Recently, a theatrical modern musical composition called The Filthy 15 debuted in London at the Barbican, a venue known for its edgy events and performances. From what I saw of it online it looked a bit tedious and dull, but the idea of the piece is profound and inspired, and anyway it’s coming to the U.S. and Canada, and hopefully will be better rendered when it gets here.
The Filthy 15 is the creation of Canadian Gen X’er Nicole Lizée (pronounced Lee-zay), who grew up in the dawn of MTV with the appropriate pre-teenage angst required of a 12-year-old in 1985, and was disturbed by that year’s U.S. Senate hearings on rock-music lyrics.
The title refers to the original notorious list of 15 songs held up as examples of the sort of toxic lyrics kids were being exposed to. The hearings, which carried the full and serious weight of potential legislation against popular music, were themselves inappropriately instigated by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, spouses of Sens. Al and James respectively, and two other prominent Washingtonian better halves, Pam Howar and Sally Nevius. The four horsey-class women of the threatened cultural Apocalypse formed an association called the Parents Music Resource Center (better known as PMRC), which sounded far loftier and more solid and thoughtful, and less barmy, than it really was.
Gore founded the group ostensibly after being horrified at hearing the lyrics of “Darling Nikki”, a raunchy Prince song on Purple Rain, which Gore had bought for her young daughter, with the catchy ditty: “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.” Ironically, then in the mid-’80s, the act of sexualizing a woman—even an imaginary one—was an act of radical feminism.
Tipper’s righteous indignation caught on like wildfire in Reagan/Falwell/Swaggart’s dry-wood America and the country became instantly divided over whether it had become Satan’s sex slave, or was sliding down the greased slope of censorship.
In reality, the PMRC was a fraud, created to promote the Gore brand name since Al was going to run for president in 1988. Al, who later became Bill Clinton’s vice president, was a liberal from Tennessee and knew he was unlikely to win with just liberal voters behind him; he needed some conservatives to like him. Gore couldn’t attack pop culture because liberals would have excoriated him, but his wife could! So, dutifully, she became the darling of the self-imagined virtuous, the standard-bearing mother fighting for children’s vulnerable souls, and the name Gore became a little softer and more digestible to the right-of-center.
The PMRC’s hollow platitudes made no sense, of course, but they didn’t have to. After all, the fundamentalists and religious right only needed to hear “Family Values”—words equally at home on a 32-ounce bag of potato chips as on a church notice-board for a sermon.
The PMRC blamed rising teenage pregnancies on salacious lyrics, although presumably uncareful sex had more to do with it than music. A boy who allegedly listened to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” killed himself, and a holy storm followed, exhibiting the tragedy as evidence that rock songs were driving teenagers to off themselves like lemmings, while ignoring what one would have thought was the more convincing evidence that this wasn’t true: Of the tens of millions of young people who heard the song, no one else took it as inspiration to end their life.
The rest of the thin argument put forth was that young people’s music was precipitously sexual and therefore ruining their easily influenced lives and fast tracking them to damnation. The exact same thing, note for note, was said 30 years earlier when Elvis was kicking the hornet's’ nest of spiking adolescent hormones. It was prissy and stupid and dyed-in-the-wool American Puritanism, and offensive to all forward-thinking people who knew that censorship always opened the rusted cellar grate of a society’s darkest spirits.
Nicole Lizée bided her time before issuing her own rebuttal and, some 30-plus years later, has written a somewhat minimalist musical and richly textured mixed-media composition, resurrecting this rather dated, rather forgotten footnote to late-twentieth-century youth culture.
She samples portions of the Senate hearings, and the timbre of the participants’ voices suggested instruments to her to convey the drama and gravity of the occasion. The result blends an original musical score with visual and audio montages from the hearings which, isolated into little gilded soundbites, come off as ancient and fresh, like actors intoning bits of Greek tragedies.
Susan Baker carefully enunciating the lyrics of “Darling Nikki,” for example, becomes pure, unforced farce. In fact, Baker just reciting “masturbating with a magazine” is entertainment gold.
A Frank Zappa comment that “If it looks like censorship and it smells like censorship, it is censorship, no matter whose wife is talking about it” suddenly sounds like one of the clearest, truest things ever said by anyone.
“I thought there should be more about this,” said Lizée on a Canadian radio show last month. “Look at these characters! I watched the Senate hearings. This is what I do, bring things that made an impact on me in the past into the now, and filter it through my perspective. I wanted to have this moment in time stop, make a musical component with it.”
She said on the same broadcast that she wanted to stimulate a debate about censorship. “It’s a discussion to be had, whether you agree with it or not.”
The rock lyrics debate roiled and seesawed for a few years before eventually ending with record companies agreeing to voluntarily carry the soon-ubiquitous black-and-white parental warning stickers for explicit content.
By the time the industry conceded to the stickering compromise, it was kicking itself for not doing so earlier, since it now realized the warning label sold more records, and that even stinkingly mediocre albums could sell hundreds of thousands of copies if it had the sticker, which became a badge of honor, a sort of parallel-universe Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Exactly what it wasn’t supposed to be!
And so everyone—surprisingly—was happy, and the music industry the happier, by far.