It’s almost a shame the PMRC disbanded, because if it still existed Justin Trudeau would almost certainly be offered an honorary spot.
The Parent Music Resource Centre was founded in 1985 to deal with the scourge of obscene lyrics in popular music, which its founders believed were poisoning the young minds of America. The group accused artists such as AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, Twisted Sister, Madonna and others of promoting violence, promiscuity and the occult, and blamed their lyrics for increases in teen pregnancy and suicide rates.
The claims of the PMRC were rooted in misinterpretations (one of the songs they held up as an example of the extreme violence in heavy metal, Twisted Sister’s “Under the Blade,” was actually about their guitarist’s recent surgery) and misguided views about private industry’s role in parenting; however, the group caused a huge uproar. Walmart pulled controversial records, the Recording Industry Association of America agreed to put warning labels on explicit albums, artists like Frank Zappa and Dee Snider rushed to defend their rights and reputations, and the whole issue was hashed out before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
These kinds of moral panics were big in the 80s – burning Iron Maiden records was basically the pre-internet era’s version of a Change.org petition – but seem silly now. Even if so-called “hypodermic needle” theories of communications hadn’t already been disproven, it should be common sense: rational people can make the distinction between art and reality. Listening to a violent song will not magically induce a non-violent person to become violent.
Which is why it’s disturbing to see Liberal leader Justin Trudeau instinctively blame “certain types of music” for violence against women.
During the Up For Debate panel on women’s issues on the 21st, Trudeau was asked for his thoughts on domestic violence among young men. While he would go on to cite pornography and “shifting parental roles” as contributing factors, his first instinct was to declare, “you know, there’s an awful lot of misogyny in certain types of music.”
Toronto Star columnist Desmond Cole called out Trudeau for the alleged racial undertones in his answer. “Is it a coincidence that two of the three factors Trudeau cited about violence against women are well-worn stereotypes about black people?” he tweeted.
In addition to perpetuating problematic racial stereotypes, Trudeau’s comments reflect troubling views on artistic expression and freedom of speech.
The view that music can cause undesirable behaviour in the population is as old as Plato. While Trudeau isn’t suggesting we outlaw certain musical modes that promote weakness in the populace, his implication that misogynistic lyrics cause violence rests on equally outdated notions.
The Liberal leader’s statement echoes the stimulus response model of communications, a simplistic theory which states that the media acts like a hypodermic needle on a passive audience. Considering Trudeau’s attempts to position himself as the progressive candidate, it’s a bit odd to see him trotting out eighty-year-old, discredited media theories.
A generous commentator may say Trudeau was informed by George Gerbner’s cultivation theory, a more nuanced view of media effects which explores how media exposure over time can shape the way people view the world (e.g. exposure to misogynistic lyrics over time can influence listeners’ views on women). While this theory is more accepted than stimulus response, it shares a fundamental underestimation of the critical thinking skills of the public.
But aren’t there studies indicating that the media can have an impact on how people see and react to the world around them? The answer is yes, but many are deeply flawed.
In his 2004 article “Ten things wrong with the media ‘effects’ model,” media theorist David Gauntlett points to methodological flaws and faulty assumptions in media effects research, noting that many studies on violent media were performed in unnatural environments, yielded inconsistent data, or proved correlation but not causation.
Furthermore, Gauntlett argues that media effects studies do not properly consider context: “it cannot always be assumed that violence is shown for ‘bad’ reasons or in an uncritical light…the way in which media effects researchers talk about the amount of violence in the media encourages the view that it is not important to consider the meaning of the scenes.”
While Gauntlett’s article addresses film and television violence, his arguments are even more applicable to music due to the many layers of meaning contained within lyrics. Song lyrics often take on different meanings to different people, and the listener’s interpretation can vary wildly from the songwriter’s intent. For instance, many lyrics that seem offensive at first glance may actually be satire, allegory, social commentary, or a small part of a larger narrative.
The context of Trudeau’s comments makes it clear that by “certain types of music,” the Liberal leader was most likely referring to the rap genre, in which misinterpretation is especially prevalent. The majority of rap lyrics are as hyperbolic as they are aggressive, and rap songs often tell fictional stories or act as vehicles for social commentary; that is to say, their lyrics shouldn’t necessarily be taken literally.
In an amicus brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court by the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project, Erik Nielson and Charis E. Kubrin argue that rap comes from a “tradition of…storytelling and verbal competition, one that privileges exaggeration, metaphor, and, above all, wordplay.” Thus, violent or threatening lyrics are often metaphorical declarations of skill rather than physical threats. Moreover, Nielson and Kubrin cite the use of stage names as evidence that rappers “live through invented characters and explore narrative voice, both on and offstage,” similar to pro-wrestlers. “Their preference for the first-person perspective may tempt listeners to conflate author and narrator, but as with other fictional forms, this is a mistake.”
Does this mean that individuals don’t have the right to be offended by violent, sexist or tasteless rap lyrics? No. But to suggest that these lyrics are literal shows ignorance of the genre’s conventions, and to suggest that song lyrics can incite real-life violence reflects a very low opinion of the public.
So what does all this have to do with Justin Trudeau?
Statements politicians make when they’re off-script can say a lot about their core beliefs. While I’m not accusing Trudeau of planning to embark on a one-man censorship crusade if elected, his comments do suggest a limited view of freedom of expression. Moreover, the fact that Trudeau made these comments in the height of election season indicates that he sees the corrupting influence of rap music as something the federal government can intervene in.
Individuals should of course be free to criticize what they feel are negative or derogatory messages in the media. Freedom of expression does not mean that artists are immune to criticism. But when government officials begin to weigh in on what types of music they believe can incite violence, we enter dangerous territory.
The very belief that “certain types of music” pose a threat to society, and that the state has a role in mitigating this threat, is inhospitable to freedom of expression. Ideas like this can lead to government censorship or (even more insidiously) the imposition of “voluntary standards” that force artists to self-censor. Even if there is no direct legislative action, the vocal disapproval of government officials can make studios wary of releasing potentially controversial content.
Take the example of the PMRC. Their actions didn’t lead to any legislation restricting the creation or sale of explicit music, and the only substantive change made by the RIAA was the Parental Advisory label. However, the PMRC’s fearmongering put a chill on the music industry that had a negative impact on musicians. In his autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book, transgressive rock musician Frank Zappa opined, “If the scare tactics of groups like the PMRC…have not made an impact on musicians, they have certainly made one on the executives of the record companies who can tell artists what the labels will or will not accept as suitable material under the artist’s contract.”
Ironically, the day after making his mindboggling comment Trudeau pledged to increase funding for arts and culture. It is difficult to take Trudeau seriously as a champion of the arts when he accuses musicians of turning young men into misogynistic rage monsters. One must wonder whether artists will have to meet the Liberal leader’s standards of decency in order to qualify for funding under a Trudeau government.
With pressing economic issues and foreign policy threats, free speech isn’t likely to be anyone’s top election issue. But that doesn’t mean Justin Trudeau should be given a pass on his dangerous and ignorant comments.
Canada has made significant advances in freedom of speech in recent years. Let’s not let Justin Trudeau take us back to the eighties.
Originally published in Thee Westerner as We’re Not Gonna Take It: Justin Trudeau on Rap and Media Effect; September 30, 2015
Gauntlett, David. “Ten Things Wrong with the media ‘effects’ model.” 2009. Media Studies: The Essential Resource. N.p.: Routledge, 2004. N. pag. Print.
Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. Dir. Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen, and Jessica Joy Wise. Perf. Sam Dunn, Dee Snider. Seville Pictures, 2005. Television <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pvmyNnepTk>.
Schonfeld, Zach. “Parental Advisory Forever: An Oral History of the PMRC’s War on Dirty Lyrics.” Newsweek 15 Sept. 2015: n. pag.Newsweek. Newsweek LLC, 19 Sept. 2015. Web. 4 Nov. 2015. <http://www.newsweek.com/2015/10/09/oral-history-tipper-gores-war-explicit-rock-lyrics-dee-snider-373103.html>.