I came of age during Tipper Gore‘s rabid crusade to clean up the music industry for kids by putting warning labels on records, a mission which deeply offended my hair band-loving, pre-adolescent soul. For many people, this was a non-issue (Wikipedia devotes a single paragraph to the debate in its entry on Tipper), but to me it was significant. Significant enough that when Tipper was one of the candidates listed as a potential commencement speaker as I approached college graduation years later, I was still vehemently opposed. (We ended up with Elizabeth Dole, instead, so obviously my opposition won the battle but not the war.)
I am thinking about this today because tonight when I plugged my phone into my car stereo and cranked the tunes the way I often do, something happened that has never happened before. As I was singing along to Rehab’s Bartender Song (a song I love not because of its musical genius, but because it amuses me with its deft and sensitive portrayal of so many of the issues I wrestle with every day at work as a prosecutor), I became aware of a small voice piping up from the back seat, singing tunelessly and on a slight delay, “crashed… sh*t…yay!”
In that instant, I regretted the fact that for years, every single time I have had the choice between explicit and “clean” versions when downloading music, I have always opted for the dirty original. Now I will have a foul-mouthed toddler to show for it.
Luckily, I was driving, or I might have purged half of my digital music library right then and there. By the time I got home, I’d had some time to think about the issue, and to dial back the panic. I’d never given it all that much thought before, but Tipper’s parental notification crusade was just one of several dust-ups I had in my youth with those who would censor young people’s access to art in the interests of protecting impressionable minds.
In middle school, I got in big trouble not once but twice for sharing objectionable material with another student (and I was not a kid who often got in trouble, so I remember both incidents vividly). The first occurred in 1987, when Squeaky Fromme escaped from federal prison in an attempt to reunite with Charles Manson. We talked about her escape in school, where part of each day’s social studies class was devoted to discussion of current events. For reasons I don’t recall, I was fascinated by the story, so when I found my parent’s copy of Helter Skelter on our bookshelf a few days later, I read it cover-to-cover that very night. I was so impressed with it, I passed the book on to my then-best friend. Her mother did not share my enthusiasm, and did not believe this was appropriate reading material for her darling girl. This mom called the principal, and what followed was a surreal blur of visits to the office, teachers and librarians muttering darkly about book burning, and angry parents screaming at each other at PTA meetings. All of a sudden, I was living a scene boosted straight out of the original Footloose, I’m not kidding.
The second incident occurred two years later, when my first boyfriend loaned me a bootlegged copy of NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. (Trust me, this was very avant garde in rural Vermont in 1989.) I don’t know that I actually liked it, but it was like nothing I’d ever heard before, so I loaned it to this same friend with the hyper-sensitive mama. Again, Mama did not share my enthusiasm. (It’s not that I’m a slow learner. My K-8 graduating class had only 21 students. My best friend was my best friend, through thick and thin. She couldn’t help her mama, who was actually a very nice lady when she wasn’t freaking out over what her kids were reading and listening to.) Anyway, cue Footloose pandemonium, part II.
I remember thinking, during the firestorm that followed both incidents, that the adults who were most upset about stamping out obscenity seemed a little off balance and more than a little ridiculous. Even at the time, decades away from becoming a parent myself, I sensed that this was an ineffective use of parental zeal. There will always be precocious kids like the one I was, who will expose their friends to books and music of which I, in my new role as protective mama, may not approve. I could spend my energies telling my kids what they can read and listen to and kicking up a fuss at parent conferences about which books should and should not be on the library shelves, but what a waste! Kids will do what they will, and I can’t be everywhere and know everything. (Though you’d better believe I’ll do my level best!)
Instead, I prefer to devote my efforts to teaching my kids how to put their own critical thinking skills to best use, to make open-minded, informed, independent judgments about the books they read and the music they hear. Yes, I will need to find a way to teach Hank that there is a time and a place to sing profane hip hop lyrics at the top of one’s lungs (the backseat of Mumma’s car), and a time and a place to refrain (church, say). But if I do my job well and nurture his natural curiosity and intelligence, he will be able to decide for himself what interests him.He’ll be able to quickly move beyond his initial, normal, predictable titillation with the naughty bits, and to decide whether the things he encounters have intellectual value beyond the mere lure of the forbidden. If I do my job well, he’ll respect the First Amendment as much as I do, and he won’t want Tipper Gore* at his graduation, either.
*Caveat: Let me add, in defense of Tipper, that she is on record as also supporting the First Amendment, and it’s not that I am opposed to the idea of warning parents that music might contain profane or violent or sexually explicit lyrics. I’m all for informed parenting! However, I object to the fact that we all know most parents use those labels to censor their kids’ exposure to the music which bears those labels, when it would be better (in my opinion) for parents to preview the album and have a frank discussion with their kids about whatever specific concerns come up, rather than forbidding the music outright.