Nearly a month after America's major record companies agreed to print a warning on albums and cassettes containing explicit lyrics, the industry's trade group and its two major critics are still debating just what that warning should say and how the lyrics should be evaluated.
Reacting to pressure from several parents' groups decrying pop lyrics glorifying sex, drugs, violence and occultism, 19 companies that represent 80 percent of record and tape sales agreed in early August to print the warning "Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics."
*But that language, developed by the Recording Industry Association of America, isn't strong enough for the 5.6-million-member National Conference of Parents and Teachers (PTA) and the Parents Music Resource Center, the small, well-connected Washington-based group that has made the issue of controversial lyrics national. PMRC members include Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker, and Tipper Gore, wife of Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.).
PMRC is still pushing for an industry/consumer panel to develop guidelines to ensure uniformity in the application of the warning.
"I informed them that was not possible," said RIAA President Stanley Gortikov, calling the warning a good-faith approach toward the PRMC's concerns. "First of all, explicit is explicit. It's impossible to come up with such guidelines because lyrics deal with interpretation, characterization . . . it isn't just a list of four-letter words."
"And this could be a step towards a censorship mode, which I'm not comfortable with."
Trish Heimers, the RIAA's director of public relations, said the warnings could begin appearing in the next few months. Spokesmen at several major record labels were either unavailable or declined to comment, but other industry sources indicated that because of August vacations and the debate betwen RIAA and PMRC, screening procedures had not been discussed.
The current, well-publicized attacks on sexually explicit and violent lyrics, album covers, videos and stage performances have forced the record industry to act to forestall congressional intervention at a time when major legislation concerning audio-only home taping is coming up on Capitol Hill. Hearings on what has come to be called "porn rock" have been scheduled for Sept. 19 before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which includes Sen. Gore.
The PMRC originally indicated it wanted a multiple rating system for lyrics, concerts and videos along the lines of the Motion Picture Association of America's system for movies. But Tipper Gore said the group now wants a single generic label.
However, Ann Kahn, president of the National PTA, said the RIAA warning is "entirely too vague and fragmented to be useful. If different companies have different standards, then our aim is frustrated in allowing parents and young people to make an intelligent choice. There are four or five different problems and any kind of a warning label that's broad enough to cover all four isn't enough to offer parents and children what they need.
"If a record features violence -- and there are many of those -- it doesn't help when they get something that says 'sexually explicit material.' "
The PTA is concerned with lyrics that are "explicitly sexual, violent, vulgar or profane," Kahn said. "No one label covers all of those things and if each recording company makes its own determination, then the standards by which they judge won't be the same."
"The 'PG' seems mild to us," said Gore, arguing that the identification of explicit lyrics demands a more potent symbol. "We could come up with an altogether new one. Maybe 'X' would do it, since it's already in the public consciousness. We're open. If [the RIAA] wants to say 'B' means explicit sex and violence, that would be all right with us, as long as we could start educating the public that 'B' means it's a warning."
Gore added that while a film's X rating is meant to limit its audience, "that wouldn't be true with records. There would be no restrictions whatsoever" on who could purchase the records, she said.
Gore emphasized that the group is not proposing censorship. "We [PMRC] would, in fact, be against censorship. "We're talking about a consumer tool, a consumer label. I don't want to dictate to anybody, and that's not the purpose of our group. What's happened to me personally and to others and why we're so motivated, is that we have kids who are preteens that are attracted to the music -- as well they should be -- and go and buy an album and get more than they bargained for."
Though the content warning and printing of lyrics are the PMRC's major issues at this point, it has also made a number of other requests: that records with explicit covers be wrapped or kept under the counter; that record companies reassess contracts with performers who engage in sexual or violent acts on stage; that broadcasters be pressured to exhibit "voluntary restraint" by not airing offending music videos, which would also be rated.
The PMRC still wants lyrics to be printed, but, Gore explained, "only on those albums that would receive a warning label."
The RIAA claims that such a move is impractical for several reasons, including the fact that it would remove "50 percent of the area available to companies and artists to establish the mood and tone of an album and 50 percent of its selling space."
And lyrics are not the property of the record companies, the RIAA added, but of publishers and copyright owners who reserve the right to further marketing through songbooks and sheet music.
Gortikov suggested yesterday that the parental guidance warning would be as far as the industry is willing to go. "Barring any new ideas which we have not yet responded to, we're convinced that we have met their core concern in a responsible way," he said.
While the PMRC has received the lion's share of publicity (no doubt due to the congressional and Cabinet-level connections of its members' husbands), the National PTA addressed the issue of explicit lyrics first. According to spokeswoman Tari Marshall, after the organization discussed the problem at its national convention last October, the PTA contacted 62 record companies and suggested that some sort of a panel be formed by record industry executives and consumer groups to determine what types of material need to be labeled.
There was no response, according to Marshall, though the RIAA brought the issue up at its own board meeting in November, deciding it was "up to individual labels rather than the RIAA to determine how to proceed."
The PTA and PMRC differ on more than whether a single warning is sufficient.
"They're [PMRC] getting involved in what radio stations play on the air and asking labels to reconsider signing artists with explicit material and we don't agree with that at all," Marshall said, adding that such moves border on infringing on First Amendment rights.
"We're also being careful not targeting rock music -- these labels should apply to all music -- and we're not affiliating with groups attacking a particular performer or pushing censorship point of view."
"We don't want to censor," the PTA's Kahn said. "We are not saying whether we think this is good or bad, just that if it has explicit material on it, say so and let the consumer know that."