For some time now, popular music has been under attack i this country.
From the rash of record-labeling proposals that surfaced in state legislatures earlier this year to the recent obscenity cases against rappers 2 Live Crew, pop musicians have been taking heat on a number of fronts. In recent months, records have been banned, concerts canceled and rock groups sued, and it's a trend that shows no sign of abating.
It used to be that the worst a performer would face after a concert was a bad review, but these days, many musicians find themselves facing arrest. So far this year, Sebastian Bach, of Skid Row, was arrested in Salt Lake City and charged with "thrusting his pelvis toward the crowd"; Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee was arrested in Augusta, Ga., for mooning an audience; the band Too Much Joy was arrested in Hollywood, Fla., for performing songs by 2 Live Crew in concert; and singer David Brockie, of G.W.A.R., was arrested on obscenity charges after a performance in Charlotte, N.C.
Anti-rock pressure isn't always so overt, of course. For instance, the rap group Public Enemy was unable to play New York City this year -- not because the group had been banned, but because no insurance company would write a policy for a rap concert in the city. And without insurance, no venue in America would dare book a concert.
But the pop music community is fighting back -- and fightin hard.
It isn't an organized front, exactly. Sometimes, the counterattack comes in the form of an offhand remark, as when Sinead O'Connor used her acceptance of MTV's Video of the Year award to rail against "racism disguised as censorship" in the 2 Live Crew case.
But it could come also come in the form of a slick public service announcement, like the Rock the Vote TV spot in which Madonna makes a playful pitch for free speech and voter registration. There have also been pamphlets, like the Rock & Roll Confidential booklet "You've Got a Right to Rock," and advertisements, like Musician magazine's "Sound Off" series, in which musicians ranging from Living Colour to Little Richard speak out for the right to free expression.
Whatever its method, the right-to-rock movement reflects a growing perception on the part of pop stars that their music is none too popular with conservatives.
Why? "The real reason music's under attack is that it touches a nerve at a difficult time for this society," says Bob Guccione Jr., editor and publisher of Spin. "The country's in bad shape, and the conservatives who have been running it for 10 years know it. They also know they're to blame. And they want to distract us."
Of course, the anti-rock activists insist that their efforts are for the good of society. Jack Thompson, the Florida lawyer who made the initial complaint in the 2 Live Crew case, has insisted that his interest has on
ly been to keep sexually explicit material out of the hands of minors. But Florida record store owner Charles Freeman was convicted for selling a 2 Live Crew album to an adult, not a child.
Others have attacked the most controversial recordings -- albums such as 2 Live Crew's "As Nasty As They Wanna Be" or the Geto Boys' "The Geto Boys" -- for their lack of wit or artistic merit. But as Musician editor Bill Flanagan points out, that argument is a red herring. "There's plenty of bad art," he says, "but it's still protected [by the Constitution]. Not all art is great art. But that doesn't mean that you're allowed to burn it."
It's worth noting that not all pop performers are comfortable about siding with groups like 2 Live Crew. Kate Pierson, of the B-52's, told Rolling Stone earlier this year, "As a woman, I find 2 Live Crew to be offensive, but as an American, I feel everyone has the right to be stupid."
Because so much of the right-to-rock fight centers on constitutional issues, many musicians have taken the moral high ground in the fight. For instance, the "Rock the Vote" campaign -- sponsored by a recording industry coalition -- uses its star power to sell a real flag-waver of an idea: Go out and vote. But it uses rock and rap to sell the idea -- suggesting that if you want to keep hearing your favorite groups, you have to be sure to vote the anti-rock politicians out of office.
Some of the spots are heavy-handed, like the one in which Donny Osmond, in full Nazi regalia, insists that censorship is great "because it ensures that what I think is what you think." Others are wickedly witty, like the spot in which a lingerie-clad Madonna coyly wraps herself in a flag while rapping, "Don't give up your freedom of speech/Power to the people is in our reach."
How much impact "Rock the Vote" will have remains to be seen. Although current spots are focusing on next month's elections, much of the industry sees this as a long-term campaign. Said Geffen Records president Ed Rosenblatt to the Los Angeles Times, his label's goal "is to alter the voter makeup of the 1992 election."
And it can hardly be coincidence that Jean Dixon, the Missouri state legislator whose fax-and-phone campaign is credited with sparking this year's frenzy of record-labeling bills, was voted out of office after rock fans in her jurisdiction organized against her.
Still, the fight is far from over. Even though 2 Live Crew was acquitted of obscenity charges last Saturday in Broward County, Fla., new charges are pending in Dallas and San Antonio, Texas. Even though heavy metal band Judas Priest was absolved of responsibility in a teen-suicide suit in Reno, Nev., a similar suit was just filed against Ozzy Osbourne in Macon, Ga. And even though none of the proposed record-labeling proposals made it into law, legislators in Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Delaware have made it clear that they will reintroduce their bills if pop performers don't "clean up their act."
But the pop music community remains unbowed. "We can isolate them," says the "You've Got a Right to Rock" pamphlet in its how-to-organize chapter. "We can defeat them. We can get rock and roll out of jail."