Tipper favors routine product labeling, not censorship

Mike Royko

July 29, 1992|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

Rock music has been more than a form of entertainment, the experts tell us. It's a powerful social, political and moral force. It has had a global impact on the way several generations think about war, peace, love, hate, life, death, the environment, drugs, sex, relationships, surfboards, pimples and other profound issues.

I'll have to take their word for it, since I've always had trouble understanding the lyrics, except when the singer shouts: "Baby, baby, baby, ah lu-huh-huh-huv you."

But if it is such a powerful force, I don't understand why so many rock fans are still angry at Tipper Gore, wife of the Democratic vice presidential candidate.

You may recall that Mrs. Gore, alarmed by explicit sexual and violent language, led a campaign in 1985 to have record companies put warning labels on albums.

The rock industry was appalled by what they considered censorship. So was its audience. But eventually some records were labeled as having "adult language." (Actually, as many teen-agers as adults use that language, so I don't see why we get the onus.)

There hasn't been much written or said about Tipper's campaign in quite a while. But it appears that the rock community hasn't forgotten or forgiven.

You may have seen a story in the paper recently about a rock gathering in Milwaukee and all the harsh things the young people said about Tipper.

"I like Al Gore," one said, "I just hate his wife." "I don't want to see Tipper Gore anywhere near the White House," said another. "She should be nuked off the face of the Earth," another music lover said.

Which brings me back to a discussion I had with several young adults at the time Tipper was on her labeling kick.

Because I had usually been against censorship, a predictable position for anyone in my line of work, they asked me to join them in opposing Tipper's efforts.

I asked them if it was true that rock was a powerful social force, and they said it was indeed.

And could any powerful art form -- the music of Beethoven, the Michelangelo paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the writings of Shakespeare -- elevate and enrich the human spirit?

You betcha, they said. And while they weren't too hip on Beethoven, their spirits had been elevated and enriched by the groups they admired.

So we agreed that art can be good for us, whether it was created by my favorite composers, most of whom are long gone, or their favorites, many of whom have yet to overdose.

But then I suggested that if great art elevates and enriches, it stands to reason that really grubby, raunchy stuff might have just the opposite effect. Such as songs that seem to condone or encourage sadistic sexual behavior, violence and acting like slobs. Couldn't they devalue the human spirit, warp attitudes?

Maybe, they said. But it wasn't up to Tipper or anybody else like her to decide. The listeners should have the right to decide if they wanted to be degraded and warped.

Now, these were very bright young people, filled with many social concerns.

So I asked them how they felt about industries that dumped toxic wastes hither and yon without telling people what they were doing and that they might all glow in the dark some night.

Terrible, terrible, terrible, they said.

And about food companies that would put this chemical or that preservative in the food without telling you that it might cause your offspring to grow an extra eye in the middle of their foreheads.

Awful, awful, awful, they said.

And shouldn't the government require that a pack of smokes bear a warning that the butts aren't good for you?

Absolutely, they said, although none of them were smokers.

What about booze? Should the bottles be labeled?

Yes, they chorused. Protect pregnant women, protect the young, protect the weak of will.

It didn't take long for them to realize that I was pulling their chains. There they were, crying out for the government to require full disclosure of the contents of Twinkies, the danger of a pack of smokes and the effects of a glass of hootch.

But they thought it was an invasion of their rights for a record or CD jacket to tell the potential consumer that the lyrics might be kind of raunchy for a kid.

So I didn't join them in their anti-censorship crusade, because I didn't consider Tipper's efforts to be censorship. Not unless the Twinkie wrapper is censorship, or the label on a can of soup or the PG rating at a movie.

If anything, I think we should have more specific labeling on music, movies and other forms of mass entertainment.

Especially some of the rap songs that are controversial. There could be a little sticker on the jacket that says: "This song contains the F word 23 times, the Mother word 5 times, and rape and female stomping. It might not be the best thing for your kids."

I get cable TV. And it wouldn't bother me if some of the movies were preceded by an announcement that said: "The following movie contains eight acts of simulated intercourse, three acts of simulated oral sex, 23 guys get their guts blown out, and one explodes and is splattered all over your screen, so you might not want the kids to watch, as it could give them unpleasant dreams."

You could still watch, but you'd know what you were getting. Hey, if it's good enough for Twinkies, it ought to be good enough for show biz.

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