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The Melodies of Mayhem

Sunday, November 1, 1998

To curb obscene lyrics, change minds, not laws

If music is the universal language, it is small wonder that public discourse has grown increasingly shrill. Although controversial music has always been with us, the past several years have seen a marked increase in violent, hateful, racist, and misogynist songs, not merely on the market but topping the charts. Never have the sounds of slaughter been so profitable--nor the need for a thoughtful response to music violence been so pressing.

Recent bestselling albums have included graphic descriptions of murder, sexual torture, and rape. Songs such as "Don’t Trust a B-----" by the group Poetic Hustla’z or "Slap a ’Ho" by Dove Shack condone hostility or even violence toward women. "Shock-rock" groups like Cannibal Corpse and Marilyn Manson go even further, with songs such as "F------d with a Knife" and "Cake and Sodomy." Consider just a few examples from top-selling albums:

F---- home we capture with more hits and slaughter more kids . . .

You know for real the nig---- came f----in’ sucked my d----- . . .

I have nig----z falling like white b------ in a scary movie . . .

--From "Get At Me Dog" by DMX, on the album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot

 

I’m known in the ghetto for slangin’ narcotics . . .

I come up short I’ma bust yo’ f-----in’ lip up

Cuz money and murder is the code that I live by

Come to ya set and do a muthaf-----in’ walk-by.

--From "Come and Get Some" by Master P, on the album Ghetto D

These are not extreme examples, only recent ones. The popularity and profitability of hyper-violent music has fueled its growth and secured the corporate backing of the most successful, prestigious entertainment conglomerates in the world. With such backing, both of the albums mentioned above reached number one on the Billboard 200, the music industry’s official listing of the most popular albums in the land. At this writing, DMX’s album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot still ranks among the top 25 albums, while Master P’s new release, after hitting number one, has remained in the top 50 for four months.

The chart-topping popularity and record-breaking profitability of such albums raises the obvious question: Who is buying this music? Although most music with hyper-violent lyrics carries a "parental advisory" warning sticker, such music appears to be most popular among exactly the group that is supposed to be warned against buying it: children. I haven’t heard of many Marilyn Manson fans over the age of 20.

The Knowledge Gap

Few adults have any idea how violent and venomous some of these lyrics are. This gap in parents’ knowledge about violent, misogynistic music is illustrated perfectly by the experience of Debbie Pelley, who testified at a U.S. Senate hearing on this issue that I chaired last summer. Mrs. Pelley is a junior-high-school teacher in Jonesboro, Arkansas. One of her students was Mitch Johnson, the young boy who, along with a friend, was recently charged with shooting and killing four students and a teacher. In the aftermath of this tragedy, several of Mrs. Pelley’s students approached her to talk about Mitch’s fascination with violent rock and rap. She surveyed her students and found that, although virtually all of them were familiar with the violence-laced lyrics of songs by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Tupac Shakur, and other groups, most were convinced that their parents were not. My experience is similar: Most of the Kansas students whom I encounter are familiar with (even if they are not fans of) "gangsta rap" and shock-rock groups; few think their parents know anything about it.

Industry executives claim that children under 18 are unable to buy such music. In a recent Senate hearing, I asked Hilary Rosen, the CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, whether the music industry had ever studied the demographic profile of those who purchase shock rock or gangsta rap. She repeatedly asserted that the industry had no such information and said that "record retailers restrict the purchase of stickered albums to people above the age of 17." Would that it were so. Children between the ages of 12 and 17 constitute a large portion of the music market; the profitability of most hyper-violent albums depends in large part on capturing a share of the youth market. Although most albums with hyper-violent lyrics carry parental advisory stickers, there is little evidence to support the industry’s claim that such labels either adequately inform parents or effectively deter children from purchasing such albums.

Some retailers, such as Wal-Mart, do have clear standards for selecting the albums they stock, and other retail outlets will not sell music that carries an advisory label to those under 18. But there are many other stores that do not restrict the purchase of such music, and many of the stores with restrictions do not enforce them. Moreover, the advertisements for such music usually run in media outlets with a strong teen following: music magazines, teen magazines, MTV, internet music sites, and so on. In many ways, the mass marketing of the sounds of slaughter appears to be targeted at kids, not at adults.

For free societies to endure, they must distinguish between what is allowed and what is honored.

Producing, promoting, and peddling violent music to children is not merely scandalous, it is dangerous. Marketing messages of hate and violence to children sends the signal that violence is widespread and normal, that it is acceptable to abuse women, and that there is glamour in lawlessness. Whatever we glamorize, we encourage; a society that glorifies violence--in music or elsewhere--will surely grow more violent.

The need to respond is clear, but how we respond is critically important. We have long heard talk of new laws, lawsuits, boycotts, and divestitures. The great challenge for thoughtful conservatives and policymakers is to respond to the onslaught of violent music and to the demands of indignant constituents in a way that respects constitutional freedoms and protects children. I believe the only way to do both is to change minds and hearts rather than laws.

No Quick Fixes

In some circles, this view is hard to sell. Congress is frequently tempted to "fix" every social problem with a law--in this case, mandatory warning labels, federally enforced purchasing restrictions, and the like. Having passed such laws, Congress can then pronounce the problem solved, congratulate itself on a job well done, and put the issue aside. In so doing, Congress would be overlooking the more important task of facilitating cultural change.

But that is not the only danger of legislative quick fixes. Focusing on legislative solutions also opens the door to counterproductive federal meddling. The federal government should not usurp local, voluntary efforts by music retailers to restrict the sale of violent music to minors or by radio stations to articulate programming standards.

Even worse, federal legislation raises the specter of censorship. Government interference in commercial activity always gives rise to unintended (and often regrettable) consequences; interfering with free speech and expression is especially disastrous. I believe that the First Amendment provides wide latitude for various forms of speech--including offensive, obnoxious speech. But for free societies to endure, there must be a distinction between what is allowed and what is honored.

Let me explain. The fact that certain forms of speech enjoy constitutional protection does not mean that they deserve respectability. Freedom of expression does not mean immunity from criticism. There are many forms of speech that should be thoroughly criticized and roundly stigmatized, even as they are protected. Conservatives have spent far too much effort seeking to shove offensive, debasing forms of speech (such as violent and misogynistic music lyrics) outside the sphere of constitutional protection, and far too little effort seeking to stigmatize it. Attempts at the former have been failures; attempts at the latter have been feeble. And as a result, we are left with violent lyrics that are neither outlawed nor repudiated.

In many ways, our willingness to censure is as important to the preservation of freedom as our refusal to censor. Virtually all of the Founding Fathers agreed that nations rise and fall based on what they honor and what they discourage. Samuel Adams, one of the most outspoken free-speech advocates among the early patriots, said, "A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy." Cultural decline is not merely a threat to family life, it is a threat to freedom. Vigorous criticism of the perverse, hateful, and violent in speech and song reflects a willingness on the part of citizens to take ideas seriously, evaluate them accordingly, and engage them directly. A cultural predisposition to care about ideas and to discriminate among them, while protecting the freedom of others to disagree and debate, is the strongest bulwark of a free society. A citizenry that evaluates ideas, discerns the true and good from the false and base, values reason over reaction, affirms that which is uplifting, and refutes that which is wrong is exactly the society most likely to value and to keep free speech.

There is an old saying, "Tell me what you love, and I’ll tell you who you are." This is as true of societies as of individuals. What we stigmatize says as much about our national character as what we allow. We grow to resemble what we honor; we become less like what we disparage. What we choose to legitimize, therefore, forecasts our future. The proper response to hateful, offensive music is thus criticism--not censorship and not silence. We should agitate rather than legislate.

The Bully Pulpit

What would such agitation look like? There are, I believe, several steps legislators and concerned activists can take:

Raise public awareness. Although children are regularly exposed to popular songs, parents are often clueless about the content of the songs their children hear and buy. This is, in part, because media outlets such as newspapers refuse to print for adults the lyrics that are peddled to their kids. It is vitally important for parents, teachers, ministers, youth workers, coaches, and other adults to be aware of the messages being fed to their children.

Call for corporate responsibility. The vast majority of gangsta rap and shock-rock albums are produced by labels owned by one of seven corporate conglomerates: Seagrams, Sony, Polygram, Time-Warner, BMG, Viacom, and EMI. Ironically, most of these corporations claim to be a "company with a conscience" or a "good corporate citizen." The CEOs of these companies owe the public an explanation of how they reconcile the offensive music they peddle to children with their corporate conscience. They also owe the public truth in advertising: If they claim to be "responsible" corporations, they should let the public know what their standards are.

There is a precedent for this: The National Association of Broadcasters code of conduct, which lasted until the 1970s, is one example of a voluntary and effective agreement to articulate and abide by decency standards. It functioned as a social compact with consumers and offered the public a yardstick by which to measure corporate responsibility. The code was drafted without any government coercion; it simply articulated the standards to which broadcasters voluntarily bound themselves.

We need a new entertainment code of conduct. Such a code would alert the public to the standards by which entertainment executives select their programming or produce their albums, and therefore make entertainment executives more accountable to the public for their choices.

Companies should be prepared to stand behind their product. When William Bennett met with Time-Warner CEO Gerald Levin and asked him to read his company’s handiwork aloud, Levin balked. If entertainment executives have qualms about reading such lyrics to adults, shouldn’t they have qualms about selling them to children?

Encourage grass-roots activism. Public leaders can provide information and encouragement to activists who wish to effect change on the local level. I have found that one of the best ways to encourage greater parental involvement and grass-roots activism is simply showing people the lyrics to these songs and talking about them as I travel across my home state of Kansas. In the last year, several people in my state have formed local "cultural renewal societies." Each of these small societies comprises a few citizens who want to change the culture for the better and have voluntarily banded together to work on local options for doing so. The best solutions to the problems of cultural breakdown can be found in the neighborhoods of America, not in the halls of Congress. One of the most effective things lawmakers can do is to encourage constituents to take local action.

Exercise "the power to convene." National political leaders have a unique platform from which to call together the best thinkers and most accomplished researchers on any particular issue. Various studies conducted on the topic of music and media influence agree that children are powerfully affected by the messages of music, television, and movies. Giving a national forum for the dissemination of such information helps equip parents, teachers, grass-roots activists, and concerned citizens to take appropriate action.

I chaired two Senate hearings on the issue of music violence precisely for this reason. During these hearings, we did not call for legislation, regulation, litigation, or any other machination of government to prohibit or restrict even the most violent lyrics. Rather, the purpose of these hearings was to raise public awareness by soliciting the views of the nation’s foremost academic and medical experts on the impact of violent music.

The best remedies for cultural breakdown can be found in the neighborhoods of America, not the halls of Congress.

Use the bully pulpit. Public officials have, by virtue of their position and prominence, a platform from which to raise ideas and issues in public discourse, and to persuade, incite, and inspire. Consistent, persistent use of the bully pulpit is a powerful way to imprint the importance of music content upon the public consciousness and to inspire public action and private reflection. We are, I believe, beginning an important public dialogue: People are disgusted by the moral lapses of various public figures, increasingly convinced of the importance of character and integrity in the conduct of public affairs, and actively looking for ways to cultivate civility and decency in their neighborhoods and communities. We have at last reached a consensus that our social fabric is frayed and torn; the public has shifted its focus to what can be done to mend it.

Public officials cannot rid the world of violent lyrics; it would be folly to try. For those of us seeking solutions to the loss of civility in society and the glorification of hate, violence, and misogyny in popular music, our goal must be not to coerce, but to persuade. Appealing to conscience and reason takes time and effort and offers few short-term political benefits. But it is the best way to keep citizens involved, society civil, and our speech free.

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