Slim Shady revisited: Will the real FCC please stand up?

Sunday, January 27, 2002

“Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?”

This line is from rapper Eminem’s most popular song, but it’s also a capsule description of a baffling series of decisions by the Federal Communications Commission that left radio programmers unsure about what they could play without endangering their licenses.

“The Real Slim Shady” is laced with expletives and sexual references. This led the FCC in January 2001 to fine radio station WZEE in Madison, Wis., $7,000 for playing the song at a time when children could be listening.

No surprise there. FCC rules provide that stations may not broadcast indecent material from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. While it’s difficult to define “indecency,” the FCC has characterized it as language that “depicts or describes sexual organs or activities and is patently offensive.” The FCC restrictions don’t apply after 10 p.m., when virtually anything goes.

Radio stations that wanted to play this popular song had little choice but to play edited versions. By bleeping out offensive words and phrases, stations could play the single without incurring the wrath of the FCC. Or so they thought.

In a surprise move last June, the FCC issued a notice asserting that KKMG of Pueblo, Colo., had violated the indecency rules by playing an edited version of the song. It also set a fine of $7,000 — the same fine WZEE paid for playing the profanity-laden original.

By any measure, it was a bizarre decision. As they stand, the FCC’s indecency guidelines essentially work. We don’t have sexually explicit radio content during daylight hours, and radio stations have incentives to review provocative lyrics and police their own content.

Why then would the FCC tamper with a successful policy? Thirty years ago, the agency flexed its enforcement muscles and told radio stations they had a duty to read between the lines of popular rock songs to see if the records encouraged drug use.

That was no easy task. Was “White Rabbit” about illegal drugs or Alice in Wonderland? Was “Eight Miles High” about a drug trip or an airplane trip? And what about “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver? With that history, why would the FCC want to go into the business of reading between the bleeps?

I had a chance to ask FCC Chairman Michael Powell about the odd FCC decision when he visited Vanderbilt Law School last November. Powell was clearly uncomfortable with the action of the FCC enforcement staff and pointed out his own appreciation of rap music. He didn’t tip his hand but did suggest that the FCC might take a second look at “Slim Shady.”

And now it has. In a remarkable reversal, the FCC Enforcement Bureau has issued a new opinion concluding that the edited version did not, in fact, violate the indecency rules.

In making this U-turn, the commission concluded that the edited song wasn’t particularly explicit, didn’t dwell on sexual activities and didn’t appear to titillate or shock.

This time the FCC got it right. While the edited song still has lyrics like “My bum is on your lips and if I’m lucky you just might give it a little kiss,” the government would be taking on a thankless and unachievable task if it tried to contain every crude remark on television or radio.

When the federal government yields to a temptation to monitor and regulate popular music, the results are often a waste of taxpayer’s dollars and a lesson in futility. In Dave Marsh’s fascinating book on the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie,” he detailed the FBI’s “30-month investigation that led to ‘Louie’s’ undying — indeed unkillable — reputation as a dirty song.”

In truth, there’s no sex in this rock classic. “Louie, Louie” is actually about a sailor who misses his girl. As Marsh noted, “That poor half-in-the-bag Jamaican sailor can’t even get into the same country as his girl.” In the end, the FBI concluded that the lyrics were indecipherable and closed the investigation.

The Eminem flap is just another reminder that members of every generation will make their own kind of music, some of which will startle their parents. The same regulators who are tempted to censor today’s popular music once listened to Alice Cooper, Twisted Sister and 2 Live Crew.

The FCC’s reversal is a reminder not to tamper with rules that work.

Tags: , , , ,