Sound and attitude P.M.R.C. still keeps a close ear on the message of rock lyrics

October 07, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

ARLINGTON, VA. — Suzie Talaat, executive director of the Parents' Music Resource Center (P.M.R.C.), agrees that it's easy to get the wrong idea about where she works.

"Most people think that the P.M.R.C. is manned by hundreds of little old women with little 'BANNED' stamps, thinking, 'This is not good, this is not good,' " she says. "There are a lot of misperceptions about the P.M.R.C. That's just the result of people's negative perception of what we do."

What they do is provide information about popular music groups to concerned parents, an innocent enough calling on the face of it. And by most appearances, this would seem just another advocacy group -- until, that is, the Tipper Factor comes into play.

Elizabeth "Tipper" Gore, wife of vice presidential candidate Albert Gore, helped bring the P.M.R.C. into being. She didn't do it alone, of course -- Susan Baker, wife of Republican Party campaign chief James Baker, Pam Howar and Sally Nevius are also P.M.R.C. founders -- but somehow, she's the one people most associate with the group.

It was Tipper, after all, whose husband happened to be a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which in 1985 held a well-publicized hearing on the dangers of "Porn Rock," and Tipper who faced off with Ice-T on "Oprah!" five years later. She's the one whom most in the business credit with having made voluntary labeling a recording industry standard. She's also the one pop musicians most often mention when they complain about little old ladies trying to stamp out rock and roll.

For the record, there are no little old ladies anywhere to be seen at the P.M.R.C.'s spartan headquarters -- just the 30-year old Talaat and her 26-year old assistant, Tom Davis. Nor are there any "BANNED" stamps in sight. It's a fairly ordinary looking office, all things considered, with computers, storage shelves, filing cabinets and an oversized copying machine filling the two-room suite.

Despite its apparent influence, P.M.R.C. members insist that theirs is not a lobbying group (indeed, such activity would be in violation of its tax-exempt status). Instead, the group exists, as a press release puts it, "to address the issue of lyrics in some popular music which glorifies graphic sex and violence and glamorizes the use of drugs and alcohol."

Some of this is done through prepared material the group offers by mail, a potpourri of pamphlets, primers and multimedia presentation kits that ranges from items like the "Satanism Research Packet" to an Art Linkletter-narrated video titled "Rising to the Challenge." (True to form, the video carries a

warning about the "offensive and explicit material contained therein.")

In addition to these prepared materials, the P.M.R.C. also provides -- on request -- information packets on popular musicians. By far, the most inquired about acts are Guns N' Roses and Metallica, with 2 Live Crew running a distant third, but according to the group's computer tracking, everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to Michael Bolton has been asked about at one point or another.

RTC Going into these packets are newspaper and magazine clippings, along with whatever lyric sheets the group has available. And by relying mostly on outside material, Talaat feels the P.M.R.C. is able to maintain its non-partisan posture.

"We're presenting the whole spectrum of information, whether it be accepted by the right or accepted by the left," she says.

"We're letting them take the information and make their own decision, and I think that what we're doing is right in the format that we're doing."

But what do the groups in question share Talaat's confidence over the objectivity of the P.M.R.C.'s presentation? Take the Guns N' Roses packet, which contains band member interviews from Rolling Stone, Musician and Hit Parader, as well as news items about the riot at a 1991 GNR concert outside St. Louis, and a couple anti-GNR commentaries; does the band and its management feel that this is a well-balanced sampling?

"I'm surprised that they did miss some of the lurid bits," laughs Bryn Bridenthal, a vice president at Geffen Records and the band's long-time publicist. "I suppose it could have been much more vicious.

"But if they were really wanting to show all sides, they would have included the story where Axl [Rose, the group's frontman] talks about how badly abused he was as a child, and everything he's doing to overcome that," she adds. "That article is being used by a lot of child abuse organizations, because they find that it gives them a way to reach kids. It's important not just explaining about what's going on with Axl, but as a tool that parents can use positively."

Where the P.M.R.C. draws the most flack, though, is over the issue of labeling. Even though the group has backed down from its original insistence on a record-rating system comparable to the movies' G-PG-R-X approach, it remains deeply concerned over what gets said on pop recordings, and how young listeners might interpret those messages.

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