Friday, July 3, 2015

John Denver, Annie's Song + How John Denver saved America

Happy 4th of July! It's a good day for the story of how John Denver rescued freedom of speech from the forces of censorship. 

In 1985, the Parents' Music Resource Center was getting upset about obscene lyrics in music, and Congress was considering legislative restrictions. Frank Zappa, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and John Denver were sent before Congress to testify in defense of artistic freedom. John Denver was least in need of protection from the censors, with his gentle acoustic folk (the song above is a nice example) that appeals to earnest saps like me. But he did the most to prevent any censorship from taking place.

Barry Miles' Zappa tells the story:
Pressured by their wives, the congressmen held an impartial forum to investigate the sorry state of the record industry. Senator Hollings (whose wife was a signatory to the RIAA letter) said, 'If I could do away with all of this music constitutionally, I would'. The Senate hearing on 19 September 1985 was fixed in favor of the PMRC.  The five-hour event was a media circus with 35 television feeds, 50 photographers, plus reporters and members of the public. 
At the Senate hearing, Zappa was by far the most eloquent speaker, though he undermined his credibility by imitating the southern accents of some of the PMRC wives.  Dee Snider from Twisted Sister proved to be much more articulate than the PMRC had expected and was able to contradict much of their testimony, but it was John Denver who did the most damage to the PMRC cause. Clean-cut and all-American, he held fast to the First Amendment, telling the Chairman, "Sir, we cannot have any kind of censorship whatsoever." 
Dee Snider described Denver's testimony: "And here they were, falling all over themselves, complimenting him about the work he'd done for world peace and hunger and all his good efforts, and saying, "But Mr. Denver, don't you think we could have a little bit, maybe some ratings on records? And he says "Absolutely not." He wouldn't budge. He had everything backed up. He was devastating. But to watch the press coverage, you wouldn't even know that John Denver was there for the most part. He was most damaging, they gave him the least press."
The record of John Denver's testimony begins at the end of this page. I like how at the very end he talks about playing in the USSR, subtly reminding everyone of America's contrasting self-image as the home of free speech.