Are Some Songs Unfit for Kids? Parents and Pols Take Up a Battle Against Lyrics That Hurt
First I'll slice your tender leg off
Just above the thighs
Then I'll remove your slender arms
My passions running high
Last I will decapitate your pretty little head
A masterpiece of blood and flesh
Lies twitching on my bed.
—from "Bodily Dismemberment," by Rigor Mortis
Girls, let's get buck naked and f—-
—from "Girls L.G.B.N.A.F.," by Ice-T
Ever since Elvis first freed his hips, Jimi Hendrix flashed his guitar and Donna Summer moaned suggestively, outraged parents and ambitious politicians have worried noisily that prolonged exposure to rock and role models could lead to sex, drugs and drive-in movies. Yet somehow, by luck and pluck, civilization as we know it survived.
Cut to 1990. Rock reformers are at it again, but this time they're being listened to. Thanks to sadomasochistic "slasher" lyrics like those above by the obscure band Rigor Mortis or the sexually graphic message purveyed by rapster Ice-T, eight states are currently considering legislation that would require special warning labels for albums that contain explicit lyrics about sex, drug or alcohol abuse, racism, violence or a host of other taboo topics. Some of the proposed laws would forbid the selling of certain albums to minors and provide jail time for anyone who did so. The movement has ignited a lively debate. "I'm not a bluenose or a prude—I'm a Christian," says Jack Thompson, 38, a Coral Gables, Fla., lawyer who has played a leading role in trying to ban obscene lyrics in that state. His goal, he says, "is to put these people out of business." On the other hand, New York Times music critic Jon Pareles calls the uproar "the most hysterical reaction to popular music...since just before World War I, when the Pope declared tango dancing a mortal sin."
At the core of the controversy are a new wave of hypergraphic lyrics and the question of whether, and under what circumstances, such lyrics should be consumed by kids. On their album As Nasty as They Wanna Be, the Miami-based rap group 2 Live Crew sings loudly—and explicitly—about anal, oral and abusive sex. The L. A.-area rappers N.W.A. ("Niggers With Attitude") received an intimidating letter from the FBI after releasing "F—- tha Police," a paean to cop killing. Metal heavyweights Guns n' Roses outraged millions by putting a back beat to bigotry in "One in a Million," a rant against "niggers," "immigrants and faggots." Ice-T talks about shoving a flashlight into a woman until the "the bitch's ugly face cold spoiled my erection." Ladies and gentlemen, Cole Porter has definitely left the building.
While the pro-labeling or "stickering" movement has its share of right-wing and religious zealots, not all of its supporters can be so easily pigeonholed. "I am not a right-winger or fundamentalist Christian, says Maryland state legislator Judith Toth, 52, author of a stickering bill that recently was voted down. "I think of myself as a feminist I'm pro gun control. My bill was not a form of censorship. It just asked record companies to provide consumer information." Adds the mother of two: "I am not as worried about swear words as about racist words. We bend over backwards to teach our children that we live in a society where people are supposed to be created equal. And then you have lyrics that say it's okay to do drugs, to break the law, to kill Jews or blacks. These messages just keep escalating all the time."
As do the fears of civil libertarians like Danny Goldberg, a rock manager and ACLU activist "The only alternative to free speech is government-controlled speech," he says. "I'm offended by racism and anti-Semitism in music. But I don't think it's appropriate for any government to decide what is offensive."
Hoping to head off any such intervention, the Recording Industry Association of America, the industry's trade association, has initiated a voluntary, nationwide campaign to sticker objectionable albums with the uniform label: PARENTAL ADVISORY—EXPLICIT LYRICS.
Tipper Gore, wife of Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore and the 1985 co-founder of the Parent's Music Resource Center, a prolabeling lobby, says that the RIAA's action "speaks to our solution perfectly. We are firmly opposed to censorship. We don't want legislation. All we have ever wanted was for companies to voluntarily provide consumer information so that we could make an informed choice in the stores."
Not all performers are upset about labeling. 2 Live Crew, which already voluntarily stickers its own recordings, saw sales soar after Florida Gov. Bob Martinez called the album obscene. Says the Crew's Luther Campbell: "We are going to sell a lot of records. Like they say, if you ban a book in Boston, it will be a million seller."
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