Ex-Nirvana Bassist Defends 'Offensive' Lyrics On LPs

Tells lawmakers that to blame lyrics for society's ills is too simple and misguided.

WASHINGTON -- It's lyrics such as those by murdered rapper Tupac Shakur and the hip-hop group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony that helped turn a 13-year-old Arkansas boy

accused of gunning down his classmates into an alleged killer, his English

teacher told lawmakers Tuesday (June 16).

In the Senate hearing room, Krist Novoselic, former bassist for the pioneering

grunge band Nirvana and an activist for artist's rights, waited for his turn at the

microphone.

When his chance finally came, he shot back.

"We have to move beyond the grainy, black-and-white approach of blaming

lyrics," said Novoselic, who was dressed in a black suit, in his prepared

testimony. "We need to move forward and apply full-spectrum, high-definition

solutions to the challenges facing our nation and especially youth."

Surrounded by posters displaying lyrics by shock-rocker Marilyn Manson and the current king of rap, Master P, Debbie

Pelley, a teacher from Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark., further

testified before a Senate committee that violent lyrics helped inspire the March

24, 1998, shooting spree that left four students and one teacher dead and 10

others injured.

"I wish every adult would take the time to read these lyrics as I have done,"

Pelley told the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee,

which was discussing the effectiveness of advisory labels. She was holding a

cassette copy of Shakur's album All Eyes on Me

and a CD copy of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's The Art of War:

World War II. "Most adults would be in for quite a shock."

The teen-age suspect in the shootings, Mitchell Johnson, had been listening to

the albums prior to the shootings and had "started to change a lot" as a result,

she said.

With Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., acting as chairman, the "informational"

hearing -- titled "Labels and Lyrics: Do Parental Advisory Labels Inform

Consumers and Parents?" -- was held in the Russell Senate office building and

featured four speakers, including Pelley, arguing that advisory labels

aren't a strong enough tool to inform parents about potentially offensive lyrical

content.

Some speakers, as well as senators, claimed that the labels are actually used

as a marketing tool to lure the interest of young listeners. "It is my suspicion that

the labels are using these stickers to directly target kids," Brownback said.

Representing the artist and industry side of the issue was Krist Novoselic,

who's now president of the Seattle-based Joint Artist & Music Promotions

Action Committee, which takes a concerted interest in matters of this kind.

Novoselic also spoke at a press conference organized by the youth activist

organization "Rock the Vote" that was held prior to the hearing in an adjoining

Senate building. Held as a forum for those who argue that anything beyond

label stickers violates the First Amendment, the conference gave people who

were denied the chance to speak at the hearing a forum to express their

opinions. Among them was Anne E. Walker, a mother of two and director of

"Middle School Madness" in Catonsville, Md., a youth center for children

between 11 and 14 years old.

After the hearing, Walker said that her testimony before lawmakers would have

served to counterbalance Pelley's, representing parents who have taken

responsibility to research their children's choice in lyrics. "I don't doubt in the

least her sincerity," she said of Pelley's testimony. "I think maybe the gap that

she's taking about [between parents and their kids] is more of a rural

phenomenon than an urban [phenomenon]."

Charlie Gilreath, editor in chief of the magazine Entertainment Monitor,

spoke at the hearing and suggested that the lyrics of songs be made available

to parents prior to their purchase at retail stores.

One speaker at the conference, Hillary Rosen, president of the Recording

Industry Association of America, had denied Brownback's request for her to

speak on behalf of the music industry. "What's changed since the last time we

did this?" she asked during the press conference, referencing a similar hearing

in November in which she served as the lone representative of the music

industry. Asked after the conference whether Novoselic was facing a difficult

situation, she said, "He's going to do just fine."

After reading his testimony during the hearing, Novoselic was grilled by

Brownback and one of the three additional senators who drifted in and out

during the hearing, Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. Brownback repeatedly asked

Novoselic to interpret the lyrics displayed on the surrounding boards, but

Novoselic said he wasn't comfortable doing so because lyrics can have many

different interpretations. (He did, however, offer alternative views to some of

Pelley's interpretations of Bone Thugs' and Shakur's lyrics).

Pushed further, Novoselic opted instead to recall his impressions of a Marilyn

Manson concert he had attended.

He said that, while he was not a fan, he was "impressed" that Manson doesn't

"misrepresent himself." "He's saying, 'I'm gross, I'm icky, I'm nasty' -- and he is,"

Novoselic said, bringing laughter from the attendees. "If young people are

looking for truth, maybe they're finding it in Marilyn Manson."

Dorgan then told him that Raymond Kuntz, the father of a 15-year-old boy who

committed suicide while listening to a Manson record last year, was among the

attendees at the hearing.

In response, Novoselic referenced the suicide of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain. "I

survived the tragedy of a suicide," he said, adding that seeing the "dysfunction"

that existed in Cobain's life -- from drugs to social pressures -- helped him to

understand suicide as something that can be attributed to more than a single

factor. "There are millions of children or young people in the United States who

hear those same lyrics and aren't compelled to kill themselves," he said.

After the conference, Novoselic said he was happy to have spoken, adding that

he had only signed on Friday, when he learned about the hearing and knew he

was going to be in town for the Tibetan Freedom Concert. "I spoke from my

heart," he said. "And that's all I really wanted to do."