Popular Music Under Seige

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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 own choosing.

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