Bans can't stop tide of sex, vulgarity

November 17, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the music department at the Wal-Mart on U.S. 40 near Rolling Road, I ask Russ Rewling for something really vulgar and blasphemous to play in my car, to soothe the savage beast in my vulgar and blasphemous heart.

"Huh?" says Rewling, who handles the various compact disks and cassettes in the store. "We don't carry that stuff here."

"Well, how about some music that's, you know" -- wink, wink -- "audially pornographic?"

"Not here," he says. "You want to talk to the manager?"

So he brings over his boss, Cheryl Jenkins, manager of electronics for the U.S. 40 Wal-Mart.

"Like Tupac Shakur?" she asks.

"Sure," I say, knowing the name mainly because, a few months back, this guy Shakur made all the papers not for his edgy and violent music but for his death, which everybody called a stunning reflection of his art and set off, among other things, a tremendous boost in Shakur CD and cassette sales everywhere.

Well, almost everywhere.

"We don't have him," says Jenkins.

"You mean," I say, "you don't have him, or you carry him but put a warning label on his albums?"

"We don't carry any of that music," she says, meaning the stuff parents tend variously to label crude, violent, racist, sexist, blasphemous, pornographic, and kids tend to label pithy editorial comment on the modern urban condition, or whatever the current vernacular might be.

Wal-Mart doesn't stock such material. I read about this in the newspaper the other day, but I drove over to U.S. 40 to see for myself. In the story I read, the nation's largest discount chain, with its 2,300 stores, was blanking out offensive words on various recordings and putting labels on them marked "edited."

But not here. "Our distributor just keeps it out of the store," Cheryl Jenkins says. They do this the same way Blockbuster Video keeps X-rated movies out of their stores, or Kmart monitors its music stock.

Or, for that matter, how the city of Baltimore lately attempts, through the great court system, to keep its billboards free of liquor and cigarette advertising. The motive is understandable, and maybe -- maybe -- even noble, except for this:

It can't work.

Here's what happens to undo the whole censorship process: At Wal-Mart, I'm waiting for Russ Rewling to bring over Cheryl Jenkins, when I notice the thing we used to call Muzak -- that overhead sound track piped into so many stores, where they play anything from music to commercials to the summoning of various store employees -- and at this moment it's airing something that sounds like a radio talk show.

"Just say no," an adult male voice says, in tones that carry across the entire store.

"See," a brassy young female voice replies, "that just doesn't work with people my age. You tell me 'just say no' to sex, that just makes me want to go out and do it, to see what it feels like, see?"

No Tupac Shakur here, but plenty of teen-age girl declaring, "Let's do it in the aisle."

And here's what else happens, as I'm driving toward Baltimore City, the land of endless court battle to maintain pristine billboards and never mind the condition of the streets below those billboards: a) I drive through Baltimore County, where there are plenty of tobacco and liquor billboards for any kids who wish to sneak a peek.

b) I turn on my car radio, where they're talking about the decision by the liquor industry to lift its decades-old ban on TV and radio advertising of hard liquor. This, to fight off the effects of pervasive TV advertising by beer and wine labels.

c) At a stop light, I glance down at my morning newspaper, which carries another in a series of stories about parents' inability to keep pornographic pictures and crude language off the Internet.

d) When I get home in the afternoon, the youngest in my household is perched in front of the television set, eyes glazed, watching MTV, where a couple of beautiful young people are rubbing against each other's partially clothed bodies and singing lyrics that could melt my fillings.

What I'm getting at is this: The future has arrived, and it's coming at us from all directions. Our desire to protect our children from life's temptations, or its crude vulgarities, can't match the outpourings of such things. We might as well try to control the tides.

You stop a liquor billboard here, you find it on TV there. You ban a cigarette commercial here, it winds up in a magazine there. You ban the sexy movies from your video store, they're showing skin on cable. Or it's on the Internet, or they're talking about it on the radio show they're playing at the Wal-Mart where they think they're protecting us from Tupac Shakur.

It isn't going away any more. Is it a shame? Sure, but it's the new reality, all these various modern methods to meet (or create) human desires and needs. The politicians talk of V-chips and ratings systems, which amount to nothing. It gives them a chance to posture, while sneaking the truth past us: It's in our hands. The government can't control what our kids see and hear, nor can Wal-Mart or Blockbuster, no matter their intentions.

What we can offer is perspective and values. We can explain to our children what's healthy, and what's not. And then release them to the world, which arrives from all directions, like it or not.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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