April 26, 2001 -- The music police are at it again, trying to save the world from the perils of "explicit" music. This time around, however, they have a new strategy.
They're trying to paint the major record labels as musical versions of crack dealers, hanging around a schoolyard giving away free samples. The campaign is shameless because it's untrue. But Sen. Joe Lieberman and his allies know that manufacturing a plot against kids is the only way they can exploit parents terrified by school violence to achieve their real goal — censorship.
The Federal Trade Commission issued a report this week criticizing the music industry for continuing to market violent CDs to children. Within hours of its release, the Democratic Party's favorite censor, Lieberman, announced plans to introduce legislation that would punish record labels for such campaigns.
If we don't take the time to examine what's going on very carefully, it might seem that he has a point. But if one simply takes a moment to look at the information included in that report, and the information that is left out, the latest attack on media violence will be revealed as what it really is: an attempted end-run around the Constitution masquerading as righteous indignation over marketing practices.
When Politicians Become Mommies and Daddies
Last year the FTC accused the film, video game and music industries of intentionally targeting children in ad campaigns for products that they themselves have said, through ratings or warning stickers, are unfit for children. This week's report found that while the movie and video game industries had made some steps in the right direction, the recording industry has done virtually nothing.
Now I'm not a parent, and I am a fan of a lot of music that many people consider offensive. So if I ever have children, I think I'd take a pretty active role in raising them and would be willing to put in a little effort to learn about the music they were listening to and whether it was appropriate. Until then, I'd appreciate it if all parents did the same, rather than pass laws that make it tougher for controversial artists to make a living.
Despite that bias, when I first heard about the FTC report, I was a bit concerned. I thought that it was talking about things like advertising Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP during Barney and Pokémon. Were that the case, I might be inclined to agree that the labels should be ashamed of themselves. Parenting's a tough enough job without some record exec hard-selling your 8-year-old on gangsta rap. And while I love music, I'm going to have to ride the subway with that kid in six years, so I'd prefer he not be strapped.
Such a scenario, however, is far from the reality of the situation. After I took the time to read the reports, it became obvious to me that the major labels are certainly not trying to devise ways to sell violent and sexually explicit music to kids. What they are doing is mounting legitimate advertising campaigns for some offensive artists that will, unavoidably, be seen or heard by kids. That's an unfortunate fact of life in a free society, and it simply means parents are going to have to take more responsibility for what their kids watch and listen to. But it's a far cry from record companies actively trying to sell violent records to children.
Shows Kids Like Aren't Kids' Shows
The problem here is that the report fails to distinguish between ads that kids will see and ads aimed at kids. Take, for example, the section of the report dealing with television ads for offensive artists. The authors of the report monitored eight television shows that are popular with kids.
The first six shows were chosen because Nielsen ranks them top among young viewers: More kids watch them than any other shows on TV. Keep in mind that not a single one of those shows draws an audience that consists primarily of young viewers and I doubt many people would consider shows like The Simpsons, Malcolm In The Middle, WWF Smackdown, 7th Heaven, Titus or That '70s Show to be children's programming. But if labels can reach the same adult audience by advertising on other shows, it seems fair to ask them to refrain from advertising on those six programs. The only show of the six, however, where ads for albums with explicit content were found was WWF Smackdown.
Now does anyone really think that the greatest danger an impressionable child watching professional wrestling will face is viewing an advertisement that might lead him to purchase violent music? In fact, if you're looking for an appropriate place to advertise violent music, doesn't a wrestling show seem to fit the bill? If parents are concerned about the effects of violent entertainment, maybe little Johnny shouldn't be watching The Rock break a chair over someone's head.
The other two programs the study monitored were shows that are, in fact, watched primarily by kids: MTV's Total Request Live and WWF Heat, another wrestling show. The study found ads for explicit material during both.
We've already addressed wrestling, so let's take a look at Total Request Live, or TRL, a music countdown program. Doesn't it seem possible that record labels have a legitimate reason to advertise albums on music countdown shows other than trying to corrupt your children? Only 42 percent of that show's viewers may be adults, but those adults are obviously music fans — a rather important audience for record companies. Where else can record labels advertise and know that 42 percent of their audience will be adults who are serious music fans? And TRL regularly shows videos by artists that the report cites as examples of "explicit" material. So can parents really object to their children seeing an ad for Crazy Town's The Gift Of The Game on the same program where they just watched a video by the band?
In the end, out of eight shows chosen because of their young viewers, only three contained ads for explicit albums. More importantly, those shows were chosen for legitimate reasons: They catered to either music fans or fans of violent entertainment.
Which Magazines Are Fair Game?
The study makes similarly flawed conclusions when it examines print ads. It surveyed six magazines that had either a majority or a "substantial" readership under the age of 18: Metal Edge, Right On!, Seventeen, Teen People, ThrasherVibe. It noted that ads for explicit material were found in four of those publications. What it failed to mention, however, was that the ads were found in the four publications that define themselves primarily as music magazines, and which regularly feature articles on artists whose albums feature warning labels. If you let your child read a magazine with Slipknot on the cover, is it really fair to complain that there's a Rage Against The Machine ad on page 65?
Remember, the issue here should be whether the labels are targeting kids, not whether kids will see these ads. Kids tend to be bigger music fans than adults, so if you target music shows and music publications, kids are going to see the ads. But if we were to decide that labels shouldn't advertise explicit music anyplace where kids might see the ads, the only place left to advertise these artists would be porn magazines. And if a label can't market a band, there's very little reason to release that band's music.
Please Define 'Explicit'
Another flaw in the study is its definition of explicit material. It classifies material as explicit if it carries a voluntary warning label. What it fails to acknowledge, however, is that the record labels have made edited "clean" versions available of the albums from all but one of the eight artists cited.
In fact, in parts of the country where large family-friendly chain stores are the only place to buy music, the "clean" version is often the only version that a music fan can purchase, regardless of age. So it seems unfair to say that an advertisement for And Then There Was X by DMX is an ad for explicit material. It is actually an ad for both an explicit album and a clean album. A record label should have every right to market that clean album to whomever it wants, unless our goal is to punish the artist for making the explicit album in the first place.
That may actually be the point. Without any valid targeting argument, punishment would seem to be the underlying goal of any legislation Lieberman may propose.
The senator is a longtime critic of what he considers obscene music. Knowing that the First Amendment to the Constitution prevents him from banning such music outright, he held a news conference in 1996 asking record labels to voluntarily censor their artists, in the name of good corporate citizenship. Dissatisfied with the results, he held another news conference a few months later urging Americans to boycott Interscope Records and its parent company because they had the audacity to release a Marilyn Manson album, among others.
As that intimidation also failed, he and his fellow would-be censors are apparently prepared to try again, looking to make that type of music unmarketable under the guise of supporting "truth in advertising" and protecting children. It's doubtful that such a law would be considered constitutional. But you can be sure that its supporters will try to cloud that fact by painting this as a fight for children rather than a battle over artistic freedom. We can only hope people look at the facts before deciding.