In 1968, Johnny Cash's Live At San Quentin cut "A Boy Named Sue" became the first song in Top 40 history to have a cuss word (bitch) bleeped out on the air. Fair enough--while bad words go over big with shackled audiences, no one expected the Man in Black to turn AM airwaves blue. But who'd have thought that A Boy Named Goo would suffer even worse censorship woes just for spilling blackberry juice all over himself?
Last month, that recent platinum album by the Goo Goo Dolls was pulled off all Wal-Mart store shelves for its "offensive cover." A Wal-Mart spokesperson told USA Today that the retailer dumped the record because some customers complained "the baby was covered with blood, symbolizing child abuse."
Didn't those chuckleheads read the album title? What are we, a nation of sheltered veal? A bunch of wankers that needs an escort to take a piss? If you don't believe we're backslidin' into Victorian times, think again. Imagine Herb Alpert's infamous 1965 album Whipped Cream and Other Delights coming out in such a climate. What would that album cover's seminude, semicreamed model be accused of advocating--cannibalism?
Maybe if Time Warner had stood up to censorship advocates like Empower America the first time around, another Warner Bros. album wouldn't be in hot water now. In the face of a threatened boycott over Dog Food, the controversial album by Tha Dogg Pound, that giant entertainment conglomerate buckled. It stopped distributing Interscope Records, giving the watch-Dogg yahoos a sense of accomplishment. And thanks to the ensuing publicity, Tha Dogg Pound had no problem finding another distributor.
When I first glanced through the Entertainment Monitor, a magazine fresh outta Beverly Hills that aims to spell out the pertinent information kids are absorbing from Top 40 music, I believed its publisher Charlie Gilreath to be only the latest in a long line of nervous Nellies. But in conversation, he doesn't come off much like an alarmist Reverend Donald Wildmon entertainment vigilante type, out to exorcise the world of White Zombie.
"The truth is that I listen to a lot of the records that would not be suitable for kids--Alice in Chains, Goldfinger, Marilyn Manson. Marilyn Manson is pretty over-the-top for a teen or preteen. That's my opinion, but my opinion doesn't appear in the magazine. It doesn't need to. The bottom line is if we write in Entertainment Monitor that Marilyn Manson goes onstage with dildos and engages in sex--it's fact. You don't need to editorialize any further."
Gilreath, a 35-year-old stepfather of two children ages 6 and 12, came into parenthood rather suddenly, so perhaps he's less a bundle of nerves around new music than many parents of the "loin of my loins" variety might be. Still, he was a bit unnerved to hear his own daughter mouthing that infamous "is she perverted like me" line.
"My 12-year-old is a fantastic kid, but when I come home and she's singing 'You Oughta Know' and that Gillette song that goes 'You gotta lick it before you kick it,' you get a little sensitive and say maybe this isn't the record I want to buy for them.
"There's a whole other world out there that you and I never knew existed," he continues. "I get calls across the nation from parents who are freaked that their child has run off with the Marilyn Manson band and carved the group's name across her chest. True story."
Last year, Gilreath launched the Music Monitor to help inform parents on the content of their kids' music. The latest version of the bimonthly has expanded coverage that includes other entertainment forms, but music is still Entertainment Monitor's main focus. Compare the 70 pages it regularly devotes to music reviews to the five dedicated to the Internet, and four each for movies and television.
"The impression people get when they view the magazine initially is that it gives parents this information so that they may avoid certain records and films," he says. "I don't believe parents avoid them because of the information. I think they just want to buy it with both eyes open."
If you'll recall, it was a both-eyes-closed Tipper Gore, co-founder of the Parents Music Resource Center, who bought her kid a copy of Prince's Purple Rain album and tried punishing the whole music industry for her own ignorance.
A criticism Gilreath often hears is that his magazine's method of running reviews with symbols underneath, denoting either sexual content (S), violence (V), "potentially offensive language" (L), "potentially offensive slang" (SL) and drugs (D) smacks of the record rating system PMRC once advocated. Yet even though PMRC is a strong supporter of the Monitor, Gilreath disavows any connection with that organization's record-rating intentions.
"I think ratings and warning stickers are a waste of time. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) has proven they're ineffectual. A rating puts in perspective one record or work in relation to another. Ratings also imply a scale of judgment, better or worse, good or bad. We're merely identifying content. We joke that if we had the Bible in the magazine we'd give it an 'S' and a 'V.' That doesn't rate it, it clarifies the content.
"I think any art without the human qualities of sex and violence is probably pretty boring. You have to look at the great works of art and ask 'What role did sex and violence play in the creation of Venus de Milo or The Iliad and The Odyssey?'"
Like most parental guidance, however, the Monitor is far from infallible. Like a pack-a-day dad yelling at his 10-year-old for sneaking a smoke in the garage, the Monitor is guilty of its own double standard about double-entendres. Particularly glaring is its preferential treatment of country artists' nasty habits. Alcohol gets a "D" for drug whenever AC/DC sings about it, but songs like Travis Tritt's "The Whiskey Isn't Working" are rated drug-free. What do you think ol' Travis is using the Jack Daniel's for--snakebite medicine?
"That's a mistake," responds Gilreath. "Anytime cigarettes or alcohol are being used in a song, we have to identify it across the board. Occasionally, things slip through. I've had this conversation with the guy who does the country reviews a number of times. Country people have a problem with alcohol, but they don't want to be considered in the same class as drug users from rock and other genres. It's not fair, I agree."
Sexually explicit and misogynist content in country music is overlooked as well. There's "nothing seemingly offensive" about Shania Twain's "God Isn't Gonna Get You for That," a song which depicts honky-tonk Twain picking up some cowpoke stud at a bar for a little hanky-panky.
And while the Monitor's writers comment that both Edwyn Collins and Michael Jackson's repeated use of the word girl "may be offensive to women," no similar case is made for country star Tim McGraw, who takes a girl home and tells mama how the happy couple like to do it behind the barn. That's offensive to women and mothers, but McGraw gets off scot-free.
"I'm glad you're bringing these examples up," says Gilreath. "We're going to have a talk about that at this morning's [editorial] meeting. The magazine is not a practical science."
Unfortunately, Gilreath can't send his writers to bed without supper every time they make a bad call. They even missed that line about "lines on the mirror" in the Eagles' "Life in the Fast Lane" from Hell Freezes Over.
"Well, we avoid trying to explain the metaphors. The FBI spent five years trying to decipher the lyrics to 'Louie Louie' and determined they were indecipherable. We want to stay away from interpretations and focus on stating the obvious."
And stating the obvious is what the Entertainment Monitor does best. Each Monitor includes Pop Talk, an enlightening glossary of slang terms at the back of each issue.
Here's Pop Talk straight from the Monitor's mouth:
Alanis Morissette: ambiguous phrases like "my brothers never went blind for what they did" (could refer to masturbation).
Smashing Pumpkins: "Mary's got some deep shit and Mary doesn't forget" (suggests that Mary has a troubled past).
Tha Dogg Pound: "The whole nine and a half inch" (penis size).
Red Hot Chili Peppers: "F*ck you asshole/you homophobic redneck d*ck/You're big and tough and macho/you can kick my ass/so f*cking what" (someone who is homophobic and possibly hates homosexuals irrationally).
The Click: "sticking dick in her dome" (having sex).
TLC: "taking the Southern route" (oral sex).
AC/DC: "bust your balls" (to work hard or have some damage done to you).
Green Day: "Pleasure f*cker" (the meaning is unclear, but could refer to some one who is hedonistic).
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Charlie, you're killin' me. "Her hot potatoes (could mean a woman's breasts)"? "Asshole (someone who is inconsiderate)"? What incisive logic is at work here?
"Well, I think it makes a great dry read for morning-drive radio." Gilreath titters with some glint of pride. "Stations have written and told us they've gotten great response reading the Entertainment Monitor on the air."
Heads up, Charlie--they're not laughing with you.