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This whole monstruousity was originally conveived February through March 2001 by the members of The Big Note - a Frank Zappa YahooGroup. After an arduous gestation period, this site was birthed on April 11 2001. True to the essence of collaborative effort, these people are held responsible.

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Record Labeling Pt. II

Gore and the PMRC claimed not to be censors, calling only for…”labels so that parents can make informed decisions on what to buy for their children. We want a tool from the industry that is peddling this stuff to children, a consumer tool with which parents can make an informed decision on what to buy. What we’re talking about is a sick new strain of rock music glorifying everything from forced sex to bondage to rape.” This view, in which Gore called certain types of music “sick,” and referred to recorded art as “this stuff,” clearly showed the PMRC’s value system. But should the ethical beliefs of fifteen women, never elected to office, be imposed on a country of 260 million people? Whether or not one agrees with the PMRC, an artist, under the law, can record any lyrics that he or she sees fit to publish. Cited as particularly offensive examples are Prince’s “Darling Nikki” (“I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine”) and Judas Priest’s “Eat Me Alive,” a song Gore says is about “oral sex at gunpoint” (Love, 14). Those who want to curb the Bill of Rights are often clever enough to single out the most objectionable and artless material they can find, hoping to pave the way to later assaults on the more commonplace and meritorious (Page, 33).However, censorship isn’t about intentions, its about consequences. Whether they’re presented as “consumer information” or “child protection” or “public safety” (as in the refusal of civic facilities to allow certain kinds of performances to take place), regulations and activities that deny the right to speak ARE forms of censorship, no matter what name their sponsors give them (Marsh, 3).

Record labeling is de facto censorship, in that it forces artists to follow the arbitrary guidelines, or ethical codes, set up by society’s watchdogs, or pay dearly for it. Major music distributors have made it clear that they will not carry albums that bear warning stickers. Musicians who produce albums that do not fit the criteria set by local censors will be shut out of the distribution system. Large retail chains such as K Mart, WalMart, Venture, Sears, and J.C. Penney have already pulled albums with warning stickers off of their shelves. Major labels won’t release albums that they think might not be sold in major outlets. Independent labels are already hard-pressed to find storeowners willing to stock their products (Marsh, 43).

Who will set the criteria for the warning labels? How will the terms be defined? Most of the individuals calling for labels point to lyrics that they believe are “offensive” or “indecent,” at least, according to their value systems. The Supreme Court has spent decades trying to define even the much more restrictive term “obscene.” And it would be nearly impossible to find any artistic material, in any medium, that doesn’t offend someone’s concept of decency. If strictly enforced, record-warning codes would require that almost every opera of the past three centuries bear a label. And if not strictly enforced, warning labels are even more outrageously undemocratic, unethical and ineffective (Marsh, 43).
Focusing on the lyrics raises serious questions about precedent. Song lyrics have traditionally been considered poetry, and if children or others are forbidden access to song lyrics, how long will it be before they’re forbidden access to certain poems? This is no overstatement. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” banned in 1956, was subsequently hailed as one of the finest examples of contemporary American poetry; in 1987, it was banned once again, this time by the FCC, which deemed it too “indecent” for broadcast. What about the erotic poetry of the Bible: “The Song of Solomon” (Marsh, 43)?

Unlike the PMRC, there are some watchdogs that openly advocate legislation and criminal penalties for offenders. Like other censors in the past, Jack Thompson, a Florida attorney who spearheaded the drive to have 2 Live Crew declared obscene, argued without scientific evidence that a rise in “dirty” lyrics leads to a rise in rape and other violence against women. There is no proof of that. This view does however, illustrate the fact that Thompson believes his own value system to be more important than the First Amendment. In actuality, the rise in such reports of violent acts against women is more likely caused by a growing awareness of the problem and a new willingness by victims to come forward and report their victimization.
The issue of censoring lyrics was also recently raised in Maryland, where a proposed amendment to the state’s obscenity law would have made it a crime to sell minors records that were deemed pornographic? But, by what systems of ethics can any artistic venture be deemed pornographic. After all, isn’t artistic merit (or the lack of) determined by the ethics of the consumer? If it is, it then becomes unethical to impose any set of ethics upon them.
The proposed law, which was defeated in committee, would have imposed fines of $1,000 and jail sentences of as much as a year for retailers found in violation. At one point in the hearings on the legislation, Senate Delegate Dorothy Toth, who wrote the amendment, stated that certain Maryland record stores were already in violation of the state’s existing obscenity law because of cover and promotional art they had on display (DeCurtis, 16).

In the end, there was only one notable rock music censorship prosecution. Those associated with the punk rock group The Dead Kennedys were charged with distributing material harmful to minors. The offending item was a poster included in the album Frankenchrist that depicted disembodied sex acts by various animals (the painting by H.R. Giger had been publicly displayed long before being issued with the album). The prosecution came when a fourteen-year-old San Fernando Valley (CA) girl brought charges against the lead singer of the group, the record store that sold it, and the record company. The Southern California ACLU assisted in the defense, and the trial ended in a verdict of not guilty (Walker, 353).
In 1989, state representatives – like Jean Dixon, 41, from Springfield, Missouri, a fan of Christian music, and Ron Gamble, 57, from Oakdale, Pennsylvannia – pushed for laws in nearly twenty states that would make it a criminal offense for certain records to be sold without a warning label and that, in some states, would make it a crime to sell labelled records to minors (Goldberg, 19).

If passed into law, this or any such legislation will produce restrictions on artistic freedom. Forcing record companies and retailers to distribute only “safe” material can be seen as a direct threat to the First Amendment, allowing artists to record only what is deemed “acceptable” or lose their recording contracts and distribution rights, and in effect, their livelihood. It is not the “objectionable” material that should be banned, but the efforts of those who would censor art because it violates their personal code of ethics.

Bibliography/Recommended Reading
DeCurtis, Anthony. "Record Companies Finesse PMRC." Rolling Stone 8 May 1986: 16.
Gelfand, Ravina. The Freedom of Speech in America. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1967.
Goldberg, Michael. "At a Loss for Words." Rolling Stone 31 May 1990: 19-22.
"Hearing before the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation," U.S. Senate, 99th Congress: September 19, 1985.
Hibbard, Don J. and Carol Kaleialoha. The Role of Rock. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983.
Marsh, Dave. 50 Ways to Fight Censorship. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press: 1991.
Page, Clarence. Censorship Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc, 1990.
Walker, Samuel. In Defense of American Liberties, A History of the ACLU. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1990.
Zappa, Frank and Peter Occhiogrosso. The Real Frank Zappa Book. New York: Poseidon Press 1989.

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