Nobody likes a censor, but everybody admires a concerned parent. That's why a number of groups around the country trying to purify public school libraries have had "Concerned Parents" as part of their titles, and as I've found out while covering many of those stories, none of these parents takes kindly to being called censors. They say they are performing a badly needed public service not only for their own kids but for all kids.
Similarly, the women involved in the Washington-based Parents' Music Resource Center strenuously deny that their attempts to do something about the excesses of rock lyrics has anything to do with censorship. They point to certain songs dealing with celebrations of raw violence and crudely explicit sex, including mastrubation, and they insist that the recording companies at the very least should warn parents about what's inside the albums.
There must be a rating system, they say. And certain albums that have covers bursting with violence and sex must be kept under the counter or covered with a wrapper. If this filth is not curbed, untold numbers of the young will be misshaped, maybe for life. The Parents' Music Resource Center's particular concern, a spokeswoman tells me, is 9-and 10-year-olds.
Back in the 1920s, parent groups and a good many clerics were much exercised by the seductive, destructive power of jazz and the blues. The devil's music, they called it, as late as the mid-1950s. I saw a magazine article by a ravaged, young woman who clearly and bitterly traced the beginning of her end to having been exposed to a hot jazz band when she was a girl.
If a present-day disc jockey were to play certain records by Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey (prefaced by an enthusiastic endorsement from Prince), I expect the Parents' Music Resource Center would consider those lyrics further proof of the need for its services by all parents, whether they realize it or not, and I try not to think of what the group's reaction would be to a favorite record of my own jazz-ensorcelled youth, Lee Wiley's "Down to Steamboat Tennessee."
The women of the Parents' Music Resource Center are, of course, just as entitled to cry out against words they consider dangerous as is Jerry Falwell. They are not the state, and so the First Amendment rights of the record companies and performers are not at issue.
Not quite yet. These Washington mothers said in one of their releases that they were talking to people in government as well as in the private sector. And people in government have begun to respond. A hearing on dirty and dangerous rock lyrics has been scheduled for Sept. 19 before the Senate Commerce Committee.
I asked a staff member of the committee if the hearing was in response to the alarms being set off by the Parents Music Resource Center. The aide chuckled, "I'm sure you're aware," he said, "that Sen. Albert Gore is on the committee, and that his wife, Tipper, is very active in that parent's group." (Also on the letterhead of the Parents' Resource Center are Susan Baker, wife of Secretary of the Treasury James Baker, and a number of wives of former public officials.)
Presumably, if the Senate Commerce Committee is persuaded that the nation's young need to be protected from the devil's music -- which keeps taking on newly alluring shapes -- it will bring forth proposed regulations and statutes. The First Amendment will then be added to the counterpoint.
The women have already scored one victory, though they consider it vastly inadequate. Stanley Gortikov, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, has informed the parents' group that a majority of the companies will henceforth be willing to place a printed inscription on certain albums: "Parental Guidance -- Explicit Lyrics."
This is more of a concession than Gortikov is willing to admit. It is like the pink flips that some book distributors put in certain books for young readers to warn school principals and librarians that some words or passages may possibly cause trouble. The result is that those books are sent back by some schools -- without a hearing. So will albums with scarlet letters when they reach skittish record distributors or radio stations (which, after all, are licensed by the government).
But Stanley Gortikov had to do something. There is legislation the record industry wants from Congress this term, such as ways of combating record piracy, and the women on the parents' committee have powerful husbands.
"You know," the somewhat battered Gortikov told me recently, "what it comes down to is that parents trying to supervise the record industry are no substitute fo parents supervising their own children."
From my experience as a parent of four, home supervision can't be that hard, especially when the main target of these Concerned Citizens out there are only 9-and 10-year-olds.