Dr. Mathieu Deflem
University of South Carolina
Guest Lecture, Introductory Sociology, September 2015

This guest lecture is largely based on my paper, "Rap, Rock, and Censorship: Popular Culture and the Technologies of Justice." This webpage is set up for the benefit of the students to provide an overview of the topics discussed in the the powerpoints shown in class and some additional resources. 

A video version of this lecture is now available!

Concerns over pop and rock music have been around since at least the 1950s. Special efforts took place in the 1980s and 1990s, with a focus on explicit sexual and violent lyrics in music (vinyl, CDs) and videos (MTV). 


The Parents Music Resource Center was founded in 1985 by, amongst others, Tipper Gore (upset over Darling Nikki” by Prince), Susan Baker (no fan of “Like a Virgin” by Madonna), and Pam Howar (upset about songs in her aerobics classes). These so-called “Washington wives” and others formed the PMRC in May 1985 as a non-profit, tax-exempt organization. Other PMRC affiliates included mostly politicians and politician wives. 

The PMRC goals included: 1) Informing parents about song lyrics; and 2) Requesting the record industry for “voluntary restraint” via a rating system and warning labels, while also reconsidering contracts with performers.

The PMRC means included: publication of a monthly newsletter; and establishing contacts with the industry, esp. the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), representing companies selling 85% of all music.

In consequence, the RIAA agreed to a warning sticker. Most importantly, a Senate Hearing was organized before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Record Labeling.

The Senate Hearing on Record Labeling was held on September 19, 1985. Its purpose was to discuss rock music that deals explicitly with sexual topics and the glorification of violence, but “not to promote any legislation...”. 

Witnesses at the Hearing included: 1) senators (e.g., Hollings, Trible, Gore) expressing concerns over the influence of rock music on children. Senator Hollings said that he would seek a way to do away with this “outrageous filth” of “music interspersed with pornography”; 2) PMRC representatives spoke of the relevance of rock music for many U.S. teenagers and the size of record sales, while also discussing teen pregnancies, teenage suicide rates, and rape; 3) musicians: Frank Zappa, arguing the methods to be “equivalent to treating dandruff by decapitation”; John Denver, a victim of censorship because of his song “Rocky Mountain High”; and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister

Very dirty link!
On November 1 of 1985, the PMRC and the National Parents and Teachers Association reached an agreement with the RIAA to create the now well-known label.


The PMRC activities did not take place in a cultural vacuum. During the 1980s, popular music was also increasingly subject to (attempts at) legal controls concerning loudness, incitement, and obscenity.

1) Music and Loudness: Ward v. Rock Against Racism (1989) concerned guidelines on the volume of music. The Supreme Court ruled, “Music, as a form of expression and communication, is protected under the First Amendment.”

2) Music and Incitement: There had been a suicide by a 19-year old in 1984 while listening to music by Ozzy Osbourne. A lawsuit was brought against Osbourne over “Suicide Solution”. The Court of Appeals ruled that the music was constitutionally protected. Also, there was a suicide by an 18-year old in 1985 while listening to albums by Judas Priest. A lawsuit was filed contending the song contained hidden messages. But a Judge ruled in favor of Judas Priest.

3) Music and Obscenity: The albums “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” and “As Clean As They Wanna Be" were released by The 2 Live Crew in 1989. A sheriff investigation began in Florida in 1990, eventually leading to a trial. District Court Judge Jose Gonzalez ruled the album to be obscene as “an appeal directed to the “dirty” thoughts and the loins, not to the intellect and the mind”. On May 7, 1992, the United States Court of Appeals reversed that decision, which the Supreme Court later denied to review.

Some other 'musical' police actions in those days included: the LAPD program “Back in Control Training Center” designed to de-metal and de-punk troubled youngsters; police actions following “F*** tha Police” by N.W.A.; and, during the presidential elections of 1992, concerns over the song “Cop Killer” by Ice-T’s group Body Count.


There was a mobilization of different social actors: 1) Musicians and Industry: they were mostly accommodating, releasing edited albums because stickered albums are not sold in department stores; 2) Social Movements: e.g., Parents for Rock and Rap Rock ‘n’ Roll Confidential (later renamed to: Rock ‘n’ Rap confidential); and 3) Academic Community: doing research on relation between Satanism, heavy metal, and drug abuse; on the political consequences and themes of rock and rap music; and on the effects of the label. 

The socio-cultural background of the 1980s included among the following relevant dimensions: 1) Political climate: “new” conservatism after the turbulent 1970s; and a continued Cold War; 2) Economic developments: rising inflation and higher unemployment; greatly increasing budget deficit; 3) Social problems: rising crime rates, AIDS,…; and 4) 80s Popular music culture: rising popularity of MTV (& other cable television); huge vinyl records, cassettes, and CD sales; many new pop & rock stars: MJ, Prince, hair metal, rap and hip hop, electronic dance (techno, house), etc…; and video gaming culture is beginning to develop.

Multiple dimensions of conflict are revealed: a) Age: adolescence and adult control; b) Gender: sexuality and violence; c) Politics and business: power and wealth; d) Law: constitutional rights v. protections; e) Culture: conservatism v. permissiveness; f) Race: transition from rock to rap, well into the 21st century...   


This video interview concerns the history of the PMRC and its impact: 


There are many additional video sources are available on YouTube, including reports and TV shows (such as Oprah, Nightline, Crossfire, School BeatBill RollerNightwatch, CNNVideo Music Box, Donahue, Tom Snyder, and many more) about record labeling in the mid to late 1980s involving the PMRC. Additional YouTube sources include contemporary issues. Also check the hyper-linked text included on this webpage.

Also see my related writings on popular culture.