In case you don't watch Headbanger's Ball or subscribe to Metal Mania,just walk into any T-shirt shop. Head toward the back of the store and look for the circular rack that offers your choice of metal groups.
The images are startling - skeletons with fiery eyes, fierce and powerful creatures ready to spring, a fist thrust through a skull that features (are you ready?) splattered brains, a spiked mace protruding from a head and red words (always red) that drip.
It was the pictures, not the music, that first alerted us. Posters with increasingly disturbing images began appearing on our sons' walls - fetuses in crystals, faces in clouds, symbols we did not understand and, later, more overtly violent representations.
This happened gradually and insidiously. It took a while for our concern to register.
One day, as I was washing clothes, I discovered a jeans jacket belonging to another boy mistakenly left in our laundry basket. There was a picture and writing on the back. The words sent a chill through me. A hammer suspended over a pool of blood carried the message "Kill 'em All."
It was time to get involved.
The following weeks at our house were fraught with tension. Our
communication broke down. All my usual sensitivities fled. I entered my sons' rooms, invaded their privacy, stripped posters from their walls and confiscated their possessions.
They were furious. I was alarmed.
As parents we had to deal as well with our own set of conflicting values. At the core, we do not believe in censorship. We consider it a lost opportunity to instruct and educate, a missed chance to help teen-agers evaluate. We were accurately accused of duplicity. We didn't care.
Parents of every generation, I am reminded, have complained about their kids' music. But the anxieties our parents exhibited over Elvis' twitching hips seem trivial by comparison. In metal, what parents fear most are themes of violence - sexual, racial, self-inflicted - and the seductive representation these themes are given.
Metal appeals almost exclusively to young males. Ask any concert-goer. Metal is action. It is power. Note the group names: Powermad, Savatage, Annihilator.
Anger is the pervading emotion. The music reinforces passionate lyrics in hard, chaotic sounds. Videos provide a total sensory experience with music and image combined. Posters and shirts give the whole experience reinforcement and permanence. It is too much.
My sons will argue that all metal is unfairly lumped into one category, that Anthrax is not Slayer, that there are honorable themes in metal that are seldom given recognition.
This is true. Nuclear Assault's piece, Equal Rights, is a statement against prejudice. Anthrax writes about the plight of the homeless. In Greenhouse Effect, Testament protests the destruction of our rain forests.
But often, inconsistent values are represented in one recording.
Thus Gothic Slam writes a pleading song on behalf of battered children while another on the same disc, Demented Obsession, advocates revenge by death.
The lyrics often are acceptable but the promotional poster is creepy beyond words. As parents, are we to breathe a sigh of relief when we discover a group whose themes are not violent but simply despairing?
There is, in my mind, a great deal to be concerned about here, but how we choose to handle this is very personal. These choices are not easy. For us, it required an honest evaluation of our own beliefs regarding censorship.
I do not believe that we can choose our children's music for them any more than we can choose their friends. In spite of my initial rampage, and also because of it, I now know that, for us, censorship is not the answer. In my family, it only served to alienate.
My actions created such a distance between us that it took an excellent counselor to help us find our way back to each other. With his help, in the atmosphere of defused tension, we were able to define the limits of our parental tolerance. Our sons expressed their need to monitor those limits themselves. So far, this solution has proven successful.
Of course, we feel an awesome and continuing responsibility to guide our sons in this matter. This means staying well-informed. The Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC) has provided invaluable assistance.
This national non-profit organization provides, at no charge, information upon request. It makes no personal evaluation; evaluations are left entirely to the parent. It will send lyric sheets and newspaper articles about any group requested.
More than once I have spoken with these people by phone. When I have had questions they could not answer, they researched the question and called me back.
There is also a new monthly newsletter, endorsed by the PMRC, titled Rock Rating Report, which provides detailed information about currently popular music and videos. These evaluative critiques can serve as catalysts for discussing with teens the positive and negative values underlying certain themes.
Like PMRC, Rock Rating Report supports each family's right to decide the music issue for itself. Neither group advocates censorship as a solution. Addresses for these two resources are listed at the end of this column.
In all troubling circumstances there is usually some advantage to be found. Our passionate interest in our teen-agers' music has given us many more avenues of communication. They often play for us selections that they think we will like. This says to me that they care deeply what we think of them.
We spend time together discussing lyrics and, like all discussions, one subject often leads to another. Their music has opened opportunities for us to share more fully in their lives, to explore more deeply our shared and differing values, to define more clearly what really matters to each one of us.
As our sons grow toward adulthood, I trust that the family values with which they have grown up will aid them in making thoughtful, critical choices. This is the most I can ask for.
Parents' Music Resource Center 1500 Arlington Blvd. Arlington, Va. 22209 (703) 527-9466 Fax: (703) 527-9468 A one-year subscription to the Rock Rating Report can be obtained by sending $14.95 to Madison Publishing, P.O. Box P-91, Penndel, Pa. 19047.
- Roxie Smith of Dunedin works in a program at St. Petersburg Junior College helping students develop learning skills.