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CAN MUSIC CORRUPT? The battle lines are drawn over whether heavy metal's raucous lyrics really endanger teens

By Amy DuncanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 10, 1989



NEW YORK

IT'S dark in the barn-like club. Kids sit quietly on the floor, while ``roadies'' set up for the next band. Suddenly four long-haired, disheveled guys in torn jeans and leather jump out on stage, grab the mikes, and start screaming unintelligible lyrics over a lightning-speed guitar buzz and a deafening drum beat. Immediately the kids jump up and start slamming into each other and lifting each other up, trying to push past the burly bodyguards who line the front of the stage.

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This scene at a popular Manhattan rock emporium might be described as a typical night on the town for a teen-age subculture - fans of heavy metal. Except that now heavy metal can no longer be regarded as a subculture; it has moved into the mainstream of pop music.

In spite of the bad publicity metal has gotten over the past couple of years - including accusations that the sexually explicit, savage, and even demonic lyrics it sometimes projects can lead to teen-age violence and suicide - bands like Def Leppard, Guns 'n' Roses, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Metallica, Poison, the Scorpions, and Cinderella were steadily in the Top 10 on the Billboard magazine charts during 1988.

In fact, heavy metal is more popular than ever, in spite of the efforts of the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC), founded by Washington wives Susan Baker and Tipper Gore, to persuade record companies of the need to put voluntary warning stickers on albums that might be offensive, and in spite of efforts last autumn in Congress to pass anti-pornography legislation, sponsored by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, which included an ``auditory pornography'' clause that would have levied stiff fines on distributors of ``pornographic'' records. This portion of the legislation died in the last Congress, and the sponsors have no immediate plans to reintroduce it in the new one.

Heavy metal isn't new, of course. It all started with Cream and Jimi Hendrix in the '60s. Then came Steppenwolf, Slade, Alice Cooper, Twisted Sister, M"otley Cr"ue, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Dokken, Anthrax, Nuclear Assault, and on and on.

Today, major record labels are turning out metal groups like batches of cookies, one band sounding and dressing exactly like the next - the so-called ``glam'' metal bands decked out in spandex tights, makeup, and long hair, playing a ``softer'' version of metal that's sometimes classified as hard rock, and the ``thrash'' or ``speed'' metal bands in funky jeans, T-shirts, and long hair, playing a faster, more intense brand.

Is heavy metal dangerous? Does it really incite teen-agers to commit crimes against themselves and others? Or is a Judas Priest or an Ozzy Osbourne really no worse than Elvis Presley shaking his hips on ``The Ed Sullivan Show?'' in the '50s?

``I think a lot of the problem that people have with metal is that it's teen-age and rebellious, and it's something they don't understand,'' said Jem Aswad of the CMJ New Music Report, an alternative-music radio trade paper published here in New York. ``Along with rap, it's the most aggressive music around today. People seem to think it incites people to do bad things. I think it's being used as a scapegoat.'' Mr. Aswad was speaking at a panel on heavy metal at the ``Music Marathon'' sponsored here in October by CMJ.

But Tipper Gore, co-founder of the PMRC, regards the music differently. In her book ``Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society,'' she remarks, ``We should be deeply concerned about the obvious cumulative effect of this cult of violence that has captured the public's imagination and pervaded our society. Few parents realize how much the angry brand of music that is part of it has presented suicide, glorified rape, and condoned murder. The message is more than repulsive - it's deadly.''

Among the several hundred people attending the metal panels at the CMJ Marathon, most were aware of the PMRC stance but considered it unrealistic. For one thing, they said, the number of bands involved in explicit violence, sex, or Satanism is tiny. Many regarded the PMRC as a censorship organization.

Jennifer Norwood, executive director of the PMRC, answered the censorship charge in a Monitor telephone interview. ``We do not wish to ban, restrict, or censor any type of rock music, including heavy metal,'' she said. ``The agreement that we made with the record industry in 1985 is not a restrictive one. It's simply informative. The agreement was that they would label albums that had lyric content referring to explicit sex, explicit violence, or explicit substance abuse. We're not trying to put a childproof cap on the recording industry.''