"It is an appeal to dirty thoughts and the loins, not to the intellect and the mind."
No, that's not a capsule history of rock-and-roll, but part of the "guilty" finding by U.S. District Court Judge Jose Gonzales in the obscenity trial of Miami rappers 2 Live Crew. It was also an indirect verdict on this, the year of making music dangerously, a year when the loudest noise was being made by the music's critics, from conservative legislators (who at one point had mandatory labeling bills in process in 20 states), the religious right (including New York Cardinal John J. O'Connor, who dubbed heavy metal "a help to the devil"), and even author Frederic Dannen, whose "Hit Men" exposed shady moral and financial practices at the country's major labels (CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff came off particularly badly and eventually resigned, though parent company Sony provided a soft landing with a $25 million parachute).
It was a year in which scandal seemed more important than rhythm and looks, which already seemed more important than melody and hooks. Witness Milli Vanilli, lip-sunk when the producer revealed the duo had not sung a single note on the septuple-platinum combined debut and swan song album. Witness Madonna, whose blunt ambition and canny self-marketing sensibilities provided constant copy for gossip columnists, editorial writers and social critics. Witness Judas Priest, accused and acquitted of contributing (via subliminal and backward messages) to the suicides of two Nevada teenagers.
If it wasn't a great year for music, it was a good year for music lawyers, particularly if they had any connection with 2 Live Crew. After lawyer Jack Thompson started the banned-wagon rolling by enlisting Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, the Crew was suddenly elevated to America's Most Wanted list. Gonzales found the group's "Nasty as They Wanna Be" obscene in Broward County, turning the hitherto unsung rappers into martyrs. Soon after, a record store owner was arrested for selling the record and the Crew for performing it live; assorted trials have brought both guilty and not guilty verdicts, suggesting this one will eventually wind up at the Supreme Court.
Rap and heavy metal were the favorite whipping boys, but it was the kind of year in which even the national anthem could provoke controversy -- once when comedian Rosanne Barr sang it, and once when Irish singer Sinead O'Connor refused to sing it. Maybe O'Connor should have lip-synced the Barr version. Lip-sync legislation was introduced in several states after some consumers and critics suggested that performances by Milli Vanilli, Janet Jackson, Madonna, New Kids on the Block and others were more Memorex than live (teen rap stars Kid 'N Play were arrested in Augusta, Ga., for hip-syncing, simulating sex on stage during a performance).
Most fans probably couldn't care less: They want those MTV videos brought to life and the singing is usually the least crucial element in this new era where we no longer listen to music as much as we look at it. Most of the year's biggest stars -- from Janet Jackson, Madonna, Hammer to New Kids -- were dance acts representing the triumph of choreography over musicality. Even rap's explosive growth was credited to its matching video's visual power to the form's verbal intrigue.
Vegetarians and environmentalists were in the news: k.d. lang was banished from some Midwestern radio stations when she did a public service spot attacking the beef industry, the Go-Gos took off their clothes for an animal rights poster, and on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, record companies began looking for ways to eliminate the long boxes that house CDs until they find a home. Whatever replacement device they come up with will have to provide an equal disincentive to pocket the little discs at the store.
The Recording Industry Association of America, representing the major labels that account for 90 percent of all music sold, looked at the legislative mood, found it threatening and quickly introduced a still-voluntary but now-uniform sticker, "Parental Advisory-Explicit Lyrics," which helped defuse all those mandatory labeling bills -- at least for now. Raunch rap became a growth industry and Madonna seems to have upped the stakes on the video front, as well.
Some acts continued to use the RIAA label as a marketing tool, but a chilling effect could be sensed in the industry: Geffen refused to release a Geto Boys album verbalizing the kind of sexual violence popular in slasher films; some retailers refused to carry albums sporting the RIAA sticker; some lines, and in some cases, entire songs were dropped from albums and most of the major labels set up oversight (or oversound) committees to monitor lyric content not just at the end of the product line but at the beginning as well. Only Virgin bucked the trend: It stickered every album with a "Censorship is UnAmerican" logo and backed up the sentiment by organizing a "Rock the Vote" campaign to empower the young.
Within the industry, there was much debate over and criticism of the misogyny, homophobia and bigotry found in some lyrics, just as they are found in some segments of society. In extremes like the Geto Boys and death-metal bands like Slayer and Sadus, it was just splatterpop, Chapter 13 in the generation clash that's been sounding since the '50s, except now it's not rock-and-roll, it's splatterrap and roll that's taking the heat.
At this year's New Music Seminar, keynote speaker Laurie Anderson pointed out that this country has "a history of being deeply suspicious of artists, especially if the artist is black, gay or female. I've been thinking it would be a good idea if American artists began to call themselves dissidents since our government has such sympathy and support for dissidents in other countries. Artists have become the new communists ... we're a threat to the familiar, to American values and moral standards."
That may be true, and pop music in general (and rap in particular) continues to tackle serious issues, support worthwhile causes and verbally and emotionally empower the traditionally disenfranchised (one senses that the real conservative fear is political empowerment). After years of globally televised Event-Aid (including another Farm Aid, a Freed Nelson Mandela celebration and temporary erection of "The Wall" on the rubble of the Berlin Wall), the music industry went beyond the lip service of "That's What Friends Are For" with several major AIDS benefits and the "Red, Hot and Blue" album and television special.
While the New Kids on the Block created a merchandise-fueled hysteria, they were ultimately out-sold on the record front by mastermind Maurice Starr's original teen band, New Edition, only it was in different modal units: Even with superstar alumnus Bobby Brown strangely silent, Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant hit with their solo albums and Bell, Biv, Devoe emerged as one of the year's hottest new groups. As for real new kids on the block, there were chart toppers Nelson (sons of Rick) and Wilson Phillips (daughters of a Beach Boy and one Mama and one Papa), as well as Lalah Hathaway (who carries on the vocal tradition of father Donny) and the Osmonds (who, unfortunately, do the same with their folks').
While good records were being made in every corner of the music world, rap music was where things were happening, both commercially and artistically; unfortunately, you were more likely to hear rap on video programs on TV than on the radio or in the concert hall (most rap tours couldn't get insurance). The two best-selling albums of the year were M.C. Hammer's "Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em" and Vanilla Ice's "To the Extreme," which was a double dose of bad news to rap purists who dismiss Hammer as a great dancer but a rap poseur and simply dis the Aryan Brother as an imposter in the lukewarm tradition of Pat Boone. However, their success, along with that of yuppie rapper Young MC, NBC's "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" series and the Saturday morning cartoon version of Kid 'N Play reflects a mainstream acceptance of the street-bred music. That worries some folks, who fear a dilution of rap strength as it is both accommodated to and assimilated by European Americans.
Rap embraced old-fashioned melody just enough to become radio-friendly, but continued its innovation on the word front, taking the spoken arts into the same uncharted waters that be-boppers did with melody and rhythm in the '40s (even going bilingual). It reflected many styles -- gangster rap, radical rap, positive rap, dance rap, Christian and almost always Afro-centric rap with an appetite for instruction. What kept it fresh and vital was its very proximity to the same cutting edges and outlaw energies that originally inspired rock-and-roll, before it evolved into a $7 billion-a-year industry that would prefer not to rock the boat.
The "Please, Hammer, Hurt 'Em" Awards go to: Jack Thompson, promo man of the year for turning 2 Live Crew into a platinum act; George Michael, for being so sensitive that he couldn't tour, pose for the cover of his new album or appear in any videos (so he hires super-models to lip-sync "Fame '90"); to Black Box, for trying to hide overweight Martha Wash, the real vocalist on its "Everybody, Everybody" hit, by featuring model Katrin Quinol (who may not even be a woman) on the album cover and in the video; Prince for inflicting "Graffiti Bridge," a long-form video masquerading as a film -- will somebody please take away his director's chair, or electrify it?
In the spirit of the year, we temporarily retire the traditional Top Ten in favor of 1990's Ten Most Wanted list (ironically, Public Enemy might have been on that list, but not this one):
Richard Harrington's 1990
10 Most Wanted List:
Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew
The Geto Boys
Turbo Harris of Snap and Audio
Two (for gay-bashing)
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row
RIP: Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr. And vinyl, which finally went from endangered species to virtually extinct.