There is something familiar about the scene. A public conflict between concerned mothers in silk and outrageous rock stars in skin. A People magazine cover with a shopworn headline: "Has Rock Gone too Far?" A meeting with broadcasters this week, a congressional hearing next week, furrowed brows, lips that roll the words "Sex, Violence, Rock 'n' Roll" into one.
Haven't we been here before? How many times before? Which side were we on before? Surely the Golden Oldies among us titter over memories of the Movement to Restore Decency, the midnight record burners, the prudes who televised Elvis only from the waist up. "They" as Elvis said, "are just frustrated old types anyway." And we were inclined to agree.
Rock was born and bred to be anti-establishment and despite the news that Ringo Starr has become a grandfather, yesterday's rocker is loath to become today's establishment. But even the most terminally tolerant of rock fans knows that something has happened since the days of the old hound dog.
The outrageous edge of rock and roll has shifted its focus from Elvis' pelvis to the saw protruding from Blackie Lawless' codpiece on a W.A.S.P. album. Rock lyrics have turned from "I can't get no satisfaction" to "I'm going to force you at gunpoint to eat me alive."
The veritable Prince of rock is now writing ballads to his sister -- "Incest is everything they said it would be" -- and Motley Crue has become the bard of rape -- "I'll either break her face or take down her legs." You do not have to be a "frustrated old type" to hope that your children don't go around the house singing the words to "Nightstalker."
It's this heavy-metal message that is forcing an older generation of fans to become critics. One of them, Tipper Gore, 36, wife of Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.), mother of four and Phil Collins fan, is one of those who said "enough." She and Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary Jim Baker,with two others formed something called the Parents Music Resource Center. They have had as much publicity lately as Madonna.
The women of the PMRC have been attacked with such lethal epithets as "Washington wives," "ladies" and, gasp, "housewives," as if they were swinging pocketbooks at the heads of rock stars. Indeed some in the industry portray the "wives" and their allies in the PTA as right-wing censors out to limit the free speech of the whole motley crew.
Frankly, I think it would be lovely if all the broadcasters, producers and musicians had the restraint to limit the amount of mayhem that went out over the airwaves. You cannot direct "adult" songs specifically into 15-and-over eardrums. The lyrics drift, like cigarette smoke, polluting everyone within range, doing the worst to the youngest.
But the goal of this group is really quite modest. They are not trying to censor the W.A.S.P., ban the Twisted Sister, or inflict pain and suffering on the Torture Rock crowd. Their primary aim is to get a label on the rock- music records, to win a consumer victory for parents. They would also like to brown-bag the worst of the porn covers and to get the raunchiest lyrics out front so the buyer could beware.
PMRC has not been without effect. This summer, the record industry agreed to a mild PG rating, providing that each company rate its own artists. But PG sounds a bit too much like "okay." The PMRC would like a single industry-wide standard and an R. The PTA, for its part, would like more specific ratings.
I have reservations about ratings, though not the same ones the record companies have. The movie experience is mixed at best. Under the cover of an R, the amount of violence has actually increased. The ratings are often arbitrary (foetter words are more of a no-no than chain-saw murders), and there is nothing like a dirty rumor to boost sales. But ratings are a better guide than what parents had before: nothing.
Ratings are nothing more or less than a modest way of reintroducing something called standards. It is a way the collective community of adults can say, "We disapprove." We disapprove of violence, we disapprove of sexual exploitation. We do not want our pre-teens to watch the W.A.S.P. smashing the head of a woman in chains.
Does that make us the establishment? Does that mean our kids will rebel? Frankly, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that we let our children know what we think.