Johnny Loves Sex and Violence

Washington still wonders how to save the damn children.


As the moment approached, journalists perked their ears and exchanged furtive grins with their cohorts. They knew from reading ahead in Sen. Sam Brownback's (R-Kan.) testimony that the conspicuously conservative legislator was about to drop his bomb. Brownback was going to say "smack my bitch up" before God, man, and the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.

He didn't, of course. Instead, he offered a "you fill it in" in place of the offending phrase, which is from a song by the British group Prodigy. That potential highlight dashed, the packed room was left with the predictable bipartisan ritual that ensues every time (yawn) the federal government calls on the entertainment industry to save the children.

In hearings that stretched to almost four hours this Tuesday, Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) opined that voluntary industry ratings systems designed to warn parents about sex and violence demanded immediate attention. Ignoring the lowest juvenile violent crime rates in 30 years, he ventured that the filth kids snap up these days can turn them into little monsters that threaten "the safety and even [the] moral condition of our country." Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), the lawyer-turned-actor-turned-politician was a bit more skeptical of government involvement. But even Thompson, who routinely played tough guys and who personally degraded American culture by appearing in such films as Curly Sue, said it makes him "shudder to think" when he considers the filth his grandchildren might stumble across.

Tipper Gore, the former rock band drummer and near-First Lady, was nowhere to be seen, but her spirit pervaded the proceedings like so much Muzak. Why? Because back in the '80s, when Tipper and her cohorts at Parents Music Resource Center cranked up hysteria over popular culture, they focused much of their ire on unpopular bands such as W.A.S.P., a sad sack heavy metal group that had the good fortune to release a tune titled "Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)" a year before Senate hearings on evil rock music were convened.

With that precedent in mind, consider again Brownback's studied outrage at Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up," a tune off that band's 1997 CD, The Fat of the Land. The album was supposed to launch the band in America, but after a brief clamor they followed W.A.S.P. into oblivion. Everyone forgot about them, except, it seems, for Brownback, who along with other elected officials fretted that "explicit lyrics" labels on CDs just didn't give parents enough information by which to monitor their kids' pop culture purchases.

But the Sunflower State senator's dated reference speaks to more than his distance from the world of pop music. Back in '97, the child with parents who didn't know about "Smack My Bitch Up" had more serious problems to deal with than coarse pop music: His parents were either monastic recluses or total idiots. For those poor, stressed-out dads and moms who couldn't guess from the title that "Smack My Bitch Up" wasn't suitable for the young 'uns, every network newscast, newspaper, and national magazine took Prodigy to task for its patently offensive lyrics (which contributed in no small part to the band's fleeting moment in the center ring of the rock and roll circus.)

Sadly, the same holds true in 2001. To illustrate just how hard it is to know what the kids are buying these days, the concerned committee trotted out a real-life mom, one Laura Smit from Columbia, Maryland. Smit complained that her busy schedule made it impossible to filter all the media her two kids demand. She said she wavered between being a "good mom" who takes the time to check it all out (Impossible! She helps out with the neighborhood swim team!) and a "cool mom" who lets them wallow in the filth to help them "fit in" with the other mass killers in training.

To prove her point, Smit brought an 11-year-old to demonstrate a popular video game called Time Crisis.  Namco, the makers of the game, had cleverly tricked unsuspecting parents like Smit by giving the game a clearly marked "TEEN" rating and by providing a realistic-looking handgun players have to point at the screen. In this case, however, there was a happy ending, sort of: The little guy couldn't get the game to work on the committee's television system.

But even if he had succeeded in unloading a few rounds of "fantasy violence," are there grounds for much concern? Given those decreasing crime rates among kids (sex rates are trending down as well), perhaps not.

Contrary to all the senatorial hoopla, it appears that the kids who have already moved on from Prodigy turned out no worse (and maybe even a little better) than their counterparts who learned about W.A.S.P. while watching coverage of congressional hearings back in the day when Tipper Gore still had a future ahead of her. Indeed, such raunchy stuff only seems to make a lasting impression on adults.