08.24.12

The Long, Strange U-Turn of Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’

Twisted Sister’s angsty anthem was one of the most controversial songs of the '80s. Now it airs in birth-control ads and at Paul Ryan rallies. A look at the hit’s transformation.

“We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the rebellious angst anthem by glammed-out hair metal group Twisted Sister, was so incendiary and cutting-edge at the time of its 1984 release that a Senate hearing was held over whether it was harmful to children. The content of the song and its video was considered so objectionable and defiant that it was given the PTA Scarlet Letter: a spot on the “Filthy 15” list of most morally unacceptable songs.

It’s difficult to remember the song ever having such bite, as the decades since have seen it appropriated, watered-down, and Glee-ified to shill everything from birth control to hotel rooms and, most recently, political candidates. The years have dulled the song’s sharp, anarchic message to such a safe and tolerable point that Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan recently attempted to co-opt it as pump-up music at his rallies. Not pleased with that decision at all, Twisted Sister lead singer Dee Snider is finally getting fed up and political again.

“I emphatically denounce Paul Ryan’s use of my band Twisted Sister’s song, ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It,’ in any capacity,” Snider said in a statement. “There is almost nothing he stands for that I agree with—except the use of P90X.” Ryan’s camp promptly heeded the message, with a spokesperson riffing on the song’s lyrics in a statement: “We’re not gonna play it anymore.”

Cease-and-desist requests—whether formal legal orders or verbal rants—are hardly rare in politics. But Snider and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” comprise a particularly interesting case.  It’s a mismatching of artist and political ideal as egregious as if Obama played a Ted Nugent hit before a stump speech, or if Michele Bachmann had strutted out to the podium to the music of Marilyn Manson or Adam Lambert.

To begin with, there’s the hilarious notion that Ryan, aggressively socially conservative, would choose a song by a band most remembered for dressing in glam-rock drag—teased monster-size perms, head-to-toe leather, high-heeled combat boots, and enough eye makeup to make Tammy Faye Bakker blush—to represent his campaign at all. But Twisted Sister was also once an act preceded by such a bad-ass reputation that Snider was invited to testify before a Senate hearing on sex and violence in music—defending the very essence of rock ‘n’ roll. How did that image fade so much that it’s now endorsed by the Republican Party?

Thirty years before Ryan’s supporters were pleasantly tapping their toes to the Twisted Sister tune, the trailblazing hard-rock group was among music’s most popular and controversial acts. The iconic music video for “We’re Not Gonna Take It” helped put MTV—and Twisted Sister—on the map.

When a cartoonish dad berates a bratty teen boy with a messy room, the kid looks his father directly in the eye, screams “I wanna rock!,” heaving him out a window and transforming himself into Dee Snider, who launches into the ubiquitous chorus: “We’re not gonna take it/ No, were ain’t gonna take it / We’re not gonna take it anymore.” The defiant shake-your-fist-at-authority message roused teenagers around the country, who turned the song into a Top 40 hit.

It also rallied concerned moms, who thought the violence and lawlessness in the video to be morally objectionable. Tipper Gore, then-wife of then-Senator Al Gore, co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center in response to it and other button-pushing ‘80s tracks. The group wanted increased parental control over music their children listened to by urging—and eventually convincing—record labels to place advisory labels on records containing “explicit lyrics or content” as a warning flag.

The group was equally offended by these groups’ music videos. “The images frightened my children, they frightened me! I am frightened! Way frightened! The graphic sex and the violence were too much for us to handle,” Gore said. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” was placed alongside songs by Prince, Motley Crue, and Judas Priest on the PMRC’s list of songs it found most objectionable—tracks that, the group declared, are “infecting the youth of the world with messages they cannot handle.”

“We’re Not Gonna Take It” was infecting the youth of the world! Youths could not handle its corrupt messages! And now it’s featured on Dancing With the Stars and was briefly a campaign song for a conservative vice-presidential candidate. How things change.

To his credit, Snider was initially as defiant as his song encourages its listeners to be. In a showdown with the PMRC in front of a Senate Committee, he said, “The full responsibility for defending my children falls on the shoulders of my wife and I, because there is no one else capable of making these judgments for us.” Even though parental advisory labels soon became common practice, it was a landmark moment for the record industry and rock ‘n’ roll; Snider’s ferocious fight against censorship and defense of his song solidified a place for “We’re Not Gonna Take It” in the canon of rock’s most insolent anthems.

But it was all too soon forgotten. The song may have become too popular for its own good. It began appearing on soundtracks for films like the PG flop Max Keeble’s Big Move and Chris Kattan’s embarrassing post-SNL comedy Corky Romano, usually to imbue ridiculous fight scenes with ironic humor.

No ad, however, rivals the most bizarre commercial to use the song: A 2007 spot for Yaz birth control.

Then came the increasingly baffling commercials. In a Claritin ad, allergy sufferers gather to protest allergy symptoms as the song plays, presumably proclaiming that they’re “not gonna take” stuffiness and sneezing anymore. Instead, they’re going to take Claritin’s magic pill. Congested allergy sufferers aren’t the only consumers who aren’t going to take things and buy other things instead. Wal-Mart customers won’t take competitors’ higher prices! Travelers who don’t like making “coffee in a hotel bathroom again” will choose Extended Stay America! And surely, Stanley Steamer patrons won’t take deep carpet stains!

No ad, however, rivals the most bizarre commercial to use the song: A 2007 spot for Yaz birth control. A perky chorus of women sings about how they’re not going to take the uncomfortable symptoms of old birth-control pills, and are opting for Yaz instead. Snider may have never imagined that a politician whose views don’t overlap with his own would one day use his song as a rally. But it’s unlikely he thought it would be used to decry menstrual cramps and bloating, either.

Given the path his song has traveled, perhaps Snider shouldn’t be so appalled by Ryan’s desire to play it at rallies. Certainly as much as the track has been sanitized—let’s not forget its prime placement during an episode of The Glee Project, or soundtracking a jaunty jive on Dancing With the Stars—Snider has tempered his image as well. The rocker who once kicked down walls while wearing thigh-high boots and railed against senators most recently tried to reinvent himself as a family man on the failed A&E reality series Growing Up Twisted, and now as a Broadway crooner. (You can purchase Dee Does Broadway, with guest appearances by Patti LuPone and Clay Aiken, on iTunes now.)

But when one remembers what Snider once predicted would be his song’s legacy, it’s at least refreshing that the rocker is dusting off his defiant attitude and shaking his fist at Paul Ryan—at authority—once again: “Any time that the team is down by two, or somebody had a bad day at the office, they’re gonna stand up and sing ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’”