The Wilderness | Issue 65 | 4 . 25 . 2016 | Tweet
I had to laugh when TMZ broke the news that Prince (Prince Rogers Nelson) had died at his castle fortress in Minneapolis. Not because I was glad Prince was dead–far, far from it. And not even because 2016 had once again reared its hateful head to prove that no one was immortal (though that would have been a good reason also). The reason I found myself in hysterics was because this one image kept coming to me unbidden: a circa-1984 Tipper Gore, her 11-year-old daughter strapped into the passenger seat next to her, puts a cassette tape of Purple Rain into her car stereo player. Oh, to have been there to see the expression that must have melted across her face when “Darling Nikki” came on and she heard “I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine” for the first time.
That mental image, and everything it represented, is the reason I call myself a conservative today; Tipper Gore’s actions afterwards are why I will never become a repressive cultural liberal. Ever. The hollowness of Gore’s argument still rings out today: that purchasing a Prince LP somehow represented a moral failing on her part as a parent, that parents all across the country were in great peril of making the same tragic mistake that she had made, and that only the power of the federal government could prevent this great moral catastrophe. Even the official title of the group Gore formed in 1985 as a reaction to hearing “Darling Nikki,” The Parents Music Resource Center, audaciously implied she represented all parents who were bound to make the same mistakes as she did. Progressive paternalism, summed up rather nicely. Gore’s stated goal, as with most liberal social policy, was to “start a conversation” and “open dialogue” between parents and unsuspecting kids who might be lured into a phantasmagoric world of rock & roll, permed hair, Doc Martens and satanic goat murder. But the truth is, Prince gave a better sex education class with Purple Rain than was available at any U.S. public school.
Tipper Gore wanted America to know that she and the other Senator’s wives she rounded up for her PMRC coffee-klatsch were doing it all For The Children. The artists she targeted, however, naturally saw it otherwise.
When reports of Prince’s death sent shockwaves around social media, Nick Gillespie at Reason was the first out of the gate with the stiff reminder of who Democrats and to a lesser extent, Hollywood entertainment industry actually tried to put into the White House in 2000. As Gillespie notes in his piece, Darling Nikki was the song that spurred on her great crusade of naming, shaming and ultimately attempting to ban artists with work on what become known as the infamous “Filthy Fifteen” list and Gore’s 1987 book, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society (Yes really, that’s the title):
” On page 3 of Raising PG Kids, Tipper explained why that particular song had moved her to create an organization that would use the the threat of government action to clean up “sex and violence in the media”:
In December 1984, I purchased Prince’s best-selling album Purple Rain for my 11-year-old daughter….When we brought the album home, out it on our stereo, and listened to it together, we heard the words to…”Darling Nikki”: “I knew a girl named Nikki/guess [you] could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine.” The song went on and on, in a similar manner. I couldn’t believe my ears! The vulgar lyrics embarrassed both of us. At first, I was stunned—then I got mad! Millions of Americans were buying Purple Rain with no idea what to expect!
Of course, when you’re the wife of a second-generation U.S. senator, your mad counts for more than most of the rest of us.”
Gore’s “anger” took the form of the what infamously came to be known as “The Filthy Fifteen,” a list of songs she and her morality group deemed to be the worst fifteen songs in popular music regarding the wanton invocation of sex, drugs, alcohol, violence and the occult. This was a list compiled by Gore and her committee, with little to no input whatsoever from the artists as to their intentions or motivations behind writing the music. She simply took it upon herself to act as the world’s moral compass and the gatekeeper for America’s children. She and her committee interpreted the lyrics of Prince, Twisted Sister and others, bestowed their own meaning upon the material and used their interpretation to attempt to legislate them out of existence.
What Tipper Gore and her hit list stood for was infinitely more dangerous in a free society than what Prince stood for; that’s why Prince was such an important cultural figure, even to those that may not have been head over heels fans of his music
Darling little Nikki had traumatized Mrs. Gore so much that she then took it upon herself with the assistance of her husband’s senatorial position to lead a quite literal crusade against musical artists across the wide range of the popular musical spectrum over the lyrical content and presentation of their songs. That was the ultimate genius of Prince. Gore targeted Madonna, Dead Kennedys, Frank Zappa, Dee Snyder and Judas Priest, to name a few, because Prince was able to incorporate all of those genres into his own music. Even Cindi Lauper made the list. Hilarious photographs of Gore posing at record shops with album covers of WASP and the band Bitch are the stuff that punk and rock bands dream about as an album cover of their own.
It was the kind of moral crusade that our media far too often lays at feet of the social and religious right. In a retrospective just this past week, Newsweek took an opportunity to look back on the PMRC and featured almost exclusively Susan Baker, the wife of former Reagan Treasury Secretary and Republican lion James Baker, who was also a member of Gore’s committee. But for you young’uns who don’t remember, make no mistake: the PRMC and the moral nannying that came with it was Tipper Gore’s baby and Prince’s mega-popularity was target Number One. Sure, “Darling Nikki” is a filth-ridden sex anthem–a very, very good one, for that matter. It’s well orchestrated with an unmistakable hook, a dripping guitar and keyboard riff and Prince’s signature vocal style that always managed to sound like he was singing somewhere between the border of pleasure and pain.
The most insulting aspect about Tipper Gore and the PRMC when they took on Prince was thinking that shock value is all he existed for. How terribly, terribly mistaken she was. Prince always performed with one foot in the pussy and the other in the pulpit. For every Darling Nikki, there was a song like “The Cross,” or which, for instance is as spiritually a cathartic rock anthem as anything U2 has ever written.
And as with most things involving the former Gore couple, Tipper’s research council was as much about protecting music and freedom of expression as her ex-husband’s climate crusade built on millions of dollars of Saudi oil money is about protecting the planet. This was about control, and stood as a stark warning where we today find ourselves as a culture and society. In the arena of moral posturing, I’ll take Prince’s views on righteousness over Tipper Gore’s every time.
If Prince demonstrated one thing throughout his meteoric career, it’s that he was not going to be controlled. Not by MTV. Not by YouTube. And certainly not by Tipper Gore.
Prince was an artistic innovator in every sense of the word. He played guitar better than Hendrix, sang better than Michael Jackson and danced better than Madonna. His songs brought out the purest sexual instincts for endless amounts of teenage mixtapes yet he was eccentrically feminine in nature. Yet he was no more feminine than say Dee Snyder or Motley Crue with permed manes and cheap eyeliner. Prince was more Little Richard than he was Motown and was more funk than he was Elvis Presley. His band featured African-Americans and women in key roles, yet his overt religiosity (and later conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses) made progressives uncomfortable–his lyrics scribbled in chalk on a university campus today would spark safe-space protests. Prince was an Opera, choir and circus under the same tent.
And all of this was something that Tipper Gore thought she could contain with a sticker.
That’s why politicians couldn’t play off of Prince, either back then or up until his sudden death. Many have certainly tried. His ego, as spectacular as it was, was mostly insular, while celebrities and politicians today are mostly the exact opposite. Prince had no desire in going viral or YouTube hits–in fact, no major artist ever did more to ensure his music could not be found there. Like David Bowie, he checked out right at the particular time when this world seemingly held no further interest for him. Our media and our culture isn’t interested in musical talent anymore. They’re interested in what Prince may have thought about Black Lives Matter or a North Carolina Transgender bathroom state law. They’re more interested in Kim Kardashian being pulled up onto stage with Prince during a live show, and not why he kicked her off of it.
Today pop idols can’t play instruments, have voices that are almost completely synthesized by computers and songs that are mostly written by teams of producers. Sometimes all of those things are rolled into one package (see: Beyonce). Not only are TV reality stars omnipresent, one of them is actually among five remaining candidates for the Presidency. Social media stars are more obsessed with whatever fake rape scandal someone is promoting, or who can push their human rights cause the most on Instagram (or if you’re Miley Cyrus, pretty much just straight bored up unicorn porn). Members of media went completely twitterpated over the premiere of whatever the hell Beyonce’s Lemonade was. Beyonce, who is considered a symbol of feminist empowerment, has all her music written and produced by teams of men.
Prince was a more empowering artist for women than Beyonce ever will be. Media and musicians are far more interested in Taylor Swift or Kim Kardashian pwning some random fan on Twitter for throwing shade for the clicks. Maybe that’s why pop music has become so uninteresting, because none of this interested Prince.
In the end, thanks to stunningly fluent and passionate testimony from artists like Frank Zappa and Dee Snyder (whose speech should be viewed in it’s entirety) about the responsibility of parents to pay attention to the music their kids were consuming–as opposed to the federal government or a committee created by record labels–the PMRC was reduced to abandoning their quest of pulling such music from record stores and were forced to settle for a “Parental Advisory” warning label that, while compromising the integrity of the artists’ album art, became the equivalent of the musical Streisand Effect; a badge of honor and something much much more enticing to young audiences than any idea of Nikki grinding in the dark. Perhaps the greatest moment of political testimony in American history is when Dee Snider suggested to Al Gore’s face that the reason his wife finds sodomy and bondage in the lyrics of albums like Prince and Twisted Sister is because his wife is looking for such things.
If Al Gore were able to process human emotion, he would probably have leapt out from behind his microphone and attempted to strangle Snyder to the delight of the moral up-tights supporting him and his wife. It would have made what largely turned out to be a pointless congressional witch hunt against scary musicians in big hair and makeup, all worthwhile. They had to settle for a scary looking warning label instead.
And in pure Prince fashion, just when the PMRC got their sticker, Prince walked away from the raunch and embraced the lyrical linguistics of a holy choir. Prince trolled Tipper Gore and the political left long before anyone on social media. His conversion to Jehovah’s Witness later in his life and career, leaving the persona of a sexual tyrannosaur behind, was a testament to the power of personal faith and not the federal government of the United States.
The lessons learned from the intentions of the moral left can never be forgotten even in Prince’s passing. The cultural lessons from Gore and the PMRC vs Prince’s rights to free expression cannot be ignored as campus activist groups on the left demand safe spaces and statist presidential candidates demand the expansion of libel laws. Perhaps as a consensus reminder to our born rights to free expression, we should just put Prince on the twenty dollar bill and be done with it.