All lathered up over 'clean' music

Pop Music

January 06, 2002|By Geoff Boucher and Jordan Raphael | Geoff Boucher and Jordan Raphael,Special to the Sun

When the debate over controversial music content hits Capitol Hill, Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, is often a central figure. But on a recent afternoon of holiday gift-buying, Rosen was just a bystander when the issue popped up at a store cash register.

Rosen was in line behind a woman buying her son Country Grammar, the hit album by rapper Nelly. The cashier offered a warning: The album is rife with lewd lyrics, so she might want a "clean" version edited for sensitive ears.

The mother said, Rosen recalls: "It's not the first time he's heard those words. He's not going to like it, and we're not going to like it, if it's not what the artist said, if it's what some censor did."

Rosen was disheartened, but not surprised. No one seems thrilled with clean versions these days. Fans and artists hate them, many merchants disdain them, parents are confused by them, and even industry types find them wanting.

Clean versions, sometimes tossed together almost as an afterthought, have so many bleeps and gaps that they can be as maddening as a broken record. That's one reason, Rosen says, that the unexpurgated versions outsell their clean counterparts by a 10-1 ratio, even though some mass-merchant chains refuse to carry the former.

Clean versions became a staple of the industry after record companies grudgingly agreed 15 years ago to put parental-advisory stickers on albums with explicit lyrics or sexual, violent or drug imagery. The stickers were a move to end a crusade by Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center.

Also, retailers such as Wal-Mart and Kmart, with an eye to their heartland images, said they wouldn't stock stickered albums. Those chains account for one-fifth of the U.S. music market.

"A lot of people don't know there are two versions out there," says Barbara Wyatt, head of the PMRC.

Despite fan disdain, the clean versions are not completely free of raw content. Take the nonstickered version of Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP. Interscope Records edited out the words guns, knives and even the drug Vicodin, but there is relentless use of a five-letter word denigrating women. There is also a minute-long sex skit, with lewd sound effects, that MTV's Kurt Loder has called "possibly one of the vilest things ever committed to record."

Still, give the clean version of The Marshall Mathers LP to true fans and watch them roll their eyes. The endless stream of edits makes songs sound as if they've been run through a blender.

Rosen says she wishes artists would take more care with edits to make clean versions a more viable choice. She'd also like to see the creation of a directory of lyrics on the Internet that parents could use to make informed decisions about music they buy for youngsters.

Geoff Boucher and Jordan Raphael write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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