Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Unfair Warning

Bill examines song lyrics.

By Beverly Keel

MARCH 23, 1998:  The ongoing national debate about policing objectionable song lyrics has just become a statewide issue. A new bill sponsored by state Sen. Roscoe Dixon (D-Memphis) would make it illegal to rent or sell CDs, audio and video tapes, books, magazines, and other materials labeled with a parental advisory to minors unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. Such an act would be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,500.

The bill is similar to one filed recently in Wisconsin and to another one killed by the Georgia House of Representatives earlier this month. Entertainment industry organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the National Association of Recording Merchants, and the Motion Picture Association of America have lobbied against the bill; so have free speech advocates from the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition.

"I am hearing too many kids with these gangster rap songs out here," Dixon says. "There needs to be some process where parents at least know their kids have access to these songs with vulgar language and violence in them. We're looking for a way to develop a mechanism whereby parents can be clearly warned, 'Hey, this CD has stuff in it that you ought to make sure you've given your child permission to listen to.'

"You pull up to a service station, and radios are blasting with the B-word," Dixon says. "It doesn't make any sense. A lot of these [listeners] are adults too, so there's nothing you can do about it. At least we ought to begin trying to control the kids. I know it's an effort that's hard to control, but we ought to do something. We've got to bring some sense of sanity back and discuss the issue, if nothing else."

Nina Crowley, executive director of the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition, contends that politicians calling for more parental controls are simply looking to get attention during election time. "The way I hear it, it's actually a pretty good vote-getter," she says. "This being election year, there seems to be a lot of politicians going about the business of raising other people's kids for them as a means of getting votes.

"We're adamantly opposed to this sort of bill. It limits the access of fans to their music and, in effect, abridges their right to free speech."

RIAA officials say they are especially disappointed that Tennessee, home to one of the nation's music centers, would propose such legislation. "In a state so renowned for music...it would really be damaging for music," says Joel Flatow, RIAA vice president of government affairs and artist relations. Adds Paul Fischer, an MTSU assistant professor of recording industry who specializes in free-speech issues, "Any politician who is going to back legislation like this needs to think seriously about who their constituents and contributors are, because if this hurts business, it's not just going to hurt the people in retail and record companies."

While few country performers would be affected by this bill--country lyrics are among the most conservative in the industry--Fischer says that they ultimately could be. "If you allow this, who's next?" he asks. "The problem with regulating speech is that once you allow a little bit, somebody comes along and wants more and more."

Fischer says this bill is "patently unconstitutional" because any content-based speech restriction must serve a clearly stated governmental purpose. "My assumption is that this legislation will claim potential harm to minors, that preventing harm to minors is the state interest," he says. "This assumes that a parental advisory sticker for explicit lyrics always means there is something harmful present, and that's false." As a case in point, consider that recent releases by highly controversial acts like Master P and Marilyn Manson have been slapped with warning stickers--but so has Paul Simon's current album, Capeman.

"Censorship of any form is horrific," says Luke Lewis, adding that he's speaking not as president of Mercury Nashville Records but as a parent of two teenagers. "I hate to be trite about it, but it's up to the family. These kids are going to get these records if they want them, just like beer and wine. They probably want it more if it has a sticker on it. Whether or not it should be sold to kids under 18 is up to their parents. You can't legislate morality."

The recording industry began voluntarily labeling music with questionable lyrics in the late '80s, when Tipper Gore and her organization, the PMRC, drew the nation's attention to the issue. There are still no laws that require record companies to sticker product, and there are no established rules about what should and shouldn't be stickered. Flatow says it's unfair to use a voluntary program to convict retailers of a crime. If the bill passes, Fischer says, record companies could simply stop stickering product to avoid potential problems.

Some mass retailers, such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart, have already stopped carrying stickered product, forcing acts either to alter their song lyrics or CD covers, or to risk losing sales of several hundred thousand units. (While Sheryl Crow and the Goo Goo Dolls stood by their work, John Cougar Mellencamp, Beck, the Fugees, and the Butthole Surfers all agreed to change their work to meet Wal-Mart's guidelines.)

"That all becomes a marketing issue," Mercury Nashville's Lewis says. "Wal-Mart certainly has the right to say they will or won't carry anything they want, and we don't have a beef with that. If a book chain decides not to carry a book, I question their ethics and principles, but I don't question their rights. That's the free-market system working pretty well. It might be aggravating on occasion, but it's OK.

"We have a comedian who is going to be stickered. We are going into our marketing plan knowing it won't be carried in K-Mart and Wal-Mart. Whether or not it is sold to kids under 18, that is up their parents."

Jon Kerlikowske, manager of Tower Records, notes that the bill is flawed because it includes books, which have no rating system, and videos, which are not stickered and maintain their own rating system. He says Tower's policy is not to sell stickered materials to those under age 16. "We feel that if they can drive here themselves, then they can make the decision whether to buy it or not," he says. "All of this starts at home."

This issue will likely be debated this Saturday at Planet Hollywood during "Politicians and Musicians," a discussion featuring rapper Chuck D, producer Don Was, Mayor Phil Bredesen, former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and Georgia State Sen. Vernon Jones, who sponsored the recently defeated bill. The event begins at 10 a.m. and will be taped for later television broadcast. In addition, a similar discussion including Nina Crowley and Novoselic will be held 2 p.m. Saturday in MTSU's Bragg Communication building.

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