Fifteen years ago I wrote this story at the behest of WORLD after two or three days of non-stop phoners with the high and mighty. Although I liked and respected William Bennett (and still do), I didn't take his crusade seriously then--there was no way a modern-day Hays Code could've been imposed on a beast as unruly as the popular-music industry--and time has validated my incredulity. Still, if I hadn't written this story, somebody else would've. So, until WORD uploads it into its archives, here it is....
It's not as if the Time Warner Corporation hasn't figured in public debates over ethics and esthetics before. In 1993, Madonna, whose Maverick Records is owned by Warner Brothers, released an album called Erotica and a book called Sex that didn't so much push the envelope as ram it down people's throats.
A year before that, Body Count's heavy-metal song "Cop Killer" became a major issue in the presidential campaigns. Two years before that, 2 Live Crew's Warner-distributed raunch rap landed the band and some who sold it in court.
But Time Warner may find recovery from their latest controversy more difficult. For when William Bennett of Empower America and C. DeLores Tucker of the National Political Congress of Black Women confronted executives from the corporation on May 18 with the lyrics of a song called "Big Man with a Gun" by the Interscope Records act Nine Inch Nails, it had the impact of an earthquake, the bipartisan aftershocks of which began to be felt immediately.
Within days, major newspapers and magazines reported and opined on the showdown, Empower America began running a TV ad featuring Dr. Bennett and Ms. Tucker, Rush Limbaugh and Oliver North had Dr. Bennett as a guest on their radio shows, and Sen. Bob Dole made a speech that, by emphasizing similar themes, scandalized Hollywood.
Interscope Records, it turns out, is yet another Time-Warner distributary, and Nine Inch Nails isn't its only million-selling, filth-slinging act.
"It is not a complex issue," wrote Dr. Bennett and Ms. Tucker in an editorial titled "Lyrics from the Gutter" (the New York Times, June 2, 1995). "There are things on which reasonable people will disagree. But some lyrics of these songs are beyond the pale."
The specific lyrics in question come from recent albums by 2Pac Shakur, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Nine Inch Nails, and 2 Live Crew, albums that topped Billboard's top-200 album chart during the past year despite the "Parental Advisory--Explicit Lyrics" label displayed prominently on each of their covers, the recording industry's concession to the original crusader against explicitly vulgar pop music, Tipper Gore.
According to Dan Kuller, a Phoenix record-store manager, some parents do recognize the label and refuse to buy labeled product for their children. But many parents don't accompany their kids to the store in the first place.
"I don't think the label makes much difference to the kids," he told WORLD. "It seems that in a lot of cases, the parents just aren't that involved and that they don't care if they do get the stuff. I've seen parents refuse to buy some music for their kids, but I'd like to see it more often."
And although Mr. Kuller is quick to point out that responsible parenting isn't limited to whites, he admits that the majority of his unchaperoned clientele belong to Phoenix's Hispanic and black populations. This raises not only the issue of who is buying the music, but also the issue of the environments in which the lyrics are being heard once the music is purchased. "Cop Killer," for instance, would almost certainly not have ignited the controversy it did had it not followed on the heels of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.
Two conflicting pictures emerge. On the one hand, "gangsta" rap, the brutally verbal and musically simplistic category into which much of the controversial music falls, seems to be no longer "hip" in the hip-hop, or black, community.
“The gun stuff and all that killing stuff has gotten a bad reputation in the black community," argues Martha Bayles, Forbes magazine's culture critic and the author of Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. "It still gives thrills to white kids in the suburbs, but it's dying from the root."
On the other hand, statistics indicate that fewer and fewer suburban white teens are listening to gangsta rap. Therefore, the gradually declining but still formidable sales of hard-edged rap albums and singles suggest a faithful core audience.
One troubling fact is clear: black, white, or Hispanic, that core audience congregates predominantly toward the younger end of the twelve-to-twenty-four-year-old demographic. Nevertheless, the age of the targeted audience is not the main reason behind Dr. Bennett's zeal.
"Sure, it's marketed at kids," he told WORLD, "but I think it would be bad if it were marketed at adults, too, because it's nihilistic. It's not advocating anything except what is awful and inhuman."
Few disagree with that assessment. The explicitly violent and sexually abusive imagery in which many rap and alternative or heavy-metal artists specialize has almost no serious defenders these days. But what can empowered Americans actually do to improve the situation?
Those who call the toll-free number shown on the Bennett-Tucker ad will find themselves speaking to an operator who'll offer to send them a packet containing song lyrics, articles providing background on the controversy, and the names, phone numbers, and addresses of Time-Warner executives.
"They should call or write the members of Time Warner's board of directors and tell them that it's a disgrace for their company, which has done so many great things and which has such a distinguished history, to be engaged in this kind of thing," Dr. Bennett said. "They don't have to make money in this way. And, of course, people shouldn't buy this stuff."
Ironically, however, not buying this stuff may prove more difficult than it would appear, especially for some of those who don't want to buy it the most: conservative Christians.
In 1990, Jim Ed Norman, the president of Warner Brothers' Nashville division, entered the contemporary-Christian-music business with the creation of the Warner Alliance label. Five years later, although the label has yet to generate the sales for which other Christian companies like Sparrow, Word, and Reunion have become known, it has developed a high profile and good reputation in the CCM community, mainly by maintaining a roster of high-profile, well-regarded performers. At present, it numbers the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, Russ Taff, Steve Taylor, Steve Camp, Kim Boyce, Andrae Crouch, and Take 6 among its acts.
And according to Chris Hauser, a Warner Alliance publicist who--along with the company's president, Neal Joseph--left Word to jumpstart the label five years ago, every time Time Warner comes under fire, Warner Alliance does, too.
"People ask, 'Wait a minute! If I go into a Christian bookstore and buy an album by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, am I supporting Time Warner's bestselling acts?' The truth of it is that Time-Warner's bestselling acts are helping us support the ministry of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. There is a strong commitment from Warner Brothers Nashville, and thus Warner Brothers in Burbank and Time Warner, to continue to be involved in the Christian music industry."
Dr. Bennett does not find the argument persuasive.
"They can find their way another way," he said upon learning of Warner Alliance's place in the Time-Warner puzzle. "We're under no obligation to support things that are awful because they may, in an indirect way, support something that's good. So however much good that label does, they don't have a right to exist as a label supported by Warner. Sure, some good things are parasitic on things that are bad, but some things are so bad that good things shouldn't be parasitic on them."
When Senator Dole delivered his version of the Bennett-Tucker message in his speech to Hollywood on May 31, some pundits speculated that liberals would accuse him of opportunistically politicizing the issue in order to ingratiate himself with culturally conservative voters. To the extent that they arose, those criticisms were somewhat neutralized by the fact that President Clinton himself, eleven days earlier, had aligned himself with the anti-vulgarity line.
"I would applaud the decision that Time Warner announced this week to set standards for controversial music and to balance creative expression with corporate responsibility," the president said. "And I applaud the efforts of Bill Bennett ... to get that done. The country owes him a debt of gratitude...."
Almost unnoticed, however, amid all the piling onto the bandwagon, was the fact that Sen. Dole did not actually deliver the line that has provoked the most comment. The line "You have sold your souls, but must you debase our nation and threaten our children for the sake of corporate profits?" was in a draft of the speech that was circulated to the press, but the Republican presidential candidate eliminated it from his oral remarks.
Although Dr. Bennett believes that he and Ms. Tucker, a Time-Warner shareholder, have finally gotten the attention of the executives ("I've heard from people who are privy to the discussions that the discussions are focused, serious, and quite intense," he said), he's prepared to keep up the pressure.
"DeLores Tucker and I will stay on it. We will probably do another ad--radio, TV, or both. I will write the board members again and continue to speak about this. I have a pretty good podium, and I get around a fair amount.
"Believe me," he concluded, "the discussion is already quite intense up there [at Time Warner]. But we will stay on this case."