WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN?
(c) 1997 by Paula O'Keefe



"Small minds discuss people; average minds discuss events; great minds discuss ideas."
--bumper sticker seen in the Dirksen Bldg. parking lot.

We leave it up to you to decide which sort of minds we spent this afternoon with.


The Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management and Restructuring - which doesn't sound like the name of a group concerned with culture - met on Thursday 11/6/97 to discuss the topic "Music Violence: How Does It Affect Our Youth?" The Subcommittee was chaired by Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and featured such veteran anti-free-speech notables as Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Dr. C. DeLores Tucker (National Political Congress of Black Women, National Council of Churches, etcet.) Thanks to MTV's having posted advance notice on its webpage, six Washington area Marilyn Manson fans were in attendance to witness and report.
Having crammed the Subcommittee, the speakers, the C-SPAN crew, a ton of other media and a dozen or so interested citizens into a dignified oak-paneled and brass-trimmed hearing room, the proceedings duly commenced:

--Opening remarks by Sen. Brownback. He stressed, as several other speakers would, that this was not a legislative meeting and no bills or other official actions were being suggested; this was an informative meeting only. (Guess that "censor" tag really stings.) He sketched out the Subcommittee's basic position: that the rise in violent teen crime, pregnancy, and drug use is inextricably connected to violence in the media, especially in music. While they realize "correlation is not causation," they feel extreme lyrics do have an impact, and while most pop music is just fine, the increasing appearance of "violent, hateful, misogynistic and brutal" music is a cause for real concern. He quoted some lyrics by death-metallers Cannibal Corpse and a rap song called "Slap-A-Ho".

Panel I: Sen. Lieberman. Lieberman's premise, which he restated several times during the day, was that the channel by which culture and basic values are transmitted to kids has shifted from the traditional one - parents, teachers and clergy - to the media, and they're proving to be lousy teachers. He ran through a number of examples from "violent and perverse" TV shows like "When Animals Attack" to gory video games, Calvin Klein's junkie-chic ads, and Dennis Rodman. Instead of showing the sense of responsibility that should apparently be demanded of substitute parents, he charged, the mass media are interested only in what will sell, no matter what "extreme, awful, disgusting stuff" it may be.

After describing the alleged links between rap and organized crime, Lieberman got to his real point: how to put pressure on record labels. Sounding quite petulant, he said it's "unfortunate" that the record industry "refuses to acknowledge our concerns, and dismisses us as prudes and censors. That's got to stop." He was adamant that record labels must "stop hiding behind the First Amendment", accept responsibility for their violent material, and either justify or cease distributing this stuff to kids. "We must," he proclaimed, "draw some lines they won't cross just to make more money." A known Mansophobe, Lieberman then condemned Marilyn Manson and their "Antichrist Superstar" CD - "vile, hateful, nihilistic and damaging" - and called on Seagrams [owners of 50% of Interscope, Manson's label] to disassociate themselves from MM. --Plainly, the committee has realized that seeking legislation won't work, and has decided on a new tack - that of pressuring or shaming labels into "voluntarily" repressing extreme material.

The tone of this last comment was one that would be heard throughout the day: why does Seagrams, a decent company, tarnish its good name by association with such trash? Other speakers would make similar statements. Senator Conrad, who spoke between the first and second panels, agreed that while much of the major labels' output is "wonderful and elevating," some is "morally reprehensible, socially irresponsible and completely unacceptable," adding condescendingly that he's not sure the labels understand music's real impact on kids. His sanctimonious "We are not censors and we are not here to regulate content. We're here to discuss something that is hurting our children." was the lead-in to:

Panel II: Raymond Kuntz, parent, and Dr. Frank Palumbo, pediatrician. Kuntz told the emotional but rather vague story of his son Richard's suicide. Richard had been listening to "Antichrist Superstar", especially "The Reflecting God", over and over (so said his friends) and ACS was still in his CD player when his body was discovered. Kuntz read the entire lyrics of the song, which he termed "an unequivocally direct inducement to take one's own life." (Imagine our feelings in the Manson row, as this intense, desperate portrait of despair and hard-bought transcendence was thus ignorantly slandered.) He tearfully berated Manson, saying that "this music glorifies inhumanity, intolerance and hate; promotes suicide, contradicts all values and hurts us as a people"; worse yet, Manson's actions and interviews, he claimed, "indicate that this damage is intentional."

Handled with kid gloves by the committee, Kuntz wasn't required to say exactly how his son died (newspaper reports said gunshot), what signs of depression he might have displayed, or indeed much of anything informative. In other words, he offered no other evidence that Marilyn Manson had anything whatever to do with Richard's death. Committee and audience were clearly expected to believe that Richard Kuntz was sweetly normal until the Manson LP threw him into a suicidal tailspin. Claiming - on no stated evidence - that Manson's music is responsible for a steady count of suicides, Dad Kuntz commented, "the predatory world that Brian Warner markets is one no sane person would want to live in." He finished by condemning the irresponsibility of the major labels - "decisions driven by greed can kill" - and calling for the RIAA "Explicit Lyrics" sticker to be made mandatory.

Asked to comment on the argument that parents should take responsibility for what their kids listen to, Kuntz of course denied it, saying that children are everyone's responsibility and the pressure of the culture is too much for parents to handle alone. Sen. Lieberman agreed, decrying a state of affairs in which "vile material like this gets produced and mass-marketed" and allows even nice kids in Burlington, North Dakota to "tap into the lowest, most degrading elements of our culture."

Lieberman asked further questions which only served to raise more confusion. Asked, for instance, if he had known what was on the Manson CD, Mr. Kuntz said Richard had actually shown it to him, and that he had "blown up", telling his son he didn't want this in his home. How then was it still around for Richard to obsess over? Kuntz testified that no one realized Richard was dead until his mother discovered his body in his room the next morning; if indeed his death was by bullet, how was it that no one heard the shot? Kuntz was similarly unclear about his son's actual opinion of Manson and the content of the term paper on Manson which Richard was writing at the time of his death, though that would have been illuminating.

(This last exchange between Lieberman and Kuntz produced one of the day's best soundbites:
"I failed my son," quavered Mr. Kuntz, "by not realizing that what he was holding [the ACS CD] was a hand grenade, and it was going to go off in his mind."
"You couldn't know," consoled Lieberman solemnly. "It didn't look like a hand grenade.")

Dr. Palumbo represented the American Association of Pediatricians. His only notable comment: "I believe in censorship. I believe censorship starts in the home. That's where it should start." He stressed that music has both positive and negative effects - said that the ACS lyrics are deeply depressing and could affect any troubled person. Parents do need to be responsible but (again this point!) so do corporations. Music videos and violent music exacerbate conflicts and tensions, he said, and make extreme reactions seem reasonable.

Panel III: Hilary Rosen, President/CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The only person to speak on behalf of Manson and the rappers. She had brought witnesses but they were not allowed to speak, ostensibly for lack of time. (She also said that Nina Crowley, online free-speech crusader, hoped to attend but wasn't able - perhaps just as well.) Rosen's statement defended "artists with a difficult message" whose expression of pain and anger offers insight into the issues young people face. She countered the committee's claims of irresponsibility by citing Ice Cube and Queen Latifah's sponsorship of social concerns, label-sponsored charities, and rock artists' anti-drug ads, along with the now-familiar "Parental Advisory - Explicit Lyrics" stickers. Some material certainly is too strong for youngsters, she agreed, but the sticker system is there to take care of that. Countering as well the committee's call for self-censorship by the industry, she condemned any plan "to grant freedom of speech but deny the means of bring heard" as dangerous and hypocritical. Rosen added that, though she disliked disagreeing with the bereaved Mr. Kuntz, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry lists 14 signs to look for in a suicidal child and music choices are not among those signs.

Rosen, without support of her witnesses, was then interrogated by Sen. Brownback.
She explained that labels apply three standards when deciding what to release: (1) does it have a musical sensibility? (2) is the artist credible and genuine? (3) is the work different? If these apply, but the lyrical content is extreme, the record gets an Explicit sticker which she said keeps kids under 17 from buying it (though others testified otherwise). Brownback asked whether they screen for misogyny, violence, etc., but she asserted that credibility and unique vision are the major points, and that the whole work - as artistic statement, as satire, as theater - is considered, not individual lyrics. "What was the label thinking when it released these lyrics? Hateful comments toward women, inducements to suicide?" demanded Brownback, determined to make her defend the Manson CD point by alleged point. When Rosen refused to be dragged into such debate, he read "Irresponsible Hate Anthem" himself and asked sarcastically, "I guess you'd say that has a musical sensibility?" Rosen stood her ground, saying artistic creativity is a matter of taste, and citing Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" ("shot a man in Reno just to watch him die") and Shakespeare as examples of worthwhile material with violent content.

Brownback then switched tacks and demanded Rosen explain just how the RIAA knows that the sticker system works. Bizarrely, he seemed to believe not only that there's some national database listing exactly how many people of what ages have bought "Antichrist Superstar" (has he ever been asked his age when he bought a record?) but that Rosen, "as a responsible citizen", ought to be concerned with those figures. Apparently he thought she'd never heard Marilyn Manson before and should have been shocked into an understanding of her own criminal compliance by his recital of the IHA lyrics. Rosen, by now exasperated and defensive, could only reiterate that most music is bought by people over 18 and the sticker is there to protect younger listeners. (Note: The RIAA does support stores which refuse to sell stickered records to kids under 17 without parental permission, and suggests that parents return purchased records to the store if they're found to be offensive. According to Rock Out Censorship, over half the country's record stores do request ID from kids who attempt to buy stickered product. Wal-Mart and K-Mart stores will not even stock material carrying the "Parental Advisory" sticker, as Lieberman approvingly noted.)

Sen. Lieberman then stepped in for a barbed exchange, expressing great disappointment that Rosen "didn't admit how terrible this is" or suggest amending sales policy. (It's hard to adequately convey the smarmy condescension which with he addressed her; he had clearly hoped for nothing less than a display of shamed contrition and a vow to affect reforms at once.) "You have to acknowledge," he admonished her, "that music has consequences." Rosen countered that if music really had that much influence society would be in better shape, citing the many anti-drug songs, love songs, and other positive material. Well, TV ratings have been improved; perhaps the RIAA would consider a more detailed label? Music is too subjective to rate this way, replied Rosen, and in any event she'd seen no demand for that. "We're asking for it," retorted Lieberman, expressing further disappointment that she'd shown no change of opinion. "I'm sorry to have disappointed you. Senator," gritted Rosen, who was then finally allowed off the stand.

Lieberman's most astonishing soundbite of the day: Citing cases of pornography and the classic "yelling fire in a crowded theater," he made the jarring statement that "the First Amendment has never been absolute."

Finally, Panel IV: --Dr. C. DeLores Tucker (presumably an honorary doctorate) and Dr. Donald F. Roberts. Tucker was the only speaker to concentrate on rap and the damage it does black teens by glamorizing the gangsta lifestyle. Young rappers, she says, are being deluded and exploited by cynical corporations, which spend millions to promote a violent, drug-abusing lifestyle. (Remember rap? this was supposed to be a discussion of Marilyn Manson AND rap...) Hers was the day's most outrageous opinion: that corporations which refuse to be "socially responsible" should be denied their commercial licenses to operate. (She actually said "should not be allowed to exist" and later confirmed that statement under direct questioning from me.) She brought a bunch of visual aids she wasn't permitted to use, as time was running out, but one was the now-famous blowup of the ACS back cover photo which she and Lieberman had previously used in their December 1995 anti-Interscope press conference. (Which incidentally made it clear she isn't sure what a dildo is. ) --She did present a black teenager, Chad Sisk, who testified that he (though under 17) had no trouble buying stickered records, and that he had been distressed by the behavior of Manson fans who came into his Philadelphia neighborhood to see them play at the Electric Factory. (He claimed to have seen them break a car window -oh, like he's never seen that done before - but their makeup and the sight of boys in skirts bothered him even more. Tsk.)

And just to wrap up the day with a dash more acrimony, there's the matter of the near-fistfight between Columbia University professor Michael Eric Dyson and Tucker's husband outside the hall after the hearing. Prof. Dyson is one of the experts who had come to speak on Rosen's side and been turned away; he's also a Baptist minister and the author of "Between God and Gangsta Rap." He held an impromptu press conference outside the chamber to charge that demagogues such as Tucker continue to focus on minor issues and ignore the real factors causing black urban violence. It's a shame Dyson wasn't allowed to speak, as even in this makeshift setting he was eloquent, literate, and plainly familiar with rap culture. Tucker, he noted in passing, has filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the estate of the late Tupac Shakur, charging that a lyric of his slandered her and damaged her sexual relationship with her husband. Dyson called this "mean-spirited" - a not unreasonable statement - but an irate William Tucker stormed toward him, yelling that Tucker had never said anything against Dyson. Though loudly asserting his willingness to die in his wife's defense, he was pulled away by companions, shouting back at the be-spectacled Dyson that "you'd better bring two pairs of glasses" if they met again. Dyson was last heard saying in a puzzled tone to the assembled TV reporters, "I only called her 'mean-spirited'..."

Even if this latest offensive by Lieberman and friends meets the same ineffectual end as previous efforts (i.e., the PMRC and the Senator's numerous public tirades), it's chilling to realize that they hold these opinions and do believe thatthis much freedom should be sacrificed to give parents a false sense of security. They say the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. These people will indeed need to be watched.

--return to Fun w/Joe & DeLores.

--return to Angelynx Archive.