"Tipper Gore, as misguided as she may have been, her heart was kind of in the right place." Inside Cover Your Ears, the thoughtful new documentary on music censorship starring Dee Snider, Chuck D, Jello Biafra and more

Public Enemy posing, Rob Halford posing and Dee Snider at the PMRC Senate Hearing
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Cover Your Ears is a new documentary bringing together luminaries like Dee Snider, Chuck D, Jello Biafra, Judas Priest’s Ian Hill and Sakis from Rotting Christ to explore how censorship has affected music over the decades. Canadian director/co-writer Sean Patrick Shaul’s original focus was the ‘dirty blues’ of the 1920s-50s, those pioneering naughty ditties that inspired AC/DC’s love of lewd innuendo. But the deeper Sean dug, the more he discovered how much censorship has shaped our favourite music. 

“We realised there’s a direct correlation between the dirty blues and the Rolling Stones, and a direct correlation between the Stones and heavy metal,” he says. “So the story just kind of unravelled itself.”

Among others, the film examines the concerns of the Parents’ Music Resource Centre, a 1980s pressure group headed by Tipper Gore who went to war with anything they perceived as being anti-family values. At its peak, bands like Twisted Sister and Judas Priest were dragged into court, accused of everything from promoting sexual immorality to including subliminal messages in their songs urging fans to harm themselves. 

Today, their fears seem very quaint in a world where Cardi B’s liquescent fanny tops charts and scoops awards. Are censors less troubled by music nowadays?  “They’re still troubled, but they’re lost in the noise of everyone being troubled by everything now,” ponders Sean.  “At that time it was on the rise with MTV, these videos were broadcast into your house on cable, so parents weren’t exposed to what W.A.S.P. were up to until suddenly it’s in your living room. Music still upsets people, but the game’s different now. It’s impossible to ban something because you can always find it somewhere.”

To some extent, the phenomenon has shifted from top-down authoritarian stricture to a more insidious censoriousness, where artists are shut down by anonymous activists rather than government agents. “We didn’t have the term cancel culture before – I personally hate that term, but that’s what censorship is now 90% of the time,” reckons Sean. “Before it would be picket signs outside a venue – ‘Down With Satan’ or whatever. Now those people don’t leave the house, they band together online, contact venues, labels and streaming services and try to get bands pulled. Which makes it harder to fight against; there’s no one you can point to, it’s these faceless avatars who can cause a huge amount of damage to an artist’s career. For better or worse."

Sean is quick to add, “But some artists should be called out on their shit. Freedom of speech works both ways – you have to deal with the reaction to what you’ve said. It’s tough for me to defend some of those people, but fair’s fair.”

In recounting its tale the film is scrupulously nuanced and balanced, refusing to judge or dictate. “It was very important to us to not just wag our fingers at these uptight, pearl-clutching old ladies,” Sean affirms. “It seemed too easy to do that. It was more about understanding why these people were upset, and whether they had a leg to stand on. And Tipper Gore, as misguided as she may have been, her heart was kind of in the right place. She wasn’t saying these artists can’t make this art, she’s saying, let’s label it so parents know what their kids are listening to. The older I get the more I’m like, well, that kind of makes sense.”

Approaching the topic with an open mind, Sean found his own attitudes softening as a result of the filmmaking process. “I went into this as a free speech absolutist – ‘you’ve got to take the bad with the good, anything goes’,” he admits. “But after diving in over a couple of years, well, I think I’ve got a line too. There’s stuff that I agree shouldn’t be widely distributed to any age group, at any time, on any platform... but who am I to decide? Who is the government or the artist to decide? I guess 100 years later we’re still trying to figure out how to regulate that.”

In navigating our bitterly polarised climate, Sean’s approach to his subject is unfashionably reasonable and measured, qualities we’ll need if we’re to move beyond culture war zealotry and derangement. 

“With internet culture now people are afraid to voice an opinion either way, or even question things,” says Sean. “Everything gets boiled down to a headline or a tweet, so it’s hard to ask complex questions and look at things critically. We knew before we shot one frame that this movie wasn’t going to answer a lot of questions. It’s so complex, it’s a grey area full of loopholes. Our goal was to raise a load more questions and make people think about things they hadn’t thought about.”

Cover Your Ears is out now and available to rent/stream on Amazon Prime and Apple+ in the US. A UK distributor is TBC

Cover Your Ears - Official Trailer (2024) Chuck D, Dee Snider, Ian Hill - YouTube Cover Your Ears - Official Trailer (2024) Chuck D, Dee Snider, Ian Hill - YouTube
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Chris Chantler

Chris has been writing about heavy metal since 2000, specialising in true/cult/epic/power/trad/NWOBHM and doom metal at now-defunct extreme music magazine Terrorizer. Since joining the Metal Hammer famileh in 2010 he developed a parallel career in kids' TV, winning a Writer's Guild of Great Britain Award for BBC1 series Little Howard's Big Question as well as writing episodes of Danger Mouse, Horrible Histories, Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed and The Furchester Hotel. His hobbies include drumming (slowly), exploring ancient woodland and watching ancient sitcoms.