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Are The Filthy Fifteen, the Songs Blacklisted By the PMRC, Still Dirty Almost 30 Years Later?

Are The Filthy Fifteen, the Songs Blacklisted By the PMRC, Still Dirty Almost 30 Years Later?: Madonna

Madonna

On September 19, 1985, Tipper Gore, Susan Baker, Pam Howar and Sally Nevius formed the Parents Music Resource Center, a group finally making a stand against the corruptive powers of pop music on our nation’s youth. Although derided at the time as merely an attempt by fearful, over-protective parents to control their offspring by denying them access to pop music, of all things, it was obviously a much-needed stand against an art form that had been destroying American morality since Bill Haley invited 1950s youngsters to “rock” around “the clock” — and I think we all know what he was really talking about there.

The PMRC didn’t just fuss, fret and suggest new labeling to identify problematic music and make it far more enticing to thrill-seeking kids, however. It also released something called The Filthy Fifteen, a list of the 15 songs it found particularly objectionable, along with the reasons why it had made the list. With the benefit of both hindsight and nostalgia born of having been saved from the dangers of music almost three decades ago, the idea of revisiting that list from our enlightened perspectives today seemed attractive. Here, then, is what threatened a nation back in 1985.

Prince — “Darling Nikki”
Reasons for inclusion: Sex/Masturbation

While there’s no denying that 1980s Prince makes for good listening, it’s tough to really make a case for this song as particularly objectionable unless the very mention of sex and masturbation — or perhaps it’s “grinding” that’s the problem? Either way, you’d think that the backwards section of the track (where, reversed, Prince sings “Hello/How are you?/Fine, fine/Cause I know/That the Lord/Is coming soon/Coming, coming soon”) would have bought some goodwill. This is, after all, just a song about a good Christian man who occasionally likes to grind.

Sheena Easton — “Sugar Walls”
Reasons for inclusion: Sex

More Prince, who wrote this track under the pseudonym “Alexander Nevermind.” It wasn’t one of his greatest moments, though, with ridiculous lyrics like “Blood races to your private spots/Let me know there’s a fire” and a genuinely hilarious spoken word interlude at 3:01 when Easton tries very hard to sound sexy and disguise her Scottish accent at the same time, failing at both. There’s no denying that the song wants to be dirty, but, really, it’s more laughable.

Judas Priest — “Eat Me Alive”
Reasons for inclusion: Sex

On the one hand, it’s a stereotypical hair rock song, complete with overly-elaborate, pointless guitar solo in the middle. On the other, the lyrics aren’t exactly subtle about the non-consensual oral sex (“I’m gonna force you at gunpoint/To eat me alive” is fairly obvious) and there’s something somehow more distasteful about lines like “Bound to deliver as you give and I collect/Squealing in passion as the rod steel injects.” Could it be that this song remains objectionable not because it’s obscene but because it’s misogynistic?

Vanity — “Strap On ‘Robbie Baby’”
Reasons for inclusion: Sex

It’s Prince again (hiding under the guise of “Robbie Bruce,” making the song’s title more interesting), this time indulging in a bit of synthesizer-laden light BDSM, with whipcrack sound effects to underscore any doubt that lyrics like “strap this thing, tonight!” might have left behind. Like the Sheena Easton song, it’s something that seems more like schoolboy innuendo than actually sexy today, but obviously the 1980s were a more innocent time.

Mötley Crüe — “Bastard”
Reasons for inclusion: Violence/Language

While the method of delivery is likely what put the PMRC on edge — there really is something very funny about 1980s metal when you listen to it now, but I have no doubt that this sounded far more dangerous back then — the lyrics of this song sound like something out of a particularly extreme musical: “In goes my knife/Pull out his life/Consider that bastard dead!” You can almost imagine the West Side Story-esque choreography that accompanies it. As to the “language” notice, I can only assume it’s for the word “bastard,” because otherwise this song is pretty damn clean.

AC/DC — “Let Me Put My Love Into You”
Reasons for inclusion: Sex

Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the musicianship of AC/DC, whose 1980s metal sounds far, far more impressive than anything from Motley Crue or Judas Priest lo, these many years later. Well, until you listen to the lyrics, that is. Yes, this is a song about sex that is actually called “Let Me Put My Love Into You,” with a chorus that ends “Let me cut your cake with my knife.” Even allowing for the fact that, as always, AC/DC’s collective tongue was firmly in their collective cheek, there’s little excuse for that kind of shoddiness — but aside from the mild innuendo of the title, the song is astoundingly tame, with verses talking about “crazy feelings for me reeling” and “I got the power/any hour,” lyrics that could have fit into a Tiffany song from the same period.

Twisted Sister — “We’re Not Gonna Take It”
Reasons for inclusion: Violence

Yes, that’s right; Twisted Sister’s finest hour was blacklisted for “violence.” And how violent does the song get? Probably the part where Dee Snyder sings “We’ll fight the powers that be.” Or maybe the couplet “We’ll fight/Yeah.” Seriously: that’s as violent as the song actually gets. This is what happens when the PMRC didn’t feel it was entirely appropriate to ‘fess up and have “We don’t like the video and what’s with this kind of backtalk?” category in their reasons for inclusion.

(As for the song itself, it’s very difficult to listen to it today and not have some kind of Pavlovian response to it, thanks to it being appropriated by many different parties throughout the years, from Betty White’s Off Her Rockers to Republican politician Paul Ryan, who used it as a campaign song until Snyder revealed that he was an Obama supporter and refused permission.)

Madonna — “Dress You Up”
Reasons for inclusion: Sex

The fact that Madonna was described at the time as “worst of all” in popular culture’s “morally bankrupt, flagrantly licentious and utterly materialistic” outlook on the world by Tipper Gore might explain this song’s appearance on the list better than the song itself — outside of mention of both “silky… caresses” and “velvet kisses,” this song is mild in terms of sexuality and bordering on dull in aural stimulation (Sorry, Nile Rogers, who produced). Maybe the opening mention of “all your suits… custom made in London” fell afoul of the PMRC’s anti-materialist worldview — or, more likely, they just didn’t like Madonna and her then-most-recent single was the easiest to point to. Really, though; they couldn’t have chosen “Like A Virgin”?

WASP — “Animal (Fuck Like A Beast)”
Reasons for inclusion: Sex/Language

Finally, we reach a song that arguably wanted to be on a “Filthy” list, with a title that uses the word “fuck” and desperately eager-to-convince lyrics that boast “I’ll nail your ass to the sheets/A pelvic thrust and the sweat starts to sting ya/I fuck like a beast.” There’s also something in there about “making artificial lovers for free” that’s a little bit confusing — I’m sure there was a better business model in the artificial lover building business even back then — but if nothing else, this is a song that was actively courting the reaction that the PMRC had to it. You can only imagine how excited WASP was when the Filthy Fifteen was announced. It would’ve been like getting an Oscar nomination for Most Over-The-Top Fuck Song.

Def Leppard — “High’n’Dry (Saturday Night)”
Reasons for inclusion: Drug and Alcohol Use

If nothing else, the song certainly falls within the descriptor “alcohol use” with lines like “I been drinking all day,” “On the bottle, I’m on the line/I’m up and feeling fine” and a chorus that repeats “I got my whiskey, I got my wine.” Drugs, however, are distinctly absent from the song unless you really want to read into the title. Whether or not mentioning booze means that the song is necessarily “filthy” is open to question, dependent on your answer to the question “Is drinking inherently dirty?” (The correct answer is, of course, “it depends how you do it.”)

Mercyful Fate — “Into the Coven”
Reasons for inclusion: Occult

Rarely has Satanic Worship Music ever sounded as jolly as it does in the opening minute of this mostly-forgotten classic of the genre, which sounds like something you might hear at an electrified Ren Faire as much as anything else. Sadly, it’s by far the highlight of this cliche-ridden track, which literally invites listeners to “Come, come into my coven/And become Lucifer’s child,” helpfully adding clear instructions on what to do once inside the coven like “Undress until you’re naked/And put on this white coat” and “Say after me, my soul belongs to Satan.” I’m not sure which is more pathetic: the utter lack of invention in this song or the fact that the PMRC took it seriously enough to name and shame it on the list.

Black Sabbath — “Trashed”
Reasons for inclusion: Drug and Alcohol Use

It says a lot about how desperate the PMRC were to save the youth of America from the very mention of alcohol and drugs (although, again, no drugs are actually mentioned in this song; it’s all tequila and whiskey) that they added “Trashed” to their blacklist. After all, anyone actually listening to the song will realize that pretty clearly it’s a song warning against getting trashed: Ian Gillen sings about crashing his car because he was too drunk to drive, and even pledges “I won’t get trashed again.” (Spoiler: He does though, almost immediately.) You have to wonder what the PMRC made of a song like “Dead Man’s Curve,” considering someone actually dies in that particular driving song.

Mary Jane Girls — “In My House”
Reasons for inclusion: Sex

Memorable as much for its Rick James production and sweet bass line than anything else, “In My House” probably seemed very racy upon its release, with the singer promising “When it comes down to making love/I’ll satisfy your every need/And every fantasy you think up,” and offering the listener the key to her house. The fact that this was the Rick James-related track to make the list instead, of say, “Super Freak” (You know, the song with the “very kinky girl” who likes to indulge in orgies with Rick James’ band and her girlfriends) is kind of mind boggling, however, especially when you consider that next to no-one had even heard of the Mary Jane Girls at the time. Maybe it was on the radio at the wrong time one day or something.

Venom — “Possessed”
Reasons for inclusion: Occult

If this song has anything over “Into the Coven,” it’s the sheer glee it takes in telling the listener how naughty it is. “We drink the vomit of the priests/Make love with the dying whore,” it excitedly shares. “I am possessed by all that is evil/The death of your God I demand!” For all but those who enjoy the sound of a man with laryngitis shouting over a too-far-up-in-the-mix bass line, it’s almost unlistenable, but the band was certainly committed to earning that “occult” rating. Approached today, of course, it sounds like the Saturday Night Live version of Satanism, but that almost makes it even more appealing.

Cyndi Lauper — “She Bop”
Reasons for inclusion: Sex/Masturbation

Sure, yes: “She Bop” is a song that’s very clearly about masturbation (something made even more obvious by the line “They say I better stop or I’ll go blind”), but it’s one done with such good humor and wit (all those who don’t refer to masturbation as “messin’ with the danger zone,” you should start right now) that even the most prudish should be charmed. Plus, who doesn’t love the ersatz return to the doo-wop era with that chorus? Even if the PMRC clearly had a problem with women being sexual (see: almost every other song on the list), it’s still a veritable sin that a song in favor of female masturbation ended up on this list. As Lauper herself yelped, “Ain’t no law against it yet.”


Graeme McMillan is a writer based in Portland, Oregon, who’s written for Time.com, Wired.com and The Hollywood Reporter’s Heat Vision blog. He loves only gold and tweets at @graemem.

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