Backward Masking: A Cultural Phenomenon

On Sept. 19, 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center, a group of moms, testified before a Senate hearing in order to censor the music to which their children listened, opposed by musicians Frank Zappa, Dee Snider and John Denver. 

After 5 hours in the hearing and months of the public naming rock music as condemnable, the “Parental Advisory” sticker was placed on every album deemed inappropriate by the PMRC by the 1990s. This led to an entire “war on rock ’n’ roll,” all thanks to this Senate hearing. 

The war on rock ’n’ roll all started when parents decided that heavy metal and rock ’n’ roll displayed adult content they didn’t want their children listening to. Adult content meant sex, drugs and alcohol refrences and, chief among them, alleged satanic subliminal messages. 

“Backward Masking Unmasked” by Jacob Aranza is a book essentially claiming that there were satanic messages in almost all rock ’n’ roll music, if played backwards. After the book was published in 1983, it was read in churches all around the country to scare parents into forcing their kids to stop listening to rock ’n’ roll. 

Heavy metal and rock bands were the main focus of this moral panic. Bands such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Twisted Sister and others were attacked by parents for the way they portrayed themselves to the youth. They were known for their ghoulish album art, intense sound, obscene lyrics and outrageous appearance. 

Backward masking, or backmasking, became a cultural phenomenon. The topic was featured on nearly every news broadcast and Christian talk show, all claiming that children listening to rock ’n’ roll was harmful. These broadcasts made it easy for society to blame the music industry for rising teen suicide and violence rates. 

By listening to these bands, parents believed that their children were being persuaded to follow satanic rituals, leading to them becoming violent and suicidal. There was even a “20/20” episode focusing on a group of teens who knew someone who had committed suicide and also happened to listen to heavy metal music. 

These talk shows and television broadcasts would play songs like “Stairway to Heaven”by Led Zeppelin backwards. The claim was that when this song was played backwards, the listener could hear the words “my sweet Satan”. However, there was never any confirmation from any of these bands accused of backward masking or that they were intentionally putting satanic messages in their music.

Many artists, including Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath, claimed that they were “just making music,” and that they weren’t influencing teens to be violent or kill themselves. Soon, backward masking and the PMRC became a joke in the world of heavy metal and rock ’n’ roll. Many bands would purposely put backmask messages in their songs and album covers. Frank Zappa also came out with his own warning sticker in opposition to the explicit content sticker.