Critics decry violent music Hearing: Teachers, parents and lawmakers lined up in Washington to argue over the dangers explicit lyrics pose to society vs. the threat to free speech posed by censorship.

June 17, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Teacher Debbie Pelley had no idea who Tupac Shakur was before last March, but these days she blames him in part for causing a shooting spree that left four students and a teacher dead at her middle school in Jonesboro, Ark.

She blames the slain rapper so much she felt compelled to read some of his most violent and explicit lyrics out loud to a Senate committee yesterday, politely saying "blankety blank" every time she hit an obscenity to prove her point.

The seventh-grade teacher in the blue suit got a warm reception from Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback and the Senate Commerce Committee as she suggested, coolly and deliberately in her quiet southern twang, that music can trigger murder.

But others in the crowded hearing room -- from a Catonsville mother, Anne Walker, to former Nirvana bass guitarist Krist Novoselic -- worried that such testimony would only open the door to overly aggressive parental advisory labels and could result in music censorship.

At the hearing examining the effect of voluntary warning labels on popular music, which the recording industry agreed to in 1985, no one offered any legislation. Rather, they aired their anxieties and waded into the murky questions of parental and government responsibility when it comes to explicit lyrics.

It was a classic case of rock culture meets Washington. In the stately, marble-columned room, rap songs with explicit lyrics were displayed on poster boards and positioned before the cameras. One witness calmly read a sexually explicit passage from an Alanis Morissette song to stone-faced lawmakers. Then the senators listened earnestly to Novoselic (whose name Brownback mispronounced) tell them that artists must be free and the country "is too stressed out."

This was the second hearing in eight months by the committee into issues relating to what many call racist, misogynist or otherwise offensive music. And, as it did the last time, yesterday's hearing took aim at individual artists. This time, it was Shakur, along with rap groups including Master P and Dove Shack and shock rocker Marilyn Manson.

In describing the shooting at Westside Middle School in March, Pelley said 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson had been listening to gangsta rap on headphones in her classroom and elsewhere, and played a tape in the bathroom about "coming to school and killing all the kids."

"I believe that the message coming out of the tragedy in our school in Jonesboro is that even the good schools and responsible families can no longer protect their children from our society," said Pelley. "Violent music is only one aspect of our culture but a very significant one that seems to have gotten very little attention in the recent school tragedies."

But others in the audience fear that those frightened by teen violence will too quickly blame music. Activists from groups including the ACLU and People for the American Way protested the hearing, saying it would attack the free speech of artists and blame their work for widespread violence that has far more serious causes than explicit lyrics.

Meanwhile, the lone voice for the music industry -- Novoselic -- spent most of the afternoon on the defensive. None of Nirvana's records were ever stickered -- although the band changed art on one CD so it could be sold at Wal-Mart. Novoselic said rap lyrics can be interpreted as mournful and could comfort youths who feel lost. He added that critics were wrongly blaming the music industry in cases of teen violence -- even when a particular band or song may have helped spur on a violent outburst.

"Music is a small piece of the human experience in today's culture -- there's a lot of stimulus in the human experience now," he said. "I'm advocating personal responsibility. Music is not the cause of any of those tragedies."

The issue of screening music content first surfaced in the early 1980s, when Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore, emerged on the national scene as the leading voice for advisory labels.

Later, the Recording Industry of America picked up on that idea by encouraging a voluntary parental advisory program. Many music producers and artists now cooperate in putting warning stickers on sound recordings and music videos with strong language or expressions of violence, sex or substance abuse. The black and white stickers say in bold print, "Parental Advisory: Explicit Content."

Yesterday, senators considered whether more records needed labels, or whether those labels actually gave a record extra cachet among teens. They also considered requesting labels that would make more detailed accounts of the content of the music.

"Certainly, the need to inform parents on music content has never been greater," said Brownback. "Deciding which albums get stickered, however, remains an ad hoc process."

But some folks say the current labels work just fine. Walker, the Catonsville mother, began a Friday-night teen group at Hillcrest Elementary for middle-school students. She and her son, Ira, screen all the music that will be played, and weed out music with warning labels or songs that either believes are offensive.

"It works wonderfully, and it has deepened my relationship with my son," said Walker, who did not testify at the hearing. "For me and a lot of us in Catonsville, these stickers balance our need as parents to know what's in these recordings and the First Amendment rights of the musicians to sing whatever they want."

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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