PARIS -- While Americans endlessly argue the trade-off between the 2 Live Crew and artistic freedom, French teenagers are rocking to the lyrics of a local pop band that is wild at heart and X-rated all over. And financed by a government grant.
Elmer Food Beat has rocketed to the top of the French charts and sold out crowds on its current tour of France and Brussels with intimate songs about sex with Daniela, Linda and Caroline. One features Jocelyne and her breasts. Others on the band's first album, "Thirty Centimeters," are "On the Inside," "Can You Feel It" and "Plastic Is Fantastic," with lyrics that live up to their titles.
The album went gold -- selling 100,000 copies -- in a record-breaking five weeks.
But this is France. Far from stirring protest from a French version of the Moral Majority or even the Catholic Church, Elmer Food Beat was chosen this year in a government-sponsored contest for new bands, winning $7,000 from the Ministry of Culture and the sponsorship of a veteran manager. Even more amazing, the band recently got a bigger boost from the Ministry of Health, which handed over 300,000 francs -- about $60,000 -- to promote the pro-condom "Plastic Is Fantastic."
Culture Minister Jack Lang, master of the publicity stunt and just back from a visit to the United States, has latched on to rap and raunchy rock-and-roll as his latest way to connect with French youth. Pictured recently in a French magazine with rap group organizers, he announced that NTM (for Nique Ta Mere, or Screw Your Mother) will be included in next year's competition for new talent. He said the ministry will set aside $400,000 to promote rap starting next year.
"I believe in the culture of rap," Lang told the magazine, calling the music "rhythmic, ordered and full of improvisation."
The American debate over pornography and violence and government funding in the arts seems to have escaped the French completely. As with "scandals" over Gary Hart or pot-smoking congressmen, the French chalk up the 2 Live Crew and Robert Mapplethorpe fusses to American puritanism, viewed with amusement if not confusion.
So far the worst the minister has suffered over his sponsorship of risque rock groups has been a ribbing in the satirical weekly Canard Enchaine. It questioned why Lang did not pronounce the full name of the group NTM when he announced its nomination for funding.
Asked about the limits of freedom of expression, Lang looked puzzled, as if it was not a question worth posing. "For me, freedom is indivisible," he said after a long pause. "In order to have the best, you have to risk the worst, and any censorship is a risk we cannot take."
If anything, Lang seems to relish the controversy. He says he tried to convince Martin Scorsese to film "The Last Temptation of Christ" in France, which ended with the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, calling his office to demand an explanation.
Bruno Lion, Lang's vice minister in charge of rock-and-roll, said the groups funded by the government are chosen by a panel of rock professionals from a pool of about 400. Of Elmer Food Beat, he says, "They are irreproachable -- they are extremely well-organized, they work a lot onstage, they have built an audience. That's what interests us. We have no artistic criteria. If we start saying we won't take this group for this reason, then we don't know where to stop."
He adds, "They're totally infantile. But infantile is nothing new in rock-and-roll."
The lyrics of Elmer Food Beat's songs are definitely erotic (a printable sample: "And when I get her on the floor I love to hear her screaming more, more, more"), but in performance the band seems more juvenile than anything else. Lead singer Emmanuel "Manou" Praoud quickly strips down to black socks and white boxer shorts while he strums a shrimp net and straddles the microphone. Often he does not bother singing the lyrics because the audience knows them by heart.
"We don't consider ourselves vulgar," says Praoud, 30. "We just like sex a lot." He adds, "We thought we'd encounter a lot of opposition to the words, but surprisingly few people find it shocking."
The five musicians of Elmer Food Beat are nothing like 2 Live Crew: They are white, middle-class boys from Nantes who sing Beatles-like rock in three-part harmonies. They play in colored caps and boxer shorts to packed halls of screaming teenage girls. But there is no violence; there is no sex onstage; if Praoud ends up nude at the end of a concert it's only because, as one manager put it, "the girls have ripped off his underpants."
Other acts are not so middle class -- rap groups such as NTM and IAM (for Imperial Asiatic Man) come from the poor, immigrant neighborhoods that ring France's urban centers. Their lyrics are often about violence and sex, or poverty and unemployment.
Though they don't like being compared to American rap groups because their message is not about black power, French rappers sing about much the same issues. And like that of American ghettos, their music is an expression of social frustration, which last month burst forth in a week of riots outside of Lyon against alleged police aggression.
But few groups make as open a play for the undersexed listener as Elmer Food Beat. It has just completed a 26-minute video in which the band members play characters in a futuristic world where all the females are blow-up dolls.
"They'll do everything for girls," says manager Peter Murray, who acknowledges that the band will have problems exporting its English translations to the United States and Britain. Murray does not want to waste the lyrics' shock appeal, but has been put off by the experience of the 2 Live Crew.
"America will be very difficult, we're aware of that," says Murray. "We won't get any radio play -- unless we leave the words in French so no one can understand it."