The mid-1980s were troubled times for the Youth of the Nation. We were told we were the future, assuming we didn’t burn to pieces in a nuclear blast. We were told that drugs were very bad and could ruin our lives and we received careful compulsory instruction in school about the class, categories, street value, and method of ingestion for each and every drug. We were told there was something called AIDS and we received far less information about sex than we did about drugs, but we were told to leave that alone, too. All was not bleak. There was this new invention called the Walkman and there were these things called cassette tapes. Parents of the Nation rejoiced. Finally they could be spared the trouble of listening to their children’s music, or to their children. Parents bought these magical devices and told us to be quiet. We did what well-behaved children do: we plugged in and grooved.
Well, it turns out that was the wrong thing to do, too. The young daughter of someone rather important listened to a certain song on a certain album by a certain artist and the mother and wife of someone rather important got upset. The song was “Darling Nikki,” the album was Purple Rain, and the artist was Prince. Her mother Tipper (no, seriously, that was her name. She was almost the First Lady of the United States, but that is a story for another day.) was a well-meaning lady and called around to other well-meaning ladies (Don’t make that face. They were all ladies. It’s not my fault.) and they formed the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC).
The ladies of the PMRC were well placed in the power structure and they set their minds to defend the nation’s young and vulnerable citizens. What did they set their sights on, you ask? Childhood poverty, or poverty full stop? Nuclear disarmament? Public education? Quality controls for the school lunch program? Good ideas, but no. Nobody in Washington gave a damn about the poor. They made peace with nuclear weapons – not with our adversaries, just the weapons. Public education lived with social security on the third rail of American politics. The shot at the school lunch program is a bit unfair. The tater tots were good.
No. These educated women of influence demanded stickers. If filth like Purple Rain could reach the tender ears of a privileged youth, imagine what must be happening to the children in the poorer classes? Oh, wait, we don’t care about them, so we would not bother to imagine. Let me try that again. If this filth can reach the tender ears of a privileged youth, then that means it can reach the ears of a privileged adult, too. And that Is Going Too Far.
The PMRC wrote up “The Filthy Fifteen,” list of the fifteen most offensive songs, the ones most in need of stickers. Go ahead and look it up and come back. Extra points to those of you who remember the Mary Jane Girls. (There is a sub-essay somewhere in here about the bustier-wedding dress trend in '80s videos. Baffling.)
Next came the hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
The Senators serving on the committee, the collection of people who sat down to consider whether popular music was corrupting the nation included: Sen. Al Gore, Jr., TN; Sen. Ted Stevens, AK; Sen. Barry Goldwater, AZ; and Sen. Bob Packwood, OR. The witnesses included: Dee Snider, John Denver, Frank Zappa and members of the PMRC.
I hope they served popcorn.
The PMRC got their sticker. It was black and white and its design belied an appropriate contempt for its own message. The musicians balked and the civil libertarians screamed, and the children of Generation X thanked the PMRC for taking the guesswork out of finding the naughty records. It used to be such a mystery. Lionel Ritchie or the Beastie Boys? Rick Astley or Guns n Roses? Whitney Houston or Sheena Easton? The last one is a trick question. It’s Sheena Easton. She went to the bad after collaborating with that luscious corrupter, Prince.
The lyrics didn’t change. The artists didn’t change. Raunchy lyrics and devil worship did not save the songs from obscurity. Some stores carried “clean” versions of dirty records, which we spat out like carob.
We plugged in and grooved. Life continued, as it is inclined to do.
But it didn’t have to be that way. Let’s engage in a thought experiment.
* * * * * *
Enter Betsy, a young girl, age twelve or thereabouts, wearing her Walkman, dancing and humming a tune. The album is 1999, the song is “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” and the artist is Prince, natch. Her mother, Jiffy, looks up from her improving book.
Do you have homework? Yes. You know the rules, no Walkman until your homework is done. Leave that here, I will take it upstairs later.
Off went the young lass to conjugate irregular verbs. The woman paused, curious. She decided to have a listen.
Seventy minutes and thirty-three seconds later, Jiffy had a revelation. She called her husband.
Skip, what time are you coming home? Around seven. Can you make a stop on the way? Sure. What do we need? Ice cream, hot fudge, cherries, sprinkles and… two cans of whipped cream. Why do we need all that stuff? I am going to let the kids make sundaes tonight after dinner. Oh, all right.
The man put down the phone and wondered what had come over Jiffy. She was usually so careful about what the family ate.
But the children were delighted with the treat Daddy brought them. They revelled in slopping ice cream and hot fudge into their bowls, raining down the sprinkles, playing with the Redi Whip can (the second can nowhere to be found), whipped cream teetering on the mounds of ice cream. Cherries on top. As many as they like. The children’s excitement could not match the soporific power of sugar. Nearly passing out into their bowls, the children fell asleep. Jiffy wiped them off, and Skip carried them to bed.
Meet me in the bedroom, when you’re finished.
Skip wonders what is going on with Jiffy. Oh dear, does she want to discuss our feelings again?
What is this all about?
Jiffy drops a cassette into the boom box and hits the play button. Listen to this.
The next day over breakfast, Skip and Jiffy review the events of the night before. Were you always so flexible? I have been taking a yoga class; I had no idea yoga was actually useful. My hair is sticky. Use my Suave. It cuts right through the whipped cream.
The children totter down to breakfast, placid in their sugar hangovers. Skip makes toast. Jiffy pours juice. Skip looks over the sweet faces of his children and his lovely wife and is happy to be alive. I think the children are old enough for sleep away camp this year, don’t you dear? The children cheer, Jiffy smiles, peace reigns over the household.
Betsy goes to school and conjugates verbs, takes a math exam, doodles in her notebook. At recess, she pulls out her Walkman. That’s funny. The tape is gone.
Jiffy goes about her day. First stop: the record store. She cleans them out of Prince. The clerk asks if she has ever heard of Marvin Gaye. I heard him in the ‘60s. No, you need to listen to this.
Skip goes about his day. He has a racquetball game with Saxon, a junior senator from somewhere. Skip is an average player, but today he thrashes his opponent, in a good-natured way.
You seem a bit sluggish today, Saxon. Everything is sluggish these days. I feel like I am wading through soup. How are things with the missus? Um, well… Saxon is surprised. Skip usually keeps conversation to the light topics like communism and acid rain. You know what you need, Saxon? D.M.S.R. What’s that? Go to the record store, ask for an album by a guy named Prince. Prince what? No, that’s his name….
Jiffy sits in a committee meeting, thinking. It’s hardly fair that she had to find out about this music from her daughter. Had they really gotten that old and complacent? The trouble, as Jiffy saw it, was it was so hard to discover new music as an adult. Life was so busy. The magazines she read never wrote about this stuff and there was no internet yet. If only there was an informative label on the records. A wink at the mature, restless consumer.
Charity nudged Jiffy. Does the secretary have anything to report?
Jiffy rose from her seat. Ladies, if I may. I would like to make you aware of a phenomenon that is currently spreading among our children. Do we have a tape player here?
Seventy minutes and thirty-three seconds later, there was uproar. Children are listening to this? What a waste, what are they going to do with it? Is he touring? Dude, can you make me a tape?
Charity called the meeting to order. Jiffy continued. It’s not only him, ladies. There are others. A clamor ensued. Who are they? How long has this been going on?
The committee appointed an ad hoc committee, chaired by Jiffy, to investigate the matter further. Two weeks later, they reported on their findings.
My friends, we have done our research. We raided our children’s bedrooms and stole their tapes. We have listened to nearly one hundred hours of music. There is a lot of stuff out there and some of it is weird. The ad hoc committee is divided on Satanic worship. However, we are in a position to affect positive social change. There is music out there that adults would love. It would brighten their day and recharge their batteries. But the stupid record companies can’t figure out a way to reach us. They sell to children because who else has time to poke through a record store? We propose that the Committee ask the record companies to adopt the Parental Advisory sticker.
Would record companies really go along with this? Why wouldn’t they? They want to sell records and we want to buy them. This makes it easier for us to find each other.
Parental Advisory? That sounds boring.
That is exactly the point. This music is for us. It’s not for children, but good luck telling them not to listen. The only way we can communicate our message to adults, and discourage children, is by making the label as boring as possible.
It is Parental Advisory, as in, parents, we advise you to listen to this.
Honoria, Saxon’s wife, stood up. I agree with the language, but we must be very careful with the design of the label. It mustn’t look sexy at all. It must look family-friendly, something that my kid wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.
It should be bright, candy-colored. Pink or yellow!
Let’s make it purple, in honor of His Royal Badness!
And it should have bunnies!
The rest of the meeting was devoted to design ideas for the label.
Saxon called Skip. I want to propose a sex discrimination bill. In favor or against? Against. That’s an unusual stance for you, Saxon. Tell me more. I have recently become aware that women face terrible discrimination in the cab driving industry. We need to do what we can to protect the lady cab drivers.
That’s a splendid idea, Saxon. Count me in. I know we can get Kennedy on board. This is bipartisan cooperation as it should be, Skip.
Betsy was at recess, talking to her friends. Prince has a new album! It’s called Purple Rain.
Ugh, my parents listen to him.
* * * * * *
Now wouldn’t that have been more fun?
 1999 was released in 1982, which makes it a bit too early for this exercise, but I think this album is funnier and filthier than Purple Rain, and this is my game, so we play my way.