WHAT started out as a seemingly simple and innocent process of putting voluntary warning stickers on explicit record albums to inform parents and protect children has burgeoned into an ugly battle - with accusations of censorship, stifling of artistic freedom, and racism. When the rap group 2 Live Crew was arrested in Florida in June for performing sexually explicit material from its album ``Nasty as They Wanna Be'' - which had been ruled obscene by a federal judge - cries went up not only of censorship, but of racism.
It's true that the issues have recently focused mostly on rap - a music that grew out of urban black culture - but the controversy has not been confined to that genre. Currently the all-white heavy metal band Judas Priest is on trial in Reno., Nev., facing a law suit brought by the parents of two youths who were allegedly coerced into committing suicide by listening to a Judas Priest tape.
So what does a parent do about a 2 Live Crew album, an album by Andrew Dice Clay (a foul-mouthed stand-up comic), or a heavy metal album that he or she feels might be harmful to children?
Opinions vary widely, but many suggest frank dialogue between parent and child, rather than rash prohibition which some evidence suggests tends to increase curiosity. As a matter of fact, the 2 Live Crew album ``Nasty as They Wanna Be,'' released in 1989, did poorly in sales at first. Now it has sold in excess of 2 million copies.
``The album was dead before the whole controversy came up and shot new life into it,'' said V.O. Kyser, manager of Tower Records in Manhattan.
Urged on by groups like the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in Washington, some record companies in 1985 instituted voluntary warning stickers. More recently, most of the major companies agreed to use a standardized label, partly to avoid proposed legislation in several states that would make stickering mandatory.
Nevertheless, the state of Louisiana managed to push such a law through the legislature. Though subsequently vetoed on July 24, the bill would have required warning labels on recordings that promote deviant sex, violence, drug abuse, suicide, or child abuse. Anyone selling such albums to a minor would have been subject to jail terms and fines up to $5,000.
The artistic community reacted to the veto with both sighs of relief and renewed concern. At the New Music Seminar in July, during a panel on censorship, Los Angeles rapper Ice-T, who has included some sexually explicit materials on his albums, said, ``Let's put it this way ... once they get 2 Live Crew and Judas Priest, [do you think] they're gonna stop? They're coming for you next.''
Ice-T and fellow musician Vernon Reid of the rock group Living Colour both felt that the motives behind the proposed legislation and the original stickering policy instituted by PMRC were an attempt at flat-out censorship.
Rappers insist that the explicit sex on their albums is a joke, akin to what is found on racy ``party'' albums.
``The sex is how I started on the street,'' explained Ice-T at the New Music Seminar. ``The only way to get attention was not to rap about politics, but about [sex]. It's not to be taken seriously - it's a joke. My homeboys understand ... that's all I'm concerned with.''
``No musician is going to say they want kids to listen to all this stuff,'' he continued. ``If someone has to be 21 to buy my album, I have no problem with that.'' But he added, ``Who is qualified to decide which record they should pick?''
MANY at the seminar felt these issues are not confined to music, but are indicative of an overall trend in American society that started during the Reagan administration.
``It's a more conservative direction that we're moving in - but it's more the government, I think, than society itself,'' said David Lebowitz, legal counsel for Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in an interview. When the RIAA was developing the standardized album sticker, it conducted a poll, and ``a substantial majority of parents, while they did feel that a voluntary system could help them in making decisions on what their children should listen to, were very strongly opposed to state or government-run programs to tell them what is right and what is not right,'' Mr. Lebowitz said.
Further anxiety among artists has been fueled by the withdrawal in June of National Endowment for the Arts grants from four controversial performance artists. Artists have indicated they feel these trends will ultimately result in a kind of self-censorship that will stifle creativity, and that restrictive measures will spread to include everything from the theme from the movie ``M*A*S*H'' (titled ``Suicide is Painless'') to the play ``Romeo and Juliet'' to the songs ``Love for Sale'' and ``Mack the Knife.''
Still, there are those who believe that legislation is the way to go.
Rick Tiger, a movie house owner and chairman of the New Iberia Junior Chamber of Commerce in Louisiana, said, ``As soon as you say it's OK to peddle this kind of music and allow anybody to buy it, then where does it stop from there?''
Mr. Tiger expressed a fear that pornographic materials would soon become available to everyone. ``It's a shame to say that you would have to regulate something like that in a free country, but I personally feel that if we don't, then that's exactly what's going to happen.''
Will the issue cool down, now that record companies have agreed to sticker and the Louisiana bill has been vetoed?
It's not likely, says Lebowitz. ``These problems are not new,'' he says. ``They've been around for generations, they just continue to get revisited.''