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This lewd, rude concert is rated X

Published Sep. 13, 2005

Imagine buying a concert ticket with a rating stamped on it, just like a movie ticket. Or going to a show by shock-rocker Marilyn Manson and seeing a sign saying the concert is rated X and off-limits to anyone younger than 18 unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.

It sounds unlikely, but it's possible. A ratings system that would restrict people younger than 18 from certain concerts, based on lyrics or onstage behavior such as nudity or drug use, is being proposed by state legislators in Michigan and South Carolina.

The bills could be the first volley of a long fight in state legislatures and ultimately on Capitol Hill. Several music industry groups, including the Recording Industry Association of America, strongly oppose the measures, saying they fly in the face of the First Amendment.

In theory, the measures could affect dozens of bands, from Pantera to Aerosmith to Cypress Hill, all of whom perform songs with sexual or violent lyrics or have smoked marijuana onstage. Although the proposals haven't raised the controversies launched when ratings systems were imposed on records and tapes (in 1985) and on television programs (in 1997), they've attracted the attention of music industry experts.

"A community can't take away free speech when they feel like it," said Nina Crowley, executive director of the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition. "That's what's at stake here. I don't think a rating system on a government level would stand a constitutional challenge. It's censorship based on content."

Those leading the charge for concert ratings say it's not as ominous as that. They aren't anti-rock 'n' roll, say state Reps. Daniel Tripp, a Republican from South Carolina, and Dale Shugars, a Republican from Michigan, who plan to introduce concert-rating bills in their respective states possibly this fall. They say they're just trying to protect young people from the antics of rockers like Manson, whose stage shows have featured the star wearing sexual aids and tearing pages out of a Bible.

"This would be consistent with the traditional basis of dealing with young people," Shugars said. "It supports parents' authority."

Such ratings, they say, are merely a logical extension of other safeguards that protect youth, such as ratings on movies and television shows and laws against underage drinking.

Neither of the proposed bills would ask for a G-PG-R-X system. Instead, both would attempt to restrict the attendance of people younger than 18 at certain shows.

The proposed bills have differences. Shugars of Michigan wants to give a community the power to restrict anyone younger than 18, unless accompanied by a parent, from seeing a show that "promotes sex, drugs, suicide or satanism."

Tripp's legislation would apply only to two state-owned venues. Performers would have to sign a contract agreeing to no nudity or illegal drugs onstage. If they did not, the concert would automatically be rated X.

Neither bill has widespread support so far. For example, the American Family Association, which has repeatedly called for less violence and sex in entertainment, has not endorsed them.

Critics say that the rating system would let government, not parents, decide what a child should see or hear. "Parents need to be more involved in their kids' lives _ don't leave it to the government," said Jane Cohen, who has three teenagers and is editor in chief of Performance magazine, which looks at the concert industry. "If a kid wants to go to a show and the parent doesn't want him to, then it becomes a family issue. This is nothing more than censorship."