Rapping the Music Industry's Knuckles


Amid all the cacophony on MTV and rock radio stations, it's hard for a parent to know which musicians' lyrics are appropriate for children. For instance, you might not mind if your child listens to Nelly Furtado, the Canadian pop/rock singer. But what about the other Nelly, the St. Louis hip-hop artist, whose lyrics can get ragged enough to warrant a parental warning? Music artists are just too numerous and short-lived for most parents to keep track of.

At the moment, the only clue a parent has to go by is the "explicit content" label that adorns about 30% of the albums. But parents are starting to push the industry to disclose more information about explicit content in musical recordings. I got a clear view of the growing frustration with the recorded-music industry at a House subcommittee hearing I recently attended. Legislators and parents' groups at the meeting clearly considered music labels far below par. At a time when labels on video games disclose the depiction of rape and injury, and motion pictures indicate what's inappropriate before for those beneath the ages of 13 and 17, saying an album has "explicit content" just doesn't seem explicit enough.

Of course, providing particulars on art isn't easy. "Fact is that we are not dealing with Euclid's geometric equations, which are always pristine and pure and clean-shape and final," testified Jack Valenti, President and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), who added: "We do the best we can to give parents some guidelines." While any talk of limiting what musicians can say in their songs raises First Amendment concerns, the music industry clearly lags in confronting parents' woes.

JUKEBOX JURY. A good start would be to divulge, at the very least, the subject matter of the songs. That would bring the industry closer to the disclosure standards for video games and movies. Parent groups and some congressmen think the recording industry could easily make finer distinctions among the extremes. Eminem's Kill You, which includes the graphic sounds of a woman's throat being slit, is much different from Roberta Flack's Killing Me Softly, where, if taken literally, the murderer's weapons are words. "You can't convince me that 10 reasonable people can't tell the difference," said Rep. Barbara Cubin of Wyoming.

Some parents would like a rating system for music that is similar to the ones currently used by the movie and video game industries. The MPAA uses the well-known G, PG, PG-13, and R ratings. In theaters, children are allowed to accompany parents to any movie except those rated NC-17, which are restricted to adults. Video games are rated with a letter codes, such as "T" for ages 13 and up, and "M" for mature. Titles in the "T" category may contain violent content, mild or strong language, and/or suggestive themes. But a game in that category showing gore, sex, or nudity would be inappropriate.

Both industries also require their ratings to show up on advertisements. And since they are based on age, the industries can separate which products to market in schools, or in kid-favored magazines and stores.

WHY IS MUSIC DIFFERENT? The music industry's ratings are far more basic -- and lax. The "explicit" warning label is applied to all cases. Worse, use of the label is optional. So far at least, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) won't budge on doing more, arguing that musical lyrics don't allow for specific ratings standards.

"Music is much closer to books than it is to movies or video games in nature," says Hillary Rosen, President and CEO of RIAA. Since no one would dream of rating the Bible or the ink-and-paper Gone with the Wind, why force a judgment on Tori Amos' Me and My Gun, which depicts a rape? The RIAA is also hesitant to place age-based ratings on its music, saying that it shouldn't define music in that manner. Keeping the current system, the industry says, is necessary to achieve a balance between artists' freedom and customer awareness.

The Federal Trade Commission has found the music business far more inflexible than other entertainment industries. Last September, the FTC reported that the electronic game, movie, and recording industries all knowingly promote age-inappropriate products to children. But in a follow-up report, it noted that only the recording industry is taking no steps to improve. The Lion and Lamb Project, a national parents' group, gives the music industry an F, in contrast to the D-minus Hollywood received, and the video-game industry's D-plus. "The total and unequivocal refusal to reform their marketing system is beneath contempt," testified Daphne White, executive director of the project.

"TAME" MADONNA. The recording industry says it is already doing a lot to help out parents. For instance, it has provided edited versions of many albums that family-friendly stores, such as Wal-Mart, opt for. And radio stations feel safe playing them. Rosen also reports that the industry is more often including warnings in its TV and radio ads, using the "explicit" label on street marketing posters and sampler giveaways, and encouraging the posting of lyrics where available on an artist's Web site or on Songfile.com. The RIAA has also planned to raise public awareness with brochures, posters, and public-service announcements by musician/producer Quincy Jones.

If the music industry doesn't do more, however, Congress may try to crack down. For the moment, guilt trips and criticism are Congress' method of choice. But there are three bills in Congress that deal with the music industry's labeling system, and if lyrics continue to get more graphic, support for passing one of them will increase. "Madonna seems tamer and lamer in a world of Eminem," laments Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts. Before a musician even more shocking than Eminem comes along, legislators and many parents want to be sure there's a system in place to warn the wary of what their kids are hearing. By Diwata Fonte in Washington


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