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Editorial: A rock ’n’ roll lesson for critics of critical race theory

Editorial: A rock ’n’ roll lesson for critics of critical race theory

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Singer John Denver at the Parents Music Resource Center hearing.

Readers of a certain age possibly remember the Parents Music Resource Center, more often referred to by its acronym, the P.M.R.C.

A bit more prodding might recall to mind a signature image that resulted from the efforts of the P.M.R.C.: Dee Snider, lead singer of the heavy metal band Twister Sister, his tattooed shoulders bare and his blond curls hanging down below his shoulder blades as he testified in a hearing before the U.S. Congress.

The wives of four prominent Washington, D.C., politicos formed the P.M.R.C. as an appalled response to the pop music their young children were listening to, with the unquestionably R-rated “Darling Nikki” by an artist still known at the time as Prince playing a central role. In today’s parlance, that song and other contemporary ditties triggered these women.

The best known of the protesting quartet was Tipper Gore, the future Second Lady of the United States, then married to then-Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn. Their goal was to get the record industry to put warning labels on music that contained references to sex, violence, drug use and occult themes — and they further argued that rock music bore the blame for all sorts of societal problems, among them teen suicide and teen pregnancy.

Inspired by and allied with the National Parent Teacher Association, the P.M.R.C. took its campaign to the masses, the media and to the U.S. Senate chamber. This last effort resulted in the hearing at which Snider appeared alongside eclectic rock musician Frank Zappa and folk singer John Denver, each arguing that what the P.M.R.C. wanted amounted to harmful censorship.

Denver’s words to the Senate committee were powerful. “Discipline and self-restraint, when practiced by an individual, a family, or a company is an effective way to deal with this issue. The same thing when forced on a people by their government or, worse, by a self-appointed watchdog of public morals, is suppression and will not be tolerated in a democratic society.”

Before that hearing, the P.M.R.C. infamously released a list of songs they labeled the “Filthy Fifteen.” Stringing these songs together in a Spotify list results in a surreal 1980s nostalgia trip, with pop queens like Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Sheena Easton mingling with obscure, extreme heavy metal bands like Venom, Mercyful Fate and W.A.S.P.

Perhaps the strangest inclusion on a truly strange list was Twisted Sister’s hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Though the MTV video that accompanied it was full of cartoonish slapstick violence, the song itself, about sassing back at overbearing authority figures, was clean as a whistle.

In the short term, the P.M.R.C. triumphed. The record industry began using labels that evolved into the now familiar “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” on album covers. Some retailers, especially Wal-Mart, declined to stock releases deemed too provocative.

The effects on the artists singled out as the Filthy Fifteen were quite varied. Madonna, Def Leppard and Prince were soon bigger than ever. The cult band Venom exulted in the extra record sales the publicity brought, while the lead singer of The Mary Jane Girls maintains that their inclusion on the list damaged their career trajectory.

In the long term, however, the labels had an effect opposite what was intended, as teenagers deliberately sought out the clearly marked uncensored versions and record companies turned the explicit content warnings into marketing tools.

The song that got The Mary Jane Girls in trouble, “In My House,” might as well be a nursery rhyme compared to, say, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s No. 1 hit “W.A.P.”

Why rehash all this pop music history 36 years after Snider, Zappa and Denver testified in Congress?

Well, there’s a cautionary tale to be had here in 2021 for those campaigning to stomp all traces of critical race theory from the school systems. As with rock lyrics in the ’80s, CRT is getting blamed for societal ills, such as deepening the racial divide.

Of course, there are significant differences that must be noted. First, teenagers unquestionably were listening to the music the P.M.R.C. raised so many alarms about.

There’s also no charismatic figure at the center of the critical race theory controversy to sing seductively in a video or eloquently defend CRT before Congress. Arguably, the only person at the center of the CRT controversy is a straw man.

One could also argue, with much validity, that any of the innumerable pushes to ban famous books from school libraries, from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “The Hunger Games” to “Captain Underpants,” track more closely with the campaign against CRT, but then we wouldn’t get to include all these fun reminders of the loopy pop culture of the 1980s.

Again, a major difference is that, regardless of the merits of book banning or lack thereof, those books can be found in stock in those libraries.

In this day and age, frankly, your typical grade school student has much more chance of running across ideas from critical race theory in the same place they are probably going to encounter a song with explicit lyrics: the internet.

Let’s set the question aside as to why CRT critics insist this graduate level academic subject is being taught in K-12 schools no matter how many teachers, administrators and school board members say it’s not.

Reasonable people can dispute the merits of the works anti-CRT activists claim to be problematic, such as the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” or bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Anti-Racist.”

However, demanding that the ideas in these writings should be canceled, as the modern parlance goes, only makes the inquisitive mind wish to know more about what the fuss is about.

The cautionary tale one could derive from the legacy of the P.M.R.C. is simply this — no one right now is doing more to raise awareness of critical race theory, and to drive curiosity about what it entails, than the people who are trying to ban it.

No one has ever said it better than John Denver did in 1985.

“In a matured and incredibly diverse society such as ours, the access to all perspectives of an issue becomes more and more important,” he said. “That which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting. Consequently, a great deal of time and energy is spent trying to get at what is being kept from you. Our children, our people, our society and the world cannot afford this waste.”

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