Thanks to a uniform labeling system, you know what you’re getting into when you unwrap a candy bar, stick of gum or even the legendarily mysterious Twinkie. A CD bearing a parental advisory label, however, gives no description of what potentially offensive offerings lie within.
That was the main concern of Senators Fred Thompson (R-Tennessee) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut), among others, at Wednesday’s Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on the effectiveness of rating systems used by the entertainment industry. Though album stickers warn of “explicit content,” they don’t explain exactly what kind of content – violent, sexual or otherwise – that parents may not want their children hearing.
Titled “Rating Entertainment Ratings: How Well Are They Working for Parents and What Can Be Done to Improve Them,” the discussion was hosted by Lieberman, the committee’s chairman and a longtime proponent of restricting violent, profane or sexually explicit material from children.
Recording Industry Association of America President Hilary Rosen refuted the idea of detailed labels, claiming that lyrics – like books, which aren’t labeled – are open to interpretation. She cited as examples Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling,” which is about his music, as well as the commonly used phrase “blown away,” which could mean either being impressed or being shot and killed.
She also recalled a story from the 1985 congressional music hearings inspired by the Parents Music Resource Center. While proponents of labeling assumed Twisted Sister’s “Under the Blade” was violent, the band’s singer and principal songwriter, Dee Snider, explained that the tune was actually about pre-operation anxiety.
Rosen’s sentiments were echoed by William Baldwin, actor and president of lobbying group the Creative Coalition. Baldwin referred to the Wilson Phillips song “Hold On,” co-written by his wife, Chynna Phillips. Though Phillips received feedback from fans who thought the song – which features a chorus of “hold on for one more day” – was about overcoming suicidal inclinations, it was actually about staying sober.
Instead of detailed labels, Rosen announced the RIAA’s plans for a three-tiered campaign to help parents understand the existing labeling system. Public service announcements featuring Quincy Jones explaining the parental advisory program will be sent to television and radio stations nationwide. A brochure about the program will be mailed to parent-teacher organizations, school principals, coaches, music teachers, guidance counselors and other youth caregivers.
Plans are also in place to update all parental advisory label countertop displays and store posters with the Web address parentalguide.org, a resource for parents to learn about the RIAA’s program as well as ratings systems used by the television, motion picture and video game industries.
Brochures are already on their way to PTAs, and the program will launch in full over the next several weeks to coincide with the back-to-school season, according to an RIAA spokesperson. The PSA and brochures can be seen at the organization’s Web site.
At present, the entertainment industry is responsible for policing itself, which is akin to “the fox watching the hen house,” Laura Smit, a mother of two, testified. Smit and likeminded politicians want an independent group consisting of child-development experts to establish an across-the-board ratings system to preside over all the entertainment industries. However, Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, claimed anyone other than the industries themselves dictating ratings would be unconstitutional.
Rosen began her testimony by reading a letter from hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who claimed labeling has racial overtones, since hip-hop records constitute the majority of labeled CDs.
Though he wasn’t a scheduled witness, Simmons later spoke for himself midway through the hearing. He explained how the hip-hop community was already taking steps toward being more responsible, referring to last month’s hip-hop summit, and he announced plans for similar conferences to be held in August and September in Los Angeles and Miami, respectively. Simmons also pointed out that while some rap songs might be considered offensive by one group of people, they are reflections of reality to another.