Rock music’s lyrics are not any cleaner than they were five years ago when the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), founded by “Washington wives” Susan Baker and Tipper Gore, focused a national spotlight on rock’s raunch at a controversial congressional hearing. In fact, a new wave of concern over songs glorifying sex, violence, racial bigotry, and other evils has surged to the beat of rap music. But questions of how to deal with the problem—whether through voluntary action or legislative mandate—find critics singing different tunes.

Earlier this spring, as many as 18 states were debating bills mandating warning stickers on offensive albums. A Missouri bill, sponsored by State Representative Jean Dixon (R-Mo.), was used as a model for bills in other states. It calls for a fluorescent-yellow warning sticker under the recording’s cellophane wrapping to alert buyers to the presence of “lyrics promoting, advocating or encouraging suicide: explicit sexual acts including but not limited to rape, sodomy, incest, bestiality, and sadomasochism; murder; morbid violence; or the use of illegal drugs.” It also requires retailers to refund the purchase price for any product not appropriately labeled; allows for civil suits against artists and record producers where death or injury results from the contribution of offensive recordings; and prohibits anyone under the age of 17 from attending concerts where they might hear violent or pornographic performances.

But the momentum toward legislation slowed in April when PMRC and the National Parent Teachers Association (PTA) were joined by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to promote standardized, voluntary labeling. In response to the agreement, lawmakers in 13 states dropped ...

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