced. “The pervasive theme in Top 40 music is loose sex,” says Howar. “Even Bruce Springsteen isn’t clean.” “The Boss” to millions of mainstream rock fans, Springsteen hit the Top Ten this year with a song that sparked a controversy when a rumor got around that it told the story of a teenage rapist. “I’m on Fire” turned out to be simply about lust, but its harking back to the oldest Southern slang terms for lovers could have confused young fans: “hey little girl is your Daddy home / Did he go and leave you all alone / I got a bad desire / Oh, I’m on fire.” The rape rumor put the song on the naughty list; if also probably helped sales.

No rumor was needed to send concerned listeners through the ceiling when they heard Marvin Gaye’s posthumously released album, Dream of a Lifetime. The hit track, “Sanctified Lady,” was originally called “Sanctified Pussy” and describes the pleasures of getting down with a churchgoing woman. The message of “Masochistic Beauty” is loud and clear: “Get your ass in gear / Come closer here / See your passion sweat / Now if’s wet / I’ll jam you till you fight / I’ll rock you till you’re sore / Like a whore. . . . You nasty little slave, kiss my feet / Put your face right here and start to eat.”

Do kids listen to these words and behave accordingly? No one really knows. “This is an underestimated, under-researched area,” says Howar. Yet the PMRC seems to have no doubts: “The music is definitely making an impression.” The PMRC’s “Rock Music Report” warns that “there appears [sic] to be five major themes that rock music returns to again and again: (1) Rebellion (2) Substance Abuse (3) Sexual Promiscuity and Perversion (4) Violence-Nihilism (5) The Occult.” Pretty grim. The report declares that “the average teenager,” that elusive creature, “listens to rock music an average of four to six hours daily!” The report totals that up and discovers that from grades seven through 12 the typical teen has the Walkman strapped on for 10,560 hours; she only listens to her teachers for 11,000 hours.

But the PMRC list could just as well be describing primetime America, from Miami Vice to Dynasty to the latest sorority-girls-as-budding-witches schlock TV movie. Rock music has to be viewed in the larger context of American pop culture; Madonna’s sex kitten persona is really just a cheekier version of a Charlie’s Angel.

If Marvin Gaye changed from the 1960s when he teamed with Tammi Terrell to sing sweet love songs like “Your Precious Love” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” so has the country. Sex sells in America, and as the advertising world has grown ever more risque in pushing cars, cosmetics, jeans, and liquor to adults, pop music has been forced further past the fringes of respectability for its rebellious thrills. When mom and dad watch a Brut commercial in which a nude woman puts on her husband’s shirt and sensuously rubs his after-shave all over herself, well, what can a young boy do? Play in a rock ‘n’ roll band and be a bit more outrageous than his parents want him to be. Kids’ natural anti-authoritarianism is going to drive them to the frontier of sexual fantasy in a society where most aspects of the dirty deed have been appropriated by racy advertising and titillating TV cheesecakery. The country has rotted, and rock music is simply taking the decay to its scarifyingly logical conclusion.

Trying to put a curb on all this smut by labeling some albums fit for teens and others fit only for weirdos, as the PMRC is proposing, would be unwieldy at best, and counterproductive and hypocritical at worst. “We’re talking about truth in packaging here,” says Susan Baker. “This is a consumer issue.” The group is asking that record companies prominently display all lyrics, unobscured by design, right on the record sleeves. They want a national system of ratings, preferably administered by the record industry itself but if not then perhaps through the courts or Congress. They want to regulate album covers, putting the randier ones in separate sections of music stores, or behind the counter. They want radio stations to change programming policies, banning some songs deemed by community groups as too sleazy, airing others only late at night.

What effect would these policies have? Some kids, undoubtedly, would not bear some songs. But most would probably be tempted to get their ears into the music their parents think is most dangerous, and the tunes themselves might get raunchier under the cover of an R or X rating. Besides, many rock musicians, including Prince, already prominently display dirty lyrics; it helps sales. Independent labels and stations would sprout up offering unfettered rock ‘n’ roll to the sizable market that would demand it.

The outcry over pop music happens periodically, spurred by a new sound or sensation, in this case the rise of videos and their cheap T&A titillation. Some of the concerned activists might find the lines “And if you don’t wanna smell my smoke / Don’t monkey with my gun” too blue for airplay. But they were written in 1931 by country music legend Jimmy Rodgers, at a time when Variety refused to list songs by Gene Autry and others because their titles were too suggestive. “Hoochie Coochie Man” is not about a guy who tickles babies. The blues classic “I’m Gonna Shave You Close,” one of the kinkiest songs ever put on vinyl, is enough to inspire envy among today’s raunchiest rock stars. In fact, the new sleaze in rock can be seen as a return to the blues and R&B explicitness that the first white rockers cleaned up, while stealing the sounds and inflections of the music for a middle-class audience. “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Let’s Do It” could be titles of Prince songs, except that Prince would describe “it” in the first verse. Cole Porter might be more clever than Prince, but his basic message is no more virtuous. That’s one of the reasons why he was popular too.

The difference—and it’s an important difference—is that today’s salacious lyrics are not the exception to otherwise generally respected sexual standards and community values, but a symbol of their collapse. Still, it’s absurd for would-be censors to hold a magnifying glass to the words when it’s the music itself that arouses people. There’s something sexy in the pure pulse of a rock song.

In 1963 the Federal Communications Commission ran an exhaustive, month-long investigation of “Louie, Louie.” The Kingsmen’s sultry gem was banned from the airwaves in Indiana and elsewhere because people were convinced they heard an obscenity buried in Jack Ely’s suggestive mumbling. After playing it backward and forward at 78, 45, and 33 rpm, the FCC came to a conclusion: “The song is unintelligible at any speed.” It sold eight million copies.