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On the Arts: Pop-culture politics: farewell to sex, hello to arms

Sunday, October 15, 2000

By Barry Paris

Second of a two-part essay on the moral/social impact of the entertainment industry on American youth and culture.


Barry Paris is the author of several books and is a Post-Gazette film critic.


The Sept 19, 1985, Subcommittee on Communications hearing on what Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., kept calling "pone rock" was the biggest Senate media event of the decade, during which every bad teen-age thing -- sex, suicide, arson, assault -- except pimples was attributed to violent and/or obscene rock lyrics.

The hearings resulted from the efforts of Tipper Gore, wife of Sen. Albert Gore Jr., D-Tenn., and Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker, to get the recording industry to police itself on song lyrics through voluntary labeling, warning about content and making lyrics available to customers before purchase. "Voluntary labeling is not censorship," said Tipper.

Frank Zappa disagreed. He was a rock icon who never touched drugs and mocked those who did; a devoted father and family man with well-adjusted kids -- or as well-adjusted as you could be if your names were Dweezil and Moon Unit; a polyrhythmic musical genius, satirist and fanatic pioneer of free speech in and out of the music industry who never got any radio airplay for such songs as "The Illinois Enema Bandit" or "Jewish Princess" ("she has an aroma that would level Tacoma").

In his own much-covered appearance at the hearings, Zappa tangled with Sen. Paula Hawkins, R-Fla., who at one point raised the subject of age labeling on toys, thus instigating the following immortal exchange:

Hawkins: "Mr. Zappa, toy boxes may say, 'Suitable for 5 to 7 years of age, or 8 to 15' ... which gives you some guidance to toys for your child. Do you object to that?"

Zappa: "In a way I do, because that means that somebody in an office someplace is making a decision about how smart my child is."

Hawkins: "Well ... I'd be interested to see what toys your kids ever had."

Zappa: "Why would you be interested?"

Hawkins: "Just as a point of interest."

Zappa: "Well, come on over to the house and I'll show 'em to you."

In the course of his testimony, Zappa mimicked the women's Southern accents, saying a tax bill was being sneaked through Congress "while Sen. Gore's wife talks about 'bondage' and 'oral sex at gunpoint.' " A furious Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., told him his comments were "boorish, incredibly and insensibly insulting" to Mrs. Gore and Mrs. Baker, adding, "You could manage to give the Constitution of the United States a bad name, if I felt you had the slightest understanding of it, which I do not."

Zappa, neither wounded nor chastened by the rebuke, said he was writing a song for the hearing called "Beneath Contempt."

Does popular entertainment corrupt young people or not?

It takes no Einstein to see the connection between films and social behavior. The best benign example is the way Audrey Hepburn inspired millions in fashion and in UNICEF crusades. The most malign, irrefutable example is the way Jodie Foster's character in "Taxi Driver" (1976) drove John W. Hinckley Jr. to shoot Ronald Reagan -- or the plethora of "romantic" crime sprees after "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967).

Music? No more horrific proof than the motivational impact of "Helter Skelter" on Charles Manson.

Less obvious -- but real -- is the sinister influence of video games: We know for a fact that the two Columbine killers were devoted to "Diablo" -- a hideous slaughter-fest I've watched (have you?) in which lurid red explosions of blood and body parts augment each of the game's constant killings. Once you see it, you don't need an expert panel of psychologists to tell you that all the insane virtual killing paved the way -- at least subliminally -- for the real thing at Columbine.

Popular entertainment inspires lots of crazy, potentially violent people to want to do lots of crazy, violent things in America. But they have the same films, music and video games in Europe and just as many crazy, potentially violent young Europeans with presumably just as much subliminal desire to kill. But they don't. We do. Why so much less copycat violence there? Are they such morally superior people?

Not at all: They just don't have such mass saturation by and instant, ridiculously easy access to the weapons. You can't emulate the violence without the tools.

The problem is VIOLENCE, not sex. Scandinavian, Dutch and French attitudes -- sex films and shops galore -- belie the American parental terror thereof. 'Twas ever thus and will be. Parents have been lamenting the bad sex influences on their kids everywhere in the world since the Paleolithic era.

Lamenting their kids getting shot for no reason, on the other hand, is a phenomenon unique to the postwar United States of America. I'm not worried about kids coming out of movies with heightened libidos but with heightened desire to get their hands on guns -- and the ability to do it, thanks to the lethal falsehood that everybody from Charlton Heston to Richard Baumhammers has some sacred individual "right" to bear arms.

Heston's appalling performance at the recent NRA convention in Denver concluded with him holding up a rifle and uttering the battle cry, "My cold, dead hands!" -- sloganeer shorthand for the gun lobby's charming motto, "They'll take away my gun when they pry it out of my cold, dead hands."

It is not, of course, that reactionary old ham Heston whose cold, dead hands we'll pry any guns out of. It's the cold, dead hands of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris -- after they've murdered a dozen other kids first.

Our Big Two presidential contenders face the issue with steadfast hypocrisy: Gore and the Democrats criticize Hollywood moral values but take a ton of its cash -- $4.4 million from one recent dinner alone! Bush and the Republicans call for an end to film-music violence but take truckloads of NRA money and would therefore never call for an end to handguns. They would rid society of the cultural reflection rather than the source of the violence. They are like the patient who can't afford an operation and asks the doctor to touch up the X-ray.

The hapless public throws up its hands: What can we do?

I'll tell ya what we can do -- a few simple, obvious steps to address both the sex and violence problems in pop entertainment:

1) I hate to say it, but Tipper Gore was right and my beloved Zappa wrong: There is nothing wrong with voluntary labeling by the music industry. Put all the warnings you and Tipper want on 'em. It can't hurt and might help.

2) Wait till your kids go to school and just listen to their CDs, for God's sake. If the lyrics offend thee, pluck out the CD, throw it away and fight with them about it when they get home.

3) If you care deeply about movie sex (which I don't), join the movement for strict liquor-store type enforcement of the rating system by local theaters to prevent underage entry. If they don't, organize Internet-based boycotts of the violators.

4) If you care deeply about violence (which I do), make strict new gun curbs a top priority for all candidates who get your vote. Any politician who voices concern about violence in America is a phony unless he or she supports gun registration, a 30-day waiting period, elimination of the gun-show loophole and a total ban on assault weapons. Demand they pass the NOD ("Not One Dime") test: Reject any candidate who fails to support those measures and takes one dime of campaign money from the NRA.

The entertainment industry's greed-driven glorification of violence is shameful and disgusting. Films mirror and market the shameful things in every society. But only THIS society allows the violence on its movie screens to flourish on its streets by making it easier to get a gun than a pack of cigarettes.

You won't reduce child molestation by banning it in movies while allowing a chain of "Pedophiles R Us" outlets to peddle 8-year-olds in every mall, nor by voting for politicians who take big bucks from the NPA (National Pedophilia Association).

The politics of entertainment is a mere entertainment itself -- pure political burlesque. The no-nonsense bottom line of those hearings? "Shape up, or we'll consider legislation." That has the industry quakin' in its boots, all right.

Correct our morality by correcting our movies and music? Puh-lease. Entertainment reflects society, not vice versa. You'll only correct the industry by correcting the society -- a matter of money, power and politics, as always.

The only other solution is one Dorothy Parker had years ago: "The way to keep children at home is to make home a pleasant atmosphere -- and to let the air out of the tires."

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