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Ratings Aren't Lyrical

September 25, 1985

Rock 'n' roll lyrics--some blatantly sexual, some violent--have come in for their share of criticism lately, culminating in a Senate hearing at which "rating" labels for record albums were proposed. But labels pose more problems than they solve.

True, ratings might help some customers avoid the most tasteless and offensive material. However, the designation could also enhance sales in some markets, attracting those searching for the sensational and lurid just as film ratings of "R" and "X" have particular audiences.

Furthermore, there are practical problems.

How would record ratings be enforced? Proponents of the ratings could hardly expect record-store owners to enforce the age requirements for purchasing record albums that contain sexually explicit lyrics.

Who would decide? And which albums would be rated? Only rock 'n' roll, the target of the recent complaints? What if a country singer recorded a song that some people found offensive? Would the album have to be rated? What about opera? Or show music?

Film ratings have demonstrated the difficulty in working out an agreed policy. What some people find offensive, others do not. What some people would ban, others would allow. What some people see as obscene, others call free expression.

Rock 'n' roll has been a target of parental concern since Elvis the Pelvis gyrated his way to public attention 30 years ago. For centuries before Presley, songs have celebrated love and lust, and violence as well, with the wording of many American jazz songs rivaling the explicit lyrics of today's acid balladeers.

Crude words have never been the social threat presumed by their critics because, in all ages, there has been a limited tolerance for vulgarity. And there has always been a remedy: If you don't like the lyrics, don't listen to the song.

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