Frank Zappa was one of those musicians that almost everyone’s heard of, but few readily know his songs. The legendarily eccentric musician who would’ve turned 75 today, was a radical musical outsider, releasing more than 60 records over his 30-year career, drawing from influences that spanned from classical music to free form jazz to rhythm and blues, often on a single album. At the heart of his prolific creativity, Zappa was also a renowned political activist. An outspoken proponent of the arts, he was both strongly anti-conformist and fiercely anti-censorship.
It was in the fall of 1985 that Zappa got his first big moment in the political spotlight. That year, a group informally known as The Washington Wives were looking to increase parental involvement over their children’s access to music. The group, which included Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore, had a clear-cut goal in mind to put pressure on the Recording Industry Associates of America (RIAA) into a series of regulations, including voluntarily labeling albums that contained explicit lyrics or cover art, similar to the way the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rated movies based on content.
This led to the forming of a committee known as the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), who aimed to influence their set of standards within the RIAA itself. Armed with a list of songs known as “The Filthy Fifteen” (which included everyone from Prince to Judas Priest), the PMRC suggested that the RIAA create and enforce these numerous proposed standards themselves, which included everything from warning labels, lack of airplay for songs deemed explicit, and even to reassess the contracts of controversial performers in an attempt to discourage such behavior both on stage and on record.