If there ever was a quick way to test the state of rock-and-roll - other than Billboard charts and record sales - it was the New Music Seminar held in Manhattan last month. Censorship advocates wrangled with rockers, black musicians voiced the need to avoid blind conformity to the marketplace, and singer Peter Gabriel announced plans for a worldwide data base for social activists. The seminar drove home the points that ``new music'' - in this case, rock and pop - is responsive to social issues today, much in the same way that it was in the 1960s.
Over 6,000 people, including professional and amateur musicians from around the world, college radio DJs, representatives from the recording industry, agents, managers, and studio technicians, attended the seminar.
Controversy over lyrics
``Censorship: Still a Burning Issue'' sizzled and popped with a panel that included Jello Biafra of the punk group the Dead Kennedys (who will be tried this month for including a poster considered harmful to minors in his album ``Frankenchrist'') seated right next to Steve and Dan Peters of Truth About Rock Inc. - outspoken crusaders against what they believe are the dangers of rock-and-roll.
Dan Goldberg, president of Gold Mountain Records, said, ``Tipper Gore [of Parents Media Resource Center] says there's no difference between rating movies and rating song lyrics, but lyrics will be interpreted differently by different people. Even the members of PMRC disagree among themselves [about the lyrics].''
Many of the anti-censorship advocates felt that songs believed to be harmful to young people are in the minority and are often misinterpreted. ``Literalism is dangerous to artists,'' said Mr. Goldberg. Opponents, however, argued that obscenity is unacceptable, regardless of its meaning.
The Peters brothers gave a rapid-fire video presentation that included samples of lyrics by rock artists such as David Lee Roth, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, and Black Sabbath. They were met with derisive laughter and accusations that they had taken lyrics out of context. Countered Steve Peters, ``We can't use the entire lyric to a song - it would be an infringement of copyright.''
Lois Sheinfeld, a lawyer from New York University and an outspoken anti-censorship advocate, stated, ``There isn't one iota of demonstrated evidence between these tragedies [teen runaways, suicide, and drug abuse] in our society and rock-and-roll music.''
No definite conclusions were reached in the discussion, but Dan Goldberg added this final comment: ``It's hard raising kids - there is no easy answer. You don't know what's going on at a concert, at school, at a party. Anyone who says it's easy, lies, especially those who say that banning rock-and-roll is the solution.''
`Rock Against Racism'
At the panel on racism in the United States music industry, Reebee Garfolo, head of UMass/Rock Against Racism, gave a succinct history of racism, citing the ``black roots and white fruits'' that have haunted black music on both artistic and business levels.
Vernon Reid, a black guitarist and member of the New York-based Black Rock Coalition, said he feels the greatest danger lies in the music itself, because black artists, attempting to please white managers, record executives, and audiences, will tend to be ``too careful.''
``It's a form of self-censorship. The music is fundamentally dishonest, because we write music that deals with how we feel the marketplace perceives us - romance, sex, party all night long. If we deviate from this, we have less chance of being signed and promoted.''
Stan Gortikov of Capitol Records said, ``What is needed is a central industry clearinghouse to link future job openings with qualified black applicants. We don't just have a pure racist issue here.... What we have is apathy, indifference....''
One record company has done something concrete to help break down racism. A&M Records has invested more than $100,000 in a summer program of jobs for minority high school students called Yes to Jobs. ``We don't see ourselves as knights in shining armor, but it's a start,'' said Mike Leon, senior vice-president.
Link to social rights groups
Mr. Gabriel was on hand at the ``Music for Peace'' panel to talk about his video ``Hurricane Irene,'' a documentary about the Japan Aid concert that took place last December in Tokyo. The concert raised money for a data base in Costa Rica that would link up various backers of various social causes around the world - human rights, environmental, hunger, political - allowing for better communication among them.
``Our belief is that power today is much more connected with information than it ever has been before,'' he said.
``Rock music is the first universal language that young people feel is their own. And with this music goes a responsibility. To have it and not do something to improve the world would be a terrible thing.''