Among the several causes for the decline of the West cited by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his infamous 1978 Harvard Commencement address were "the revolting invasion of publicity" and "TV stupor." When he got to "intolerable music" the snickers grew loud and helped smooth Solzhenitsyn's transition in the public mind from universal hero to anti-modern crank.
It's 1985 and Solzhenitsyn does not look quite so quaint. The music has now proved intolerable for a group of thoroughly modern women, including Tipper Gore (wife of Sen. Al Gore) and Susan Baker (wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker), who have banded together with other influential Washington wives to do something about rock music.
It is nt the beat that addles them, but the lyrics. What the intervening years have brought, I doubt even Solzhenitsyn could have imagined: Prince and his matter-of-fact auto-eroticism, Twisted Sister and their hymn to parent trashing, Sheena Easton and her ode to orgasm, to sample only the more popular crooners. The Parents' Music Resource Center will supply details on request.
The PMRC, though, is modestly named. It is more than a resource center. It is a lobby. The cause is truth in advertising. It wants records, like movies, labeled so that the most offensive can be spotted at a distance.
A worthy idea, but somewhat coy. It is clear as day that labeling alone won't work. In fact, labeling alone will have an opposite effect. A raunchy rating is bound to arouse the interest of the browsing teen. In my day "Louie, Louie," a rock number reputed to have illicit lyrics woven deep into its mumbled bumps and groans, enjoyed a wholly undeserved popularity for exactly that reason. (An FCC panel was called in on the case and concluded after a month of listening to "Louie, Louie" frontwards, backwards and at every conceivable speed that the obscenity question is moot: the song is entirely unintelligible.)
Labels offer parental guidance, sure. But how many kids shop for records with their parents? As the PMRC must realize, labeling is useful in one way only. Many, perhaps most, stores and malls will ban X-rated music, creating enormous economic pressure on artists and studios to produce non-X music. That's how the movie ratings work. It amounts to an elegant form of censorship -- elegant because it is censorship made to look like consumer information. Who's against consumer information?
This is one of the more interesting disguises that censorship has taken in recent years. Americans are very queasy about censorship. They oppose it in theory. But as revulsion with sexual liberation -- now known by its maiden name, permissiveness -- has grown, thereciate its social value in practice. So they disguise it.
Some disguises are more successful than others. In Minneapolis and Indianapolis, for example, municipal ordinances have been proposed banning pornography on the grounds of expanding civil rights. The Washington womens' route is less outrageous. Their censorship comes packaged as consumer protection.
They are being a bit too careful. This is one case in which censorship does not need to hide in a brown paper wrapper. Liberals and conservatives may argue (as they have argued in Minnesota and Indiana) about censoring adult materials. But there are not too many defenders of kid porn around, and rock music is overwhelmingly a child's medium.
Moreover, the time is right for this kind of censorship. We are in the middle of a protectionist wave: kiddie protectionism. The first, though somewhat pathological, signs of this movement were the recent hysterias about child abuse (punctured by the notorious, apparently phony charges in the Jordan, Minn., case), and child abduction (once said to number 50,000 a year; now estimated to be less than 100). But underlying these hysterias is the return of a quite fundamental idea: that kids need to be protected and that adults are here to do the protecting.
For reasons as yet obscure, we have decided once again to treat kids as kids. One obvious sign of this phenomenon is the wild popularity of the Cosby show, where the adults are back in charge. For a long time kids were either wise guys who told the bumbling folks where to get off (the running joke in a decade of sitcoms) or, in the more sentimental version (Neil Simon, for example), a parent's best friend. That sabbatical is over. Kids have become our wards again.
And what they need protection from most is the culture, a culture so insistent, and harnessed to a technology so pervasive, that it insinuates itself into a child's world no matter how much the parent tries to intervene. Lasers will stop missiles before a strategic defense is found against commercials, Walkmen, and MTV.
What to do? If there is no way, this side of Amish country, to mediate between the child and the culture, change the culture. Change the lyrics. A roundabout exercise in child rearing, perhaps, but, under the circumstances -- you can tell your kid not to talk to strangers, but how do you keep Prince from whispering in his ear? -- a reasonable one. Censor the whisper. As Dylan used to say, it's shelter from the storm.