Sunday 12 June 2016

après nous le déluge

There I was tripping down the primrose path with the late lamented Frank Zappa when I came across his testimony to the United States Senate Commerce, Technology, and Transportation Committee in 1985.  The hearings were to gather information and opinions about the PMRC - the Parents Music Resource Centre - a self-appointed scourge of evil in the music industry.  It was founded by the Washington Wives - an ironic reference to the under-employed appendages of powerful men depicted in Stepford Wives - including Tipper Gore the wife of Senator, later VP, Al Gore.

Thee PMRC didn't want to have government impose standards, that would infringe the 1st Amendment and create 'more government'.  As white women married to The Man, they had quite enough government to assure them a life of shoppin' and taking tea with each other on Washington lawns.  They wanted instead to bully the music industry into putting 'parental guidance' stickers on any record that they (who they? PMRC? the industry? a mid-ranking executive in EMI, a spotty youth in the dispatch departmemt at Island Records?) deemed to deserve it.  What is extraordinary in the senate hearings is that Al Gore is there asking questions from the Senate bench when it's his wife's Bund that is under scrutiny.  If my cousin or my graduate student turns up to interview for a job and I'm on the hiring committee; then normal practice is for me to recuse myself and leave the room. Lots of people recused themselves from Jury Service because they came from the same village as the accused or went to school with his brother. Not Senator Gore. Then again, if all Senators on the CTTC left the room because their wives were members of PMRC, the committee would barely be quorate.

The argument from the Senate (who all seemed to think the PMRC was a good idea!?) was that such labelling was a) wholly voluntary and b) helpful to parents who wanted to protect their children from sex, satan and rock'n'roll.  I was never a fan of Zappa, whose music I found to be difficult, discordant and deafening, but I love his ironic demolition of the idea of labels, voluntary or otherwise. He has a reputation for having a lot of sexually explicit lyrics, but in another interview suggests that in a play-list of 1200 songs, you'd be pushed to find anything sexual in more than 100.  So finding sex in Zappa is a good example of prejudgement and ascertainment bias: if ye seek it, ye shall find.  One senator, with a TaDa rhetorical flourish [jaysus, there's a lot of rhetoric about in the Senate hearings], asks Zappa whether it's okay to label a child's toy as 'suitable for 3-5 y.o'.  Surely that's okay?  Nope, replies Zappa, it's not okay for some bloke in an office in DC or Tulsa OK to decide the intellectual or cognitive abilities of my children.  And, because it's the 80s, nobody extends the argument to ask if "suitable for girls" or "suitable for boys" is suitable for toys. Zappa also points out that the terrible examples of Naughty Lyrics which had been cited, were for the most part a) obscure b) old and therefore c) irrelevant as a mass comms problem.

Zappa rhetoric: "It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC's demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation. ... The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on things certain Christians do not like. What if the next bunch of Washington wives demands a large yellow "J" on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?"

The other argument Zappa makes is that a rock album is the artistic creation of the singer / songwriter and that's different from the [""voluntary""] rating of films which is now and wasat the time part of the cultural landscape.  For Zappa, the actors in a film are mere guns-for-hire, and don't have their reputation impugned by an X-rating on a film in which they had a part, even a bonking part.  I don't imagine that this dismissal of the actoring profession would get plaudits in Equity, the actors union. Zappa wants parents to take responsibility for the education, or enforced ignorance, of their own children; because he wants a wide diversity in parenting styles to be tolerated by an open society.

It's all 30 years ago and so might seem like mere history but what and how and when children find stuff out that matters to them, is a matter as current now as it was in 1816. And of course, in 1985 there were a few hundred films made each year and a few thousand albums that got printed in vinyl. Now we have the interweb, with new content being poured out of garages and teen-bedrooms across the planet [youtube alone takes 300 hours of upload per minute!] in a tsunami of choice which is completely beyond the scope of parents to regulate.

More Zappa?  You could do worse than watch the BBC2 documentary on his life, times and ideas.  As he died slowly from metastasising prostate cancer he continued working on old stuff and new including and extraordinary jammin' session with Tuva throat singers from Mongolia, our own Chieftains and Johnny Guitar Watson.  Not all the content loaded onto the interweb is Satanic.

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