Part of the problem with the current uproar over rock lyrics is that it should have occurred a few years ago and then we wouldn't be facing the prospect of complicated rating systems and the thorny questions of censorship. Lyrics in some rock music have been raunchy for a very long time; what is new and different is that some heavy metal groups have taken bad taste to its profitable extremes, just as Larry Flynt did with Hustler magazine.
All of it is wrapped up and packaged as permissible because to make it somehow impermissible would, in the immortal words of singer Frank Zappa, infringe "the civil liberties of people who are not children." Unfortunately, he has a point.
At the opening of the Senate Commerce Committee hearings on proposals to protect younger children from objectionable lyrics, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) stated the problem eloquently: "It's outrageous filth, and we've got to do something about it. If I could find some way to do away with it constitutionally, I would."
Among the proposals that have been advanced to get around the censorship problem are voluntary rating systems that would be used by record companies to warn parents that an album contains either explicit lyrics or lyrics that some parents might find objectionable. Backers of this idea include the Parents Music Resource Center, a group formed by several Washington women, including Tipper Gore, wife of Sen. Albert Gore (D.-Tenn.), and Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker III.
They, along with the National PTA, also want the lyrics published and readily available to consumers. The Recording Industry Association of America has proposed a voluntary labeling system that would state "Parental guidance -- explicit lyrics," when appropriate.
The industry association is opposed to the establishment of a complicated rating system and a panel to provide guidelines for implementing it. Given the nature of rock music, this is probably a fairly sound position. What may be PG to one parent could be X to another and unintelligible to a third.
Dee Snider of Twisted Sister argued before the hearing that his song "Under the Blade" described fear of surgery. His critics say the music pushes bondage and rape.
The audience that is the target of most parental concern is not the older teen-ager or young adult, but the preadolescent who very probably doesn't understand the words, doesn't understand concepts of bondage, rape, Satanism and sadomasachism. Kids that age listen to the music for the beat, not the message. And the message, as with any art form, is often subject to the listener's interpretation.
But there are some messages in the current offering of recordings that go so far across the boundaries of good taste that nobody needs an interpreter. Such a piece of music was blaring from a stereo in my house one day this summer, when I was thought to be absent. I could not believe what I was hearing. The lyric (and we are stretching a point here in calling it a lyric) was repeated and whatever hope I had that I'd heard incorrectly vanished. I summoned the music aficionado. He said the lyric was a parody of America's attitude toward sex. I said the lyric was pure filth and that the record and records like it were not to be played in the house.
Most parents, however, do not listen to the music their children are hearing. Typically, a kid goes into his room, closes the door and turns on a stereo or a tape deck. One benefit of the current uproar is that more parents may try to listen to the music, but that's a harsh sentence to inflict on parents.
It would take a born-again optimist to believe that the elements of the recording industry that produced the lyrics I heard would be responsible enough to police themselves through a voluntary rating system. But a rating system per se is probably not necessary. A simple warning to the effect that the record contains explicit lyrics would at least alert concerned parents to listen to the music and judge for themselves. Or they could simply forbid the purchase of records bearing such labels.
The impact of music on children is thoroughly unclear. Probably more are warped by parental abuse than by rock music. But some lyrics go so far beyond bad taste that most civilized people wouldn't want them heard in their homes, which is reason enough for a warning label.
Parents do have access to economic sanctions and congressional hearings, and they can raise a great fuss. That's been proved. A warning label isn't censorship, and in fact, could be the most effective method of avoiding it.