Devil Music


Do you believe in magic? Sam Brownback does. The Republican senator from Kansas is promoting the claim that devil music makes people commit suicide.

The featured witness at a hearing Brownback chaired this month was Raymond Kuntz, father of a North Dakota 15-year-old who killed himself last year while listening to Antichrist Superstar, an album by the shock rock group Marilyn Manson. "He was a good boy," Kuntz said of his son. "The music wasn't symptomatic of other problems. I would say the music caused him to kill himself."

The story was sadly familiar. In 1985, you may recall, a California couple sued the heavy-metal performer Ozzy Osbourne after their 19-year-old son shot himself to death while listening to Osbourne's Speak to the Devil. "His suicide came as a total surprise," the father said. A deputy coroner told the Associated Press "the young man did not seem to have any problems."

Implausible as these accounts are, they are understandable coming from grieving families trying to make sense of sudden tragedies. But it's reckless demagoguery for members of Congress to endorse the idea that teenagers with no problems kill themselves just because they happen to listen to the wrong music. It's especially puzzling to hear such talk from conservatives, who are usually suspicious of environmental explanations for self-destructive and anti-social behavior.

Brownback is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring, and the District of Columbia. You may wonder what that has to do with music. "Over the last 30 years, violent juvenile crime has jumped more than 500 percent," he explained. "Such trends are especially dramatic in Washington, D.C., where juvenile crime, teen death, and teen drug use rates lead the nation." If you still don't see the connection, that's because you're thinking rationally.

Brownback said the purpose of the hearing was information, not legislation. But there was an unmistakable threat of censorship beneath the worries about heavy metal and rap. "This music hurts us as a people," Kuntz said. "Our children are quietly being destroyed by this man's music, by ones and twos in scattered isolation throughout our nation today." He compared Marilyn Manson's songs to "yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater."

Senator Joseph Lieberman, a vocal critic of the recording industry, liked the metaphor. "I'm not for censoring this stuff," the Connecticut Democrat said. "But to me this music is the equivalent of yelling `fire' in a crowded theater." In other words, I don't want to censor this music, but I think it's the sort of speech that could be banned without violating the First Amendment. Not exactly reassuring.

Lieberman's comment was reminiscent of remarks by Senator Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) in 1985, during that year's hearings on the threat heavy-metal music poses to the youth of America. "It's outrageous filth," Hollings said. "If I could find some way constitutionally to do away with it, I would."

The result of those "informational" hearings, coupled with pressure from the Parents' Music Resource Center, a group organized by the wives of Washington's movers and shakers, was a "voluntary" industry agreement to put warning labels on records with violent or sexually explicit lyrics. Tipper Gore and her friends said all they wanted was to help parents make informed decisions about the music their kids listen to.

Apparently that wasn't good enough. As Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry of America, noted at this month's hearing, "every one of the albums being attacked here today, including Marilyn Manson and Snoop Doggy Dog, has been affixed with the `Parental Advisory' label." Raymond Kuntz recalled that his son showed him the Marilyn Manson album, but "I failed to recognize that [he] was holding a hand grenade, and it was live. It was going to go off in his mind."

Calling words hand grenades is a way of pretending they are not really speech, and therefore not really protected by the First Amendment. But the outrage generated by Marilyn Manson, Snoop Doggy Dog, and other controversial acts demonstrates that, whatever else they may be doing, they are definitely communicating a message. Lieberman said their music is "reprehensible," expressing "some of the worst thoughts I've ever heard." It's not the sort of thing you'd say about an explosive device.