Bob Dole, Cops, and Gangstas

Senator Dole's attack on gangsta rap and movie violence established very quickly that family values demagogy is about to redescend upon us. Although even such reactionary Hollywood types as Clint Eastwood disparaged Dole's comments, politicians did not. Not even the President: "We welcome Senator Dole to this point and say that the issue doesn't have to have a partisan side," said a Clinton spokesman. Nevertheless, much was made of Dole's targeting of Time Warner, which according to The Wall Street Journal makes the heaviest campaign donations of any Hollywood corporation and gives 90 percent of its money to Democrats. Dole singled out Time Warner's Interscope subsidiary, co-owned by Ted Field, a big Democratic funder who bankrolled the opposition to Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination. Many noted that Dole listed Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger's high-body -count True Lies with top-grossing family-friendly films and avoided criticism of the blood-drenched Die Hard With a Vengeance, a huge hit made by Republican Bruce Willis with money from Republican Rupert Murdoch. More telling was the Hollywood response. Dole's speech was opposed by TV producer Norman Lear, actor James Woods and directors Oliver Stone and Rob Reiner. With the exception of Stone, not one of these men has been involved in the films under attack, and not one of them has any relationship to gangsta rap. Little was heard from those seeking to explain, much less exonerate, rap. The striking absence from the dialogue of rappers and their supporters reflects another consensus: Whatever separates Dole and Clinton from businessmen like Field and Time Warner executives Gerald Levin and Richard Parsons (who is African-American), they are united in not being the sort of disfranchised kids, of all races, who make and listen to rap. This is also what allows seemingly disparate types like William Bennett, currently mooted by the right-wing Family Research Council as veep material, and C. DeLores Tucker of the National Political Congress of Black Women (who regularly grandstands against rap's violence and misogyny but remained conspicuously silent when Anita Hill, Lani Guinier and Joycelyn Elders came under siege) to unite on this point. Hollywood's violence clearly does not just mirror reality, as its defenders claim. Artists and producers like Stone, Willis and Schwarzenegger masterfully manipulate the public. But their perspectives would be well represented whether their films got made or not. That's not true of gangsta rap, which exists as a kind of counter-CNN (to use rapper Chuck D's image) for those who are shut out of the national debate, except as objects of disapproval, and who remain shut out even when they are specifically targeted. Rap is especially vulnerable at the moment. Last week, Billboard, the music industry trade paper, front-paged a report on rap's market and creative decline, which was summed up by producer Bill Stephney: "Rap has become predictable and, on some levels, very, very boring.... Right on up to 1992, rap had something new and different to offer. But the riots essentially bore out in reality what rappers had been saying for about a decade before." And so the music finds itself in the same predicament as the political system, unable to conceive of an alternative. The current witch hunt will undoubtedly have some strong effects (although not on movies, which are already heavily censored; it is possible to make an NC-17 film but virtually impossible to distribute it). Three states, including New York, already have music-censorship bills in their hoppers, and a faction of Time Warner's board, led by Henry Luce 3d and opera singer Beverly Sills, has entered into what amounts to open warfare against Levin's "free speech" policies, which aren't all that free: Time Warner said it supported artistic expression during the "Cop Killer" controversy, then dumped Ice-T at the first opportunity. Bennett and Tucker have demanded that Time Warner adopt a more restrictive system of record censorship, and Billboard reports that the company has asked the Recording Industry Association of America, which runs the current record labeling system, to consider just that.

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