American Civil Liberties Union Briefer
POPULAR MUSIC UNDER SIEGE
Beginning in the 1980s, religious fundamentalists and some parents' groups
have waged a persistent campaign to limit the variety of cultural messages
available to American youth by attacking the content of some of the music
industry's creative products. These attacks have taken numerous forms,
including a call by the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC) for the
labeling of recordings whose themes or imagery relate to sexuality,
violence, drug or alcohol use, suicide or the "occult," and prosecutions of
record companies and storeowners for producing or selling albums that
contain controversial songs.
After years of pressure from the PMRC and a series of Senate hearings in
1985, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) introduced, in
1990, a uniform labeling system using the logo, "Parental Advisory -
Explicit Lyrics." The RIAA initiated this system without providing record
companies with any standards, criteria or guidelines for determining what
albums should be labeled. That decision is left completely up to the
companies, which have chosen to label only selected rock and rap albums and
not recordings of country music, opera or musical comedy that may also
contain controversial material.
Dissatisfied with the RIAA's labels, many would-be censors have demanded
even more limits on the sale of music with controversial lyrics. As a
result, legislators have introduced bills in more than 20 states in recent
years that would require warning labels far more detailed than the RIAA's.
Some proposed laws would go beyond mandatory labeling and actually ban the
sale to minors of music deemed to be objectionable.
Until 1992, none of this legislation had passed, although in 1991 a bill in
Louisiana failed by only one vote. In 1992, however, the state of
Washington passed a law that required storeowners to place "adults only"
labels on recordings a judge had found to be "erotic"; the law also
criminalized the sale of any labeled CD or tape to a person under age 18.
Fortunately, the law was never enforced because a few months after passage
a state court declared it unconstitutional.
Even though Washington's "erotic music" law failed, the battle over
proposals to label or otherwise restrict certain music sales will probably
continue. The groups and individuals who have been attacking popular music
want to impose their personal moral and political standards on the rest of
us. The American Civil Liberties Union is working hard to prevent the
achievement of that goal, which would imperil the First Amendment rights of
musicians, and of all Americans, to create, perform and hear music of our
What's wrong with voluntary labeling? Isn't it, like movie rating, a
harmless way to give parents consumer information that can help them
make intelligent choices for their kids?
Even "voluntary" labeling is not harmless.
First of all, a label on an album is no proof whatsoever that the music
inside is in any way harmful or illegal. Yet many music stores, including
some of the largest national chains, refuse to sell labeled albums to
minors, and some stores refuse to carry them at all out of fear that the
wrath of pressure groups will bring bad publicity and possible boycotts.
Some people argue that an "explicit lyrics" label, like an "R" movie
rating, actually boosts sales by drawing attention to the labeled album.
This may or may not be true, but we can say for sure that fans can't buy an
album if it's not in the store.
Labeling is a red flag for would-be censors, who want to see the content of
popular music regulated as much as possible. Even worse, the RIAA's
"Parental Advisory" label is now used as a model for labeling legislation
that would establish government censorship of record sales to minors. The
RIAA label also has encouraged pro-"decency" prosecutors to target
particular albums when threatening storeowners with prosecution, usually in
the hope of persuading the storeowners to stop selling those albums. Is
labeling truly helpful to parents? No. All a label means is that, in
somebody's opinion, some parents might consider the labeled material unfit
for their children. The only way parents who want to supervise their
children's musical experiences can really learn anything about a tape or CD
is to personally examine the package, which often includes printed lyrics.
Then, they can decide for themselves whether it's acceptable or not.
What about government labeling or classification of music lyrics?
"Voluntary" labeling is bad enough, but government labeling would be worse
still -- worse for musicians, for manufacturers, for listeners and for the
The labeling bills proposed to date have offered very vague standards for
determining what albums should be labeled, making it impossible for
artists, record companies and stores to understand whether or how the laws
apply to them. A New Jersey bill, for example, would require a "parental
advisory" label on lyrics that discuss "suicide, incest, bestiality,
sadomasochism, rape or involuntary sexual penetration, or which advocate or
encourage murder, ethnic, racial or religious intimidation, the use of
illegal drugs or the excessive or illegal use of alcohol." That list could
cover everything from the opera, "La Traviata," to the Beatles' "Lucy in
the Sky with Diamonds." Such vagueness makes artists and others in the
music industry feel that they must censor themselves to avoid risking
Most important of all, labeling requirements are usually coupled with
restrictions on sales. Therefore, mandatory labeling laws would bring
about unconstitutional restrictions on the First Amendment right of artists
to express themselves freely, and on their fans' right to hear what the
artists express -- whatever the subject might be.
What about laws that keep music with antisocial, misogynistic or violent
messages away from minors -- doesn't society have an obligation to protect
Courts have ruled that the government does have an interest in protecting
children. As a result, many states now have "harmful to minors" laws that
are modified versions of adult obscenity laws. These laws specifically
target works that are sexually explicit and lack serious artistic or other
Lyric-labeling legislation, however, doesn't limit itself to sexual
material that lacks value; instead of being specific, these bills usually
target a wide range of topics regardless of whether the music has value.
Because many of our elected officials disrespect rock and rap music and its
fans, they don't feel it's necessary to be specific about music that they
regard as an amorphous mass of unsavory images and messages.
For example, the real target of the police groups and others who sought to
ban "Cop Killer," claiming that the song advocates the murder of police
officers, appeared to be Ice-T's political viewpoint. "Cop Killer" is a
work of musical fiction that depicts violence against the police as a
response to police brutality. It reflects a radical attitude held by some
inner city residents, who are furious about the police abuse of authority
they feel they have witnessed or experienced.
As a practical matter, it's impossible to know exactly what message a
particular listener takes from "Cop Killer." But most likely, rather than
inciting violence against the police, as its detractors claim, the rap
provides an outlet for anger and encourages listeners to think about the
issue of police misconduct and the antagonism it creates.
But what if someone listens to "Cop Killer" and then murders a police
officer? Don't lyrics that deal with sex, violence, drug use, suicide,
etc. cause anti-social behavior?
No direct link between anti-social behavior and exposure to the content of
any form of artistic expression has ever been scientifically established.
Moreover, scapegoating artistic expression as a cause of social ills is
simplistic. How can serious social problems like violent crime, racism or
suicide be solved by covering children's ears? If suppressing creative
expression were the way to control anti-social behavior, where would you
stop? The source of inspiration most frequently cited by criminals has
been the Bible.
Singer Ozzy Osbourne was sued three times by parents who claimed that his
"Suicide Solution" made their sons kill themselves, and the heavy metal
band, Judas Priest, faced a similar lawsuit in 1990. In all of these
cases, the courts rejected the idea that musicians can be held responsible
for the acts of unstable individuals.
Throughout American history, popular music has mirrored the thoughts and
yearnings of young people. Performers from the Beatles, Bob Dylan and
Aretha Franklin to Arrested Development and Madonna, have often celebrated
change and challenged "the establishment." Clearly, the real intentions of
the would-be music censors is to impose on all Americans the tastes and
values of political powerbrokers who don't connect with the experiences and
concerns of the young, the alienated and minorities.
Lyric-labeling, directed almost exclusively at rock and rap music,
impoverishes our culture by muzzling the voices of that music's primarily
young fans. Such suppression undermines the bedrock of our freedoms, the
First Amendment, and it makes us all less free.
Produced by the
Arts Censorship Project
American Civil Liberties Union
Public Education Department
132 West 43rd Street
New York, N.Y. 10036