Thursday, March 12, 2015

Label Me, Please!

The former U.S. Vice-President Albert Gore originally came to prominence under slightly less than “progressive” guise than he’s been known, since beginning his climate-change crusade some years ago. 

No Saviour Yet.  No Shaver Either

In 1985, Gore was newly elected to the U.S. Senate. He was angling for the presidential nomination of his Democratic party three years hence, and was determined to run as the more conservative candidate who could win the votes of blue-collar and suburban voters who put Reagan in the White House twice in a row. With the intention of attracting the so-called “Reagan Democrats”, however, Gore had his wife Tipper form with other Washington spouses the Parents Music Resource Centre to lobby for age-appropriate curbs on the sale of popular music with foul language and themes. Gore himself used his position to hold Senatorial hearings on the matter, looking to have the record industry impose a “voluntary” rating system for music, similar to what exists in movies. Many in the record industry responded by denouncing the proposals as “censorship.” It may attest, however, to the lack of politicization of musicians at the time (in contrast to recent years) that the best-known music stars to appear before the committee — Frank Zappa and John Denver — were from a previous era. 

Senator Zappa

Zappa was the most prominent and articulate of these witnesses, but I never really bought his and the others’ argument that record-labelling amounted to censorship. Famously, before and or after Zappa testified before the committee, he encountered a young boy, around ten years old, outside the Congress. This was no doubt a plant, with the boy coached to ask Zappa why it is, if it is okay to slap ratings on movies, why it is unacceptable for popular music. Zappa replied that, unlike the content of movies, that of music is subject to interpretation as to whether it is obscene or not. 

The fact is, though, that music in the 1980s had gone far beyond any reasonable ambiguity and interpretation in regard to naughty lyrics and themes. The paradox is that pop music became all the more raunchy during the “Reagan era”, as American society became the more conservative generally. 

The Gores had, as they say, their eye on the main chance — the U.S. presidency — and sought to exploit a more general abhorrence to this musical trend as the means of winning it. Tipper Gore said truthfully that the pop music she enjoyed as a youth in the 1960s, was largely free of the kind of explicit and foul language that was not uncommon on the charts in her middle age. So again, another paradox: whatever offence the music itself caused to the ears of the older generation, the lyrics of post-Beatles rock couldn’t offend a grandmother. 

In spite of the axiomatic identification of ‘60s rock with the counterculture and “free love”, it is possible that the lyrics contained therein were less overtly sexual than what was found in early rock’n’roll. Not unexpectedly, Zappa was a pioneer in the use of bad language and obscene display on stage — though the lyric “shut your fuggin’ mouth about the length of my hair” was run backwards on the original release of We’re Only In It For the Money, from 1968. 

But as a whole, the lyrics of acid- and hard-rock were so innocuous that critics had to play them backwards to hear anything sinister. 

Pop-music lyrics didn’t really become overtly sexual again, until the disco explosion in the late 1970s, a trend that continued with the successor dance, r’n’b and rap music of the ‘80s. Since entertainers in these genres were mostly African-American, it is not impossible that Al Gore, the Southerner, was subliminally exploiting racist sentiments among his intended voting bloc. (Bill Clinton, under whom Gore served as VP, took a page from this book in 1992, when he went after some obscure lady rapper for “anti-white” lyrics). 

Nevertheless, it is not wrong in principle to give warning to parents about explicit lyrics contained in the popular music they might be purchasing for their children. It would have been impractical, for the number of recordings published each year far exceeded the number of cinematic releases. Inevitably, too, apparently innocuous lyrics might be subject to restricted rating based on (as per Zappa and the rest) overly strict interpretation. 

And, who is to be in charge of rating music? As with the movie industry decades earlier, the recording industry headed off legislation by adopting voluntary warning labels for music with explicit lyrics. 

There was a brouhaha about this among some rock stars of the time (Jane’s Addiction republished one of their albums with the text of the first amendment of the U.S. bill of rights, guaranteeing freedom of speech, above the warning label). 

In fact, though, far from instituting “censorship,” warning labels allowed popular music to become all the more dirtier lyrically that it was beforehand. In fact and in effect, they were a legal disclaimer on the part of the seller of the product, against any “harm” that might be caused by the music contained therein. The labels were, thus, indemnity from claims from parents that obscene lyrics contributed to their sons’ and daughters’ corruption or delinquency. 

Responsibility was vested back in the parents, who after all should be aware of what their minor children are purchasing with their weekly allowances. Covering themselves legally thus, the record labels were content to let their artists be as dirty as they wanted to be (whereas, in the absence of warning labels, they probably would have exercised more self-censorship, as did large record companies in the 1960s). 

Can I have one too?

I’m certain many artists have looked upon the label warning of explicit lyrics as a badge of honour. It was similar to how filmmakers and studios, after the introduction of the ratings system in 1968, included gratuitous sex and violence in movies to ensure that they were rated “R”. Pornographic filmmakers took this to the extreme by turning the over-18 designation into “XXX”. There is a parallel here with how old-time nudie magazines would advertise themselves containing “uncensored” images and language. It carried the promise that actual penetration would be shown. 

However, since advertiser-subsidized “men’s” magazines such as Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler and so on, couldn’t display such imagery, there was no reason to censor them, and thus truthfully they were “uncensored.” The very promise of no censorship, as with the “R” or “X” rating, and the explicit-lyrics label, appeal to the salacious and prurient in the every reader, viewer and listener. Sales swelled for products so labelled, and there is no doubt that for music at least, warning labels became the rule than the exception for music in the 1990s.

No comments:

Post a Comment