"No Child Is Safe from Sinister Cult of Emo!” America's Eternal and Insane Meltdowns Over Music


The following is the latest in a new series of articles on AlterNet called Fear in America that launched this March. Read the introduction to the series.

On Morning Joe this week, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol finally found someone to blame for the racist SAE chant that had been caught on video: rap music. “Popular culture becomes a cesspool, a lot corporations profit off of it, and then people are surprised that some drunk 19-year-old kids repeat what they’ve been hearing,” he said.

The fear that pop music, and black pop music in particular, is ruining culture is just the newest iteration of a millennia-old reaction. As music critic Jon Pareles once put it, “Reformers as far back as Plato have been suspicious of the irrational pleasures music gives, urging that it somehow be regulated.” The contemporary version emerged with the racial blurring of rock and roll, reached its apex with Tipper Gore and the PRMC, and attached recently to singers like Beyonce, following socioeconomic and sociocultural shifts and often expressing anxieties over racial and sexual independence.

Pop music and moral meltdowns are so entwined, in fact, that the term “moral panic” sprung from outrage over musical subgenres. Sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the phrase in his 1973 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, about the British freakout over mods and rockers who were supposedly terrorizing English resort towns. Cohen argued that unrelated societal conflicts (in this case, tribal) were misinterpreted and exploited by everybody from local law enforcement to media outlets to what he called “moral entrepreneurs.” Mainstream culture cohered around a constructed villain, often a marginalized or dispossessed group that was perceived as threatening an entrenched power structure.

In the U.S., moral panics have often sprung up around shifts in racial power structures, beginning with jazz, in which African-Americans found a cultural forum. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a protest song about the southern lynchings of African-Americans, caused an outcry when it was initially performed at New York’s first integrated night club: black protest was troubling white leisure space.

In the decades following, black music would appear to invade the area of white domesticity, as white rock albums smuggled in what was often codingly referred to as “jungle rhythms.” Elvis’ hip movements on the Ed Sullivan show famously scandalized a supposedly sanitary American audience. But it was as much rock’s complicated blurring of racial lines, at a time when the most visible institutions of American racism were first beginning to teeter, combined with the emergence the American teenager as distinct demographic and morally vulnerable unit, that sharpened rock n roll’s sinister edge in the mainstream American culture. While rock was eventually criticized for appropriating black culture, it was also feared in the moment for elevating ideas of sexuality and revolt into the American mainstream.

This was perfectly, and at times comically, displayed in the attempted criminalization of the song “Louie Louie.” Initially recorded by Richard Berry in 1957 as a calypso tune about a sailor longing for his overseas love, it was grittily covered by white garage band The Kingsman with vocals almost completely unintelligible—all the better for people to hear whatever they wanted in them. (We axiomatically fear what we do not understand, but it has never happened so literally as with “Louie Louie.”)

One of these people complained to Indiana Governor Matt Walsh that the song was obscene. Walsh slowed the record down and thought he heard the offending lyrics as well; he then called Indiana Broadcasters Association and suggested, in a rather official capacity, that the song not be played on the radio. No one was entirely sure what words Walsh and his staffers heard, and under scrutiny the governor’s office admitted, tellingly, that it was more the offensive “jungle” rhythms that bothered them. Alas, they conceded, obscenity laws “just didn't reckon with dirty sounds.”

By then they’d made the song a forbidden fruit, often the unintended consequence of moral panics. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover assigned two Florida FBI agents to look into the Kingsman, who got a kick out of pointing out the G-men at shows. The Kingsman eventually triumphed; their lyrics were so garbled that the Feds couldn’t ever discern what they were, eventually closing the investigation in 1965. By then “Louie Louie” had become a rock anthem.

A different kind of panic surrounded metal bands in the eighties. Socioeconomic shifts forced both members of two-parent households into the workplace, meaning children were increasingly left in the care of strangers. Anxieties over this loss of control over kids led to the Satanic Panic, in which a fictional epidemic of Satanism was linked to everything from sexual abuse to suicide. Parents feared the messages their children received from music when they weren’t around; metal, a shadowy subgenre especially popular among working class young men, seemed barbed with danger.

This fear reached a head in a pair of court cases in the late 80s. Ozzy Osbourne was sued over his song “Suicide Solution” after Ozzy fan John McCollum took his life at the age of nineteen. While Osbourne’s lawyer argued that his song was no different than, say, a Shakespeare soliloquy or Anna Karenina, the plaintiffs argued that rock music inflicted a particular spell over its listeners that put them into obeisance to charismatic figures like Ozzy. The judge didn’t buy it and threw the case out on First Amendment grounds.

Soon after, Judas Priest was taken to court by the families of two boys who had killed themselves after listening to the band’s album Stained Cross, on which it was alleged the band had slipped subliminal messages. Backmasking, the process of inserting reverse sounds into recordings that became intelligible when played backwards, had been around since the Beatles, but it acquired explicit Satanic association after it was seen in the film The Exorcist.

Judas Priest had supposedly inserted “do it” into the song "Better by You Better Than Me." The judge dismissed the case, arguing that the words were essentially noise, and that “do it” did not necessarily refer to suicide or anything else. (Commenters would later point out that bands advising their own fans to commit suicide was bad for business.) Subliminal messages were filed in the annals of junk science, while backmasking became an ironic joke with later metal bands.

But the link between metal and teenage violence never went away. Marilyn Manson was accused of having instigated the Columbine shootings, while another suicide scare popped up in 2008 when a British teen hanged herself shortly after getting into the band My Chemical Romance. “Emo fans wear dark clothes, practice self-harm and listen to "suicide cult" rock bands,” the Daily Mail declared, misreading the band’s album about a patient who dies of cancer as suicide-related. “No child is safe from the sinister cult of emo,” blared another headline. The Daily Mail’s demagoguery came just as so-called “emo attacks” were supposedly breaking out in Mexico, forcing the band to issue a statement declaring themselves anti-violence and promoting suicide prevention measures.

As Osbourne and Judas Priest battled their court cases, future V-FLOTUS Tipper Gore was focusing on the sex and violence in rap music. The apogee of music panics began when Gore’s daughter bought, of all things, Purple Rain, and her mother got an earful of Prince’s lyrics on “Darling Nikki,” about Prince’s infatuation with a prostitute.

So was born the Parents' Music Resource Center and its ubiquitous black-striped parental advisory label, which was sold not as an incursion upon freedom of speech but as a granting of choice to consumers. The PMRC released its list of the “Filthy Fifteen,” the worst songs currently on rotation, along with their specific brand of licentiousness, while Gore railed against “the unfettered commercial exploitation of violence and violent messages through our culture,” which she likened to a nuclear apocalypse. It was as if she’d read Cohen’s definition of the “moral entrepreneur” as an instruction manual.

The PMRC was more nefarious than it appeared. The group partnered with all manner of social conservative organizations, including one tied to right-wing cultural guard Phyllis Schlafly. Many of these fringe organizations pushed explicitly racist explanations for fighting rock music, ran rock anti-brainwashing clinics, or boasted of destroying millions of dollars worth of objectionable records. (The Gores would somewhat recant their involvement later, when they needed the entertainment industry’s financial and public support for a White House run.)

Then Gore discovered rap. One of the first records to receive the PMRC label was N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, which immediately become controversial due to the song “Fuck tha Police.” Once again the terror was rooted in the emergence of African-American power within traditionally white spaces: N.W.A. sold three million records without any MTV or mainstream radio play, threatening a level of commercial independence that pried control over cultural products from white hands.

The FBI once again got involved, warning the group’s record label that the track "encourages violence against, and disrespect for, the law-enforcement officer.” It was the first time the FBI had ever taken an official position on a piece of music, one it never retracted. The Fraternal Order of Police boycotted the band, while police officers began hassling the group at its concerts.

This was just a warm-up for Ice-T’s “Cop Killer,” written after the beating of Rodney King, and released just before the L.A. riots. Tipper Gore railed against it in The Washington Post, accusing Ice-T’s lyrics of being born less out of protest than the poor self-esteem inherent in the black ghettos. “Cultural economics were a poor excuse for the South's continuation of slavery. Ice-T's financial success cannot excuse the vileness of his message,” Gore wrote, again with hyperbolic fervor. “Hitler's anti-Semitism sold in Nazi Germany. That didn't make it right.”

Ice-T’s record company defended him (in the pages of the Wall Street Journal!), but he was fated not to win this battle. With denunciations coming from President George H W Bush, boycotts from police organizations, death threats to Warner Brothers record company executives, and police threatening to cut off services to stores that sold the record, Ice-T recalled the album and issued it without the inflammatory song.

“Cop Killer” was never re-released. It was arguably the most heated battle of a song in pop music history, and formed the border beyond which mainstream American culture refused to go.

Shortly thereafter, a federal judge declared 2 Live Crew’s “Nasty as They Want to Be” obscene. A Florida record store owner refused to stop selling it and was arrested when he sold a copy to an undercover officer; then the band members themselves were arrested for performing the song in Hollywood. The federal ruling was eventually overturned by an appellate court in 1992.

“What this does is let black folks know that the First Amendment really does apply to us,” group member Luther Campbell said following the decision, perfectly encapsulating the anxieties over African-American independence beneath the controversy. "It says we can speak our minds the same way that white people do.”

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