The Summer of Censors
From Jane’s Addiction to Body Count, music censorship swelled in the early 1990s
Certain intersections of certain cities at certain time have a certain aura about them. The hippie movement had San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in the 60s. During the 1970s, New York punks took over Bowery and 2nd in front of CBGBs. Fairfax Ave and Melrose in Los Angeles has been an epicenter for all things youth culture since the 1980s — from hip-hop to alternative rock and rave.
For a certain type of kid growing up in Metro Detroit in the early 90s, that special intersection was Fourth Street and Main in Royal Oak, Michigan. There, the local teen slackers of the alternative nation gathered daily to hang out, smoke clove cigarettes, and gain wisdom from the Gen X elders who would hold court on the benches that the city planners had certainly intended for senior citizens on a stroll, not this rag-tag bunch of juveniles who made it our de-facto home during the warm weather months of the year.
Up the block was Cedar Market, a Lebanese grocery store that didn’t ask for ID when buying cigarettes, and which sold copious amounts of Mountain Dew in the days before energy drinks existed. Next-door was Noir Leather, a fetish boutique that specialized in fishnet stockings, Manic Panic hair dye and Doc Marten boots. It also carried hardcore bondage gear like nipple clamps and gimp masks, but our innocent minds, in these days before Lollapalooza introduced the world to the Jim Rose Circus of freaks who could lift cinder blocks with their penis piercings, we weren't ready to truly process the purpose of these S&M items on display.
Across the street was Incognito, a boutique that also sold Docs (noticing a theme?), along with t-shirts for bands like Minor Threat and The Ramones — before they came in baby sizes. It also sold some skater brands, as well as various hippie accouterments. A one-stop shop for whatever counter-cultures a young person might settle on that season.
In short, Fourth and Main — like Newbury St. in Boston, South Street in Philadelphia, Clark Street in Chicago, etc. — was a retail mecca-slash-petri dish for youth culture. A place where emerging music and fashion trends could gestate in a time before Hot Topic and social media. It also became, for a few days in the summer of 1990, ground zero for a censorship battle being waged in America around the turn of that decade.
Right at the corner of Fourth and Main stood the entrance to Off The Record, an independent record store that specialized in punk and alternative music. Inside, one could find the latest 7-inch vinyl from a small band named Nirvana, on a little Seattle label called Sub Pop. They also carried the latest album by The Dwarves, Blood, Guts and Pussy, which was announced by a giant subway-sized poster hanging from the ceiling.
A substantially bigger seller was Mother’s Milk by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the poster for which hung in the store’s front window. The album cover depicted on the poster featured a topless woman, with singer Anthony Kiedis strategically covering one breast and a pink rose obscuring the other. The poster displayed by Off The Record, however, was a limited-edition version with the rose removed, nipple on full display. Aware of community standards in this suburban enclave (as edgy as it might’ve seemed), the staff chose to cover the nipple with a Band-Aid, lest it ruffle the wrong feathers. Of course, to a Converse-wearing 15 year old like myself, this nod to modesty only made the image more appealing. After all, a puberty spent squinting at the scrambled signal of the Playboy Channel in my room had wired my brain to see what it wanted to see.
Release in August of 1989, Mother’s Milk was a big record, marking the start of the ascent of the Chili Peppers from underground heroes to mainstream stars. One year later, buzz had begun to build for another Los Angeles band, Jane’s Addiction, who had already been nominated for a Grammy in 1988 for their debut album, Nothing’s Shocking, and whose second major-label album, Ritual de lo Habitual, was schedule to be released on August 21, 1990, (observing its 25th anniversary this month.) Even before it hit the stores, Ritual had managed to drum up controversy when several major retail chains threatened to not carry the album due to its cover art, a sculpture by the band’s leader, Perry Farrell, which featured a three-some of nude paper mache sculptures, pubic hair and all, lying together on a bed.
A similar retail ban had occurred over Nothing’s Shocking, which featured another sculpture by Farrell of topless twin women with their heads on fire. Although the Ritual sculpture was far more stylized than that of Nothing’s Shocking, Farrell and Jane’s label, Warner Brothers, were concerned that sales of the album might be harmed were it not carried in all locations. It was therefore decide that an alternative cover, plain white, with only the First Amendment printed in the center, and a Parental Advisory sticker dutifully placed in the upper right-hand corner, would be made available as well as the original.
None of this do-about-nothing deterred Off The Record co-owner Rick Berry as he hung the Ritual cover poster in the front window of the store on the day of its release. It probably didn’t even occurred to him there might be an issue had the police not entered the store, armed with an anonymous complaint and a ticket book. The charge was “distributing obscene material,” according to a report in the Detroit Free Press that came out the next day. The potential penalty was $100 and 30 days in jail.
“We were all floored!” reflects Los Angeles DJ Paul V., who at the time was National Director of Alternative Radio Promotion at Warner/Reprise. V had been involved in the discussions over Ritual’s cover before its release, but this unexpected event elevated the stakes for all of the music industry.
“It made it more real,” he continues. “You [already] worried that you might have a boycott and not be able to get the record out there. But here, someone got arrested. They didn’t even create the product! They were just selling it!”
Of course, this wasn’t even the first time that summer when a lowly music retail employee had been handcuffed over alleged obscenity charges. In June, store clerk Charles Freeman was arrested in Broward County, FL for selling the 2 Live Crew album As Nasty As They Wanna Be to an undercover sheriff — two days after the album had been declared obscene by a Federal judge. Members of the group themselves were arrested a few days later for performing songs from the album live on stage. An article in the New York Times reported “At least four other record-store employees have been arrested for selling the album,” including the owner of a record store in San Antonio, Texas.
The oppressive feeling in the air wasn’t even limited to relatively marginal artists such as Jane’s and 2 Live Crew. That May, in Toronto, police investigated a Madonna concert for “lewdness” onstage — including simulated masturbation and other sex acts. Under those circumstances, the incident at Off The Record took on much more significance and soon became a national news story. Another attempt by the powers that be to restrict how musical artists could express themselves.
The word “censor” dates back to the Roman Empire, which established the Office of Censor in 443 AD. Just a few years later, in 339 AD, the philosopher Socrates was sentenced to drink poison for corrupting the youth. At its root, nearly all censorship traces back to a controlling-class protecting its power. And so it seemed to be the case in 1985, when four women known as the Washington Wives formed the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) with the stated goal of increasing parental control over content in popular music. Helmed by Tipper Gore (wife of then Senator, later Vice President, Al Gore) as well as the wives of other Washington power players, the committee appeared before Congress with the intention of curbing the distribution of music they found objectionable.
A litany of 80s stars found themselves in the crosshairs of the PMRC — from heavy metal heavyweights Judas Priest, Motley Crue and AC/DC, to pop stars like Prince, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. The objections raised by the PMRC against songs by these artists (the famous “Filthy Fifteen” as they were called) included sex, violence, drug use and even the occult. The end result of the congressional hearings was the infamous RIAA warning sticker, which became commonplace on album covers across the spectrum of popular music.
“It was a given that if you had just one word, or one moment, that they [the PMRC] found offensive, they would come after you.” Paul V. recalls of the era. “It was like, OK, if it’s Wednesday, it must be PMRC day.”
The ubiquity of the RIAA sticker did not appear to have the effect the PMRC had hoped for. Many sources at the time suspected that the suggestiveness of the sticker actually increased sales of the CDs that carried it. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why the record industry didn’t seem to object too strenuously to this mild form of voluntary censorship.
“It wasn’t worth fighting for,” V reveals. “If it meant slapping on that sticker, or coming up with a separate cover, you wanted all the records available to be bought. It wasn’t worth the battle to object to a sticker. It was par for the course.”
However, as was obvious by the arrests in the summer of 1990, a warning sticker was not the end of the debate. The charges against Off The Record were eventually dropped by local prosecutors, and the obscenity ruling against 2 Live Crew was overturned in 1992. But that same year, an even more disturbing debate took place, this time involving the rapper Ice-T, and the song “Cop Killer,” by his heavy-metal group, Body Count.
“Cop Killer” was a protest song against police brutality. It referenced by name Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, as well as Rodney King, the black man who was videotaped being beaten by LAPD officers in March of 1991. Body Count’s self-titled album was released in March of 1992, a mere month before a jury would acquit the four officers accused of assaulting King. This miscarriage of justice lead to the L.A. Riots, which resulted in 53 deaths, over 7,000 arrests, and $1 billion in property damage.
Despite these startling events, and the prescient nature of the song, police groups rallied against “Cop Killer,” as did Tipper Gore and the actor Charlton Heston. The controversy grew to the point where Vice President Dan Quayle called the song “obscene,” and President George H.W. Bush publicly denounced Sire/Warner Brothers for releasing the record. All the controversy eventually caused Ice-T to remove the song from further pressings of the Body Count album, even as its notoriety no doubt helped boost its sales.
“At the time, I was thinking, ‘That is a hardcore statement, as much as you might agree with what it’s saying,’” admits Paul V, who also worked promotion for Body Count. “Part of me thought, ‘Maybe this is crossing a line that we’ve never dealt with before.’ That was personally, it wasn’t something I said publicly.”
Personal reflections aside, he then goes on to make a far more salient point, stating “Here we are, almost 25 years later, and we’re still dealing with police brutality, especially in the black community.”
Race played an obvious factor in the Body Count debate, but concerns over lyrical content would eventually spill over into the black community as well. By the mid-90s, the gangsta rap invented by Ice-T and fellow Los Angeles rappers N.W.A had hit critical mass with the platinum-selling success of Death Row Records artists Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. With its graphic depictions of violence and misogyny, members of the African-American political establishment began to push back against gangsta rap, none more vocally than C. Delores Tucker, a civil rights activist and politician whose protest against the music reached both government halls and corporate boardrooms.
Things reached near comical proportion when, following several diss lines on his seminal album, All Eyez On Me, Tucker sued Shakur for slander, with damages including harm to her sex life and mental anguish. Less amusing was Tucker’s efforts to shut down Death Row Records via a campaign of disruptions against the labels distributor, Interscope, and its parent company, Time Warner. Time Warner would capitulate, selling its stake in Interscope back to its founder, Jimmy Iovine.
Shakur, of course, was gunned down by unknown assailants seven months after the release of All Eyez On Me. Tucker continued to feel the ire of the hip-hop community, with rappers including The Game, Jay-Z and Eminem all shouting down Tucker in lyrics written before and after her death in 2005. By that time, the MP3 revolution had both crippled the music industry, and made the notion of censoring music completely archaic.
In the digital era of instant access, it can seem quaint to think about a time when record store owners could be fined for hanging a poster. When presidents issued protest against song lyrics. And when personal beefs against rappers could steer the course of global entertainment conglomerates.
However, censorship continues to threaten our society in far more serious ways. For every laughable incident, like the this year’s controversy involving the film The Interview, there is a far more serious case of censorship threatening our entire way of life (see Edward Snowden or Julian Assange).
No one is saying that selling a potty-mouth rap cassette in Florida will alone redefine cultural norms about sex, any more than “Cop Killer” could have had any real impact on police brutality. But when taken as a whole, these events, and the forces that induced them, continue to deserve serious attention. You never know from which direction the next assault on Freedom of Speech will come from and what bigger issues could be at stake.
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