Love Songs - The Lost Chord?

WHEN I was in 9th grade, the big news around the cafeteria table one lunch hour was that a favorite radio station in Chicago, 90 miles to the east, had just banned a popular song called ``Party Doll.'' Singer Buddy Knox apparently made station managers nervous when he crooned, ``Every man's got to have a party doll to be with him when he's feeling wild.'' By today's standards those lyrics seem tame, almost innocent. Even then, stations in our own city continued to play the song, and we went on dancing to it at parties, interspersing it with the more conventional and romantic tunes that made up the late-1950s ``Hit Parade'' - songs by Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Tab Hunter, Tommy Sands, and The Platters, among others.

I have been thinking about that ban in particular - and changing tastes in teenage music in general - ever since a Florida judge banned the sale of an album by 2 Live Crew last month on grounds that the lyrics are obscene. Just to keep my musings from becoming too theoretical, I've even dusted off a collection of 45 rpm records dating back to my own adolescence.

No parent who has ever endured the hard-edged beat of late-20th-century rock music booming from a teenager's room needs to be told that more than the decibel level has changed over the years. But reading the labels on my golden oldies serves as a startling reminder of a gentler era - a time when love, tenderness, and romance were staples of teenage lyrics. Titles such as ``My Love Song,'' ``I Love My Girl,'' ``Loving You,'' ``Love Letters in the Sand,'' ``Young Love,'' ``Cherie, I Love You,'' and ``Love Me to Pieces'' are common in my collection.

Not all the messages are awash in sentimentally dippy happiness, of course - nor did my generation wish them to be. Unrequited love, broken hearts, and empty arms have always given lyricists plenty of material. But behind all the poses and all the banalities, there was a hunger for love rather than lust.

Not that those earlier romantic relationships were necessarily egalitarian. Feminists today would probably object to the male possessiveness implied in late-'50s titles such as ``There Goes My Baby,'' ``My Baby Just Cares for Me,'' and ``My Baby's Gone.'' But which is worse, a four-letter word beginning with B - baby - or the five-letter ``B'' word that is the epithet of choice of 2 Live Crew and other rap groups?

If today's lyrics are egalitarian, there is an irony to the new equality. This summer, during Madonna's national tour, music critics and young career women alike have been busy tapping out newspaper articles praising Madonna for her ``aggressiveness.'' They also cite her new song ``Hanky Panky'' (in which she sings that there ``Ain't nothin' like a good spanking!'') as evidence of her ``healthy sexuality.''

To each her own taste. But during a decade when national rape rates have risen nearly four times as fast as the total crime rate, according to the FBI, degrading images of women as sexual objects in music can hardly help.

Perhaps no direct causal connection can be proven, but the influence of popular culture on experience cannot be denied. A moral climate is established. A study released last week by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health shows that half of rape victims are girls under 18 who have been attacked by an acquaintance, a friend, or a relative.

Last week the Louisiana House passed a bill that would require record covers to carry labels warning of explicit lyrics that encourage or advocate sex, violence, or substance abuse. choSelling labeled albums to minors could bring fines up to $1,000.end cho But even if the bans prove to be effective, they do not solve a fundamental problem - how to change attitudes, in particular the attitudes that accept as normal violence against women.

``I want to hold your hand,'' the Beatles sang more than a quarter of a century ago. What does it say for Madonna and 2 Live Crew - and the '90s - that hands are no longer for clasping but for whacking?

Every age is entitled to its own music. But in the words of another of my generation's songs, I can't help requesting, ``Try a Little Tenderness.'' For a lot more than music is at stake.

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