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Tipper's Refrain

Her campaign against explicit lyrics in the '80s lives on today: in warning labels and headaches for the music industry.


When a raunchy lyric by Prince sent Tipper Gore on a mid-1980s crusade to clean up the music industry, she and her followers in the Parents Music Resource Center were shrugged off by many as prudes, tiresome dilettantes and, perhaps most dismissive of all, as "those Washington wives."

But when Mary Elizabeth "Tipper" Gore goes to the dais tonight at the Democratic National Convention as the prospective first lady, she brings with her the PMRC movement's surprising, lasting legacy--and, for the music industry, the lingering anxieties that come with it.

In recent years, she has been relatively quiet on the issue, and her group's acronym, PMRC, long ago faded from headlines. But with her husband's selection of running mate Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, her moral mission has come back into the national spotlight. For the music industry, it never receded into the shadows.

Her campaign has had a very real effect, both on consumers and recording artists themselves--some of whom think that the woman derided as an ad-hoc censor might have been ahead of her time.

For example, the ubiquitous stickers warning of graphic material on albums were a direct result of Tipper Gore's 1985 push for Congress to enact restrictive legislation. Twenty-two record companies, fearing she just might succeed, agreed to police themselves.

The agreement promptly created a marketplace reality for the music industry, and a new headache.

The nation's huge mass merchandisers, such as Wal-Mart and Kmart, slammed the delivery door shut on any stickered album. Suddenly, the major music merchants for America's heartland--and in many rural areas the only merchants--had a codified filter.

To sidestep that barrier, record companies began producing "clean" versions of albums full of bleeps and voids, which are free of the warning labels and their stigma. Artists resent them because their work sounds like broken video games filled with odd sound effects. Fans hate them.

"A lot of teens, looking for rebellion or their rite of passage or what have you, they won't buy an album without the sticker," says Michael Greene, president and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. "To them it's the 'Bad Housekeeping' seal of approval."

Cleaned-Up Songs Are a Compromise

Still, the clean versions provide a middle ground for families battling over what their kids can buy. Parents can keep the profane version out of the house, while the kids get to listen to at least something from their favorite artists, be it DMX or Limp Bizkit, both of which hit No. 1 on the nation's pop charts.

Reprise Records President Howie Klein is perhaps the most vocal critic of Tipper Gore's short-lived but far-reaching campaign that led to these significant changes, which he calls "insidious."

"It goes deeper than economic issues," Klein says. "It affects what artists record and who the record companies sign."

You wouldn't think so from perusing the pop charts for the past year. Never has there been a greater proliferation of music with lyrics that push every conceivable boundary of the past. Artists such Eminem, Limp Bizkit, Dr. Dre, Lil' Kim and dozens of others with albums bearing warning labels have sold millions upon millions of copies.

In rural areas, where the major--and conservative--retailers dominate, fans are finding what they want via the Internet.

Although the industry's attention on Tipper Gore's campaign against them mostly has been focused on the aisles of department stores, Artemis Records President Danny Goldberg says the most dangerous result has been in the corridors of government.

"What I would say it did do was legitimize culture-bashing for the Democrats," said Goldberg, also president of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. "Now, from left to right in Washington, you have a political class that's tone-deaf to popular culture. For 15 years, there's been a constant drumbeat telling young people that their culture is immoral."

He traces that back to the day Tipper Gore, a mother of three, first heard Prince purring sexually explicit lyrics in the song "Darling Nikki" on her 11-year-old daughter's "Purple Rain" album.

A longtime activist, Gore quickly turned her shock and anger to action on that day in 1984. She and Susan Baker, wife of then-Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, founded Parents Music Resource Center, known as PMRC.

The appeal of the cause cut across party lines, drawing in an unlikely ally for the wife of a Democratic senator--the Christian right.

Suddenly, Tipper Gore had greater national recognition--and notoriety--than her husband. She became Public Enemy No. 1 for the music community, an odd situation for a longtime follower of the Grateful Dead (a group that, interestingly, has drug-laced lyrics and fan culture) and a former drummer in a high school rock band.

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