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The Target Is Rock : Censorship-vs.-responsibility debate gains new momentum as more states examine laws requiring the labeling of 'offensive' recordings

February 11, 1990|CHUCK PHILIPS

Imagine a time when rock 'n' roll is a crime--a time when it's illegal to be in a rock band, to sell a rock record or play one on the radio.

Absurd?

Not according to Lee Ballinger, West Coast editor of Rock and Roll Confidential, an industry newsletter that devotes much of its space to what Ballinger sees as inroads on free speech.

If the censorship battle continues in the direction it has been going, he maintains, rock music--or at least the challenging aspect of it--is destined to become illegal before the 21st Century.

"As bad as things are going lately," Ballinger said, "I doubt if Prince will even be able to play his song '1999' by the time 1999 rolls around."

Ballinger isn't the first to warn that rock 'n' roll is under siege. There has been talk of government action to suppress the music ever since Elvis Presley began twisting his hips in the '50s, but little of the criticism has led to any sort of censorship.

Still, given the impact of pop music--millions of young people listen daily to the music and spend millions buying the records--parents continue to express concerns about the possible negative influences of rock.

This concern erupted as a national issue in 1985 when Parents Music Resource Center, a Washington-based lobby, called for record companies to put warning stickers on records that could be considered unsuitable for youngsters. The lobby was concerned about music that encouraged violence, drug use and sexual promiscuity. There were also concerns about alleged references to Satan worship on some albums by heavy metal bands.

Opponents in the record industry called the proposal a form of censorship, but the PMRC rejected the charge, insisting that the group was only asking for voluntary compliance. Grudgingly, the major record companies agreed to comply, and the issue soon faded from the national scene.

However, last year, the issue flared up again.

A bill that would require the mandatory labeling of potentially offensive records was introduced in Missouri early in 1989 by State Rep. Jean Dixon. The bill was defeated.

Later in the year a similar bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. This time it passed.

The bill, introduced by State Rep. Ron Gamble, was approved Dec. 13 and is now before the State Senate. Similar bills have been filed in four other states.

The skirmishes in the continuing war are not just being fought on the floors of state legislatures. They are part of a larger debate over the responsibility of musicians and record companies in regard to musical content in areas ranging from sex and drugs to politics and bigotry.

Among recent developments:

* In Georgia, five nationally known artists--including R&B star Bobby Brown and Kiss leader Gene Simmons--were arrested last year for "suggestive" performances.

* In Alabama, a record store owner was busted for selling a rap cassette to an adult undercover policeman and was convicted of selling obscene material.

* The Federal Communications Commission is aggressively targeting radio stations and fining them for "offensive" programming.

* Several Jewish leaders have accused the New York rap group Public Enemy of anti-Semitism in both media remarks and in a record, "Welcome to the Terrordome."

* An FBI public affairs officer sent a "policy" letter to Priority Records charging that a song by the Los Angeles rap group N.W.A encourages violence against law enforcement officers.

* Some record industry observers point to "attacks" on pop music as a sign that fundamentalist religious groups have made pop music lyrics a major item on their agenda for social change--an agenda that includes television programming and motion pictures offensive to these groups.

* In Southern California, Focus on the Family (FOF) has actively encouraged parents to monitor their children's musical intake and to lobby local city councils regarding "restricting entertainment that encourages drug use, sexual promiscuity, suicide and murder."

The record industry has been slow in reacting to most of this criticism, particularly on the labeling front. But various leaders have taken steps in other areas. Responding to the charges of anti-Semitism and other forms of racial insensitivity and bigotry, CBS Records chief executive Walter Yetnikoff last month sent a memo to more than 7,000 CBS employees asking for a dialogue on what the company's policy should be in this area. The move was widely applauded by other label chiefs, some of whom said they intend to follow suit.

Nothing, however, has brought the record industry closer together on the issue of "censorship" than the matter of labeling records.

Robert DeMoss of Focus on the Family says his organization has never advocated government interference with regard to stickering and it upsets him when critics portray him as an opponent of free speech.

"If a person in this culture raises their hand and says, 'I think we've got a problem here,' they are immediately labeled as a censor," DeMoss said.

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