Sex, guns and Johnny Cash

Sunday, May 6, 2001

Johnny Cash “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”

Or so he sings on “Murder,” his recent compilation of songs about shootings, hangings, suicides and infidelity.

I bought the album last week just as the Federal Trade Commission issued a new report criticizing the music industry for failing to curb marketing of “adult” CDs to children. On the heels of that report came the introduction of the Media Marketing Accountability Act of 2001, a new bill sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, Herb Kohl and Hillary Clinton.

Over the past year, Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have hammered the movie, music and video-game industries, contending that they aggressively target children in the sale of entertainment with violent and sexual content. And for all their collective protestations that they have no desire to infringe on the First Amendment, it didn’t take long for the Senate to develop a mechanism by which it can punish companies for not following “voluntary” guidelines.

The new act would give the Federal Trade Commission the authority to fine entertainment companies up to $11,000 per day if they label products as suitable for adults and then market those products to minors.

It’s the kind of bill that will appeal to harried parents who don’t always have the time to monitor what their kids are seeing and hearing. There’s little question that entertainment media have grown both more violent and more sexual over the past decade.

But a problem stated is not a problem solved. While there may be legitimate concerns about the content of popular culture — although there’s no scientific evidence proving that cultural content drives anti-social behavior, despite the FTC’s assertions — this bill stands on constitutional quicksand.

The details:

  • Lieberman and the FTC are inventing a new meaning for “deceptive” advertising. They contend that a record company is engaged in deceptive behavior when it places an ad for a CD with a parental advisory label in a medium that attracts an audience “of which a substantial proportion is minors.” In other words, when a label buys an ad for a labeled rap CD on MTV in the hours following school, it is allegedly committing fraud.

That’s a huge leap. MTV is the world’s most popular music channel, and it draws a significant adult audience. The ad would be “deceptive” if it claimed the CD was just the thing for middle-school dances. Advertising a product in a magazine or on a cable channel that also draws younger people isn’t deceptive.

  • The bill takes voluntary, good-faith labeling and turns it into a weapon. The bill defines “adult material” as CDs, movies and video games that are already labeled by their respective industries. Any company that opts out and decides not to warn parents with a sticker can’t be prosecuted under this law.

Entertainment-industry leaders have warned that they could end up eliminating labels as a way to protect themselves from this legislation. The reality, though, is that unlabeled CDs and videos will face a tougher route to retail stores.

On the off-chance that entertainment companies do scale back their labeling, Congress has a back-up plan. Sen. Clinton warns that Congress will consider government-mandated ratings. “I think you’d see a reaction on the part of those in the new Congress to require labeling, as we require on drugs, as we require on food,” she told the Associated Press.

Which brings us back to Johnny Cash. The reason the recording industry in particular has had trouble complying with the FTC’s demands is that songs are not visual.

A video-game manufacturer knows that it has 12 bodies scattered across the pixel landscape. A movie distributor knows there are three nude scenes and six shootings in a film. What standards should the recording industry apply to decide whether content would run afoul of this new law?

And if Congress follows through on the threat to impose mandatory ratings, how will government decide what to prosecute? That would require a determination that a particular song or performance includes content that harms children and teens.

What’s the standard? Are there certain profane words that automatically render something harmful to children? Are they George Carlin’s seven dirty words, or do we need to expand the list, possibly using a sliding scale reflecting the age of the listener?

Would repeated references to sexual acts be the standard? If so, would the sex acts have to be explicitly detailed, or would Britney Spears’ soft suggestiveness qualify?

How many references to violence would bring FTC prosecution? How about references to drugs? There are dead people and drug addicts all over Johnny Cash’s “Murder” CD, but no warning sticker in sight. Sample lyrics: “I took a shot of cocaine, and I shot my woman down.” If Columbia Records advertises this CD on MTV’s “Total Request Live,” is that deceptive conduct?

While Sens. Lieberman, Clinton and Kohl clearly don’t have Johnny Cash in mind in their legislation, this album illustrates the difficulty of categorizing content as inappropriate for teens. If it’s not necessarily the lyrics and not necessarily the language, then what tests should record companies apply? Is Cash exempt because he’s an older country artist? Is the standard determined by the artist’s age? By the musical genre?

Efforts to create a more wholesome popular culture for our kids are well-intended. But this bill is deeply flawed and punishes those who actually make a good-faith effort to warn parents about content. It’s probably not constitutional, and it’s certainly not fair.

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Parents need to be aware of their kids’ entertainment choices. The voluntary labeling system — without congressional intervention — works well if parents use it.

And in the end, some warning labels are more direct than others.

While the Cash album contains no parental-advisory label per se, the artist did feel the need to share some words of wisdom:

“Here is my personal selection of my recordings of songs of robbers, liars and murderers. These songs are just for listening and singing. Don’t go out and do it.”

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