Music 2 Die 4

January 01, 1994

In the 5th century B.C., the Greek philosopher Socrates warned his fellow citizens of Athens that unsupervised access to the popular music of the day would surely corrupt the morals of the city's youth. The authorities duly noted Socrates' complaint, then decided that it was he, with his iconoclastic wit, who posed the greater risk and forced him to drink hemlock.

Mindful of the philosopher's fate, we are reluctant to broach the subject again. But there's been no shortage recently of critics who blame today's popular music -- particularly the in-your-face, rhyming genre known as "gangsta rap" -- for much of today's violence, bigotry and misogyny.

From allegations of child sexual abuse against pop king Michael Jackson to the recent arrests of rap stars Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur on murder and sexual assault charges, pop music personalities increasingly are viewed as corrupting influences from which youngsters must be shielded.

Earlier this year Madonna and rockers Gun N' Roses came under fire for terminal tastelessness. Last year it was lewd lyrics by the group 2 Live Crew and the rantings of Sister Souljah. All of them gave fresh import to such hackneyed phrases as "rebels without a cause" and "foul-mouthed."

Of course kids delight in this stuff, just as their Baby Boomer parents loved thumbing their noses at propriety by idolizing Elvis and the Rolling Stones -- the iconoclasts of their youth. Today, the departed "King" and the middle-aged Mick seem decidedly tame. And let us not forget that jazz, now acclaimed as America's most original contribution to Western "serious" music, was once considered dangerously subversive. Plus ca change . . .

Still, the critics are probably on to something. Reacting against the glorification of violence in many rap lyrics, the industry journal Billboard, in its year-end editorial, denounced the trend, declaring that "no form of popular music is important enough to justify or excuse racism, sexual bigotry, and the endorsement of sociopathic violence." Billboard called such music "an anti-social exercise in self-delusion [leading] to the death of conscience, the corruption of the spirit, and ultimately the destruction of the individual and community."

That sounds a lot like what Socrates was complaining about 2,500 years ago. When they start breaking out the hemlock, though, remember: Billboard said it, not us.

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