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
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
"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,
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
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."