Sticker Ban Policy: Family Values Or Consumer Fraud?

Edited albums by artists such as Rob Zombie and Snoop Dogg still feature graphic, adult themes.

Parents who think they are buying cleaned-up versions of albums deemed offensive by chain stores such as Kmart or Wal-Mart may actually be getting edited albums that are still laced with explicit material and references to sex and violence.

In light of Wal-Mart's and Kmart's recent decisions not to carry Marilyn Manson's upcoming album Mechanical Animals -- citing their no "parental advisory"-sticker policy -- some parents have applauded those stores' moral stance. But while their children won't come home from either store with the stickered Manson record, they could well bring back something their parents would find equally shocking, according to a SonicNet Music News investigation involving a cross-sampling of the albums stocked at the stores.

Take a song such as "Jazzy Hoes" from Jermaine Dupri Presents: Life in 1472, the Original Soundtrack. An edited version of the song -- re-titled "Jazzy H***" -- appears on the green-tinted version of the album that the Kmart in Des Plaines, Ill., carries. (The explicit version is tinted blue.)

While the racial epithets, four-letter words and slang terms for body parts have all been recorded backwards or taken out of "Jazzy H***," some sentiments still come through loud and clear: "Put you on the street, make me mo' money, mo'," guest star Young Bloodz raps on the edited track.

Kmart spokesman Dennis Wigent said that it's likely that someone in the company's music-buying department listened to the track, but he added that sometimes the chain's listeners don't catch every explicit theme on every album.

"When that comes to our attention, we'll do a review of it again," Wigent said recently. "If it's something that shouldn't have been carried to begin with, we'll just pull it."

According to Wigent, the Dupri edit came courtesy of music distributor Handleman, which services the 2,400-store Wal-Mart chain in addition to Kmart's 2,100 outlets. "We know whether a customer takes stickered and non-stickered albums, and if they're restricted, we will put in an edited version if it's available," Handleman spokesman Tom Oviatt said.

Wigent said that Handleman advises Kmart concerning upcoming releases that may contain one of the voluntarily applied parental-warning stickers the music industry adopted in 1985.

"We will be presented [with] an edited version, or we'll be consulted as to what do they need to do [to allow the product in the stores]," he said. "Obviously the industry is savvy. They know what will and will not work here."

However, parents are not always as savvy and some say they rely on the stores to protect their children.

Like plenty of parents these days, Mary O'Brien is busy. Shopping for music recently at a Chicago-area Wal-Mart with her 14-year-old daughter Katie, O'Brien, 42, said she appreciated the chain store's policy of not carrying albums with parental-warning stickers.

By prohibiting CDs and tapes with stickers, which signal explicit language or content, the chain encourages "safe shopping," she said.

There is a catch, however.

What O'Brien said she didn't know is that, intermingled with Everclear's So Much For The Afterglow (which Katie was buying) and the popular Titanic soundtrack, were new albums by gangsta rapper Snoop Dogg and devilish metalhead Rob Zombie -- edited copies of the same discs that in stores such as Blockbuster or Borders carry plain warnings of explicit material.

Although the f-word, n-word, s-word and other vulgarities are gone from these edited albums, references to situations such as rape, oral sex and drinking and driving are left intact.

O'Brien said she had no idea that two versions of the records -- one explicit and one ostensibly "clean" -- even existed.

If the toned-down versions contain violent or sexual scenarios, she

said, maybe those albums should be stickered, too. "There still

should be some kind of warning on there telling you of situations that are of an adult nature," she said.

Still, what is preserved on the edited version of a CD seems to be random. Exactly how an album progresses from an artist's final work to Kmart and Wal-Mart versions -- including the artists' and labels' roles in the process -- is hazy.

Wal-Mart did not return repeated calls on the matter.

What won't work at Kmart is profane language, the advocacy of violence against women or police, visual nudity or the degradation of religious symbols. On an album such as the Fugees' Grammy-winning rap disc, The Score (1996), that means curse words are excised or turned backwards on a song such as "Family Business."

On the clean version of Zombie's Hellbilly Deluxe, the song title "The Ballad of Resurrection Joe and Rosa Whore" (RealAudio excerpt) is pared down to "The Ballad of Resurrection Joe." The lyrics are removed from the liner notes and Zombie appears without an upside-down cross etched in his forehead, in addition to other changes.

Zombie himself said that he agreed to the alterations made to Hellbilly Deluxe to get the album in Wal-Mart. "I saw that, for some of these kids, it was the only place they can buy records," he said. "At the end of the day, it's these kids who are getting f---ed."

But Zombie's lyrics about Nazi whores, murder and rape remain unaltered in the songs, a fact that could easily slip by parents.

A listen to Snoop Dogg's record, including the song "Gin & Juice II," reveals standard vulgarities nixed, while lyrical scenarios of sexual domination and drinking and driving, for example, are untouched.

Kmart and Wal-Mart want to have their cake and eat it, too, charges Nina Crowley, executive director for the censorship watchdog group the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition. Crowley said that by accepting profits from essentially the same records these chains implicitly decry via their sticker-ban policy, Kmart and Wal-Mart are committing a particularly egregious offense.

"They're using their strategy of family values to market their stores," said Crowley, a 46-year-old mother of four. "They're telling parents, 'We're not going to carry stickered material' -- but they do. It sounds to me like consumer fraud."

Labels such as Geffen (Rob Zombie), So So Def (Jermaine Dupri), No Limit (Snoop Dogg) and Columbia (Fugees) either did not return calls or declined to comment on their role, if any, in the editing process. Oviatt, however, denied that Handleman played any role in editing. "We don't have input into which stickered products have an edited version, nor do we have anything to do with the content," he said.

At 74, Mary Morello is one person who refuses to hold her tongue on album edits. Morello -- the mother of Tom Morello, guitarist for thrash-punk band (and stickered artist) Rage Against The Machine and a longtime anti-censorship activist -- said she refuses to shop at Wal-Mart because of the store's sticker-ban policy.

Morello said she understands that some artists bless their edits in order to get their work into the high-volume Kmart and Wal-Mart outlets. "If it isn't the corporate shark doing it, then I have no objection," she said. "But I think the way an artist wants a song is the way it should be."

Joe Ori, a 16-year-old shopping with a friend at Kmart recently for Big Punisher's Capital Punishment, which includes the explicit hit "I'm Not A Player" (RealAudio excerpt), said he was unaware of edited albums, but that he opposed the practice on both practical and theoretical grounds. "I don't like it when they don't have the swears," Ori said. "It sounds better and it's what they're really saying."

While Kmart and Wal-Mart stock only the edited versions of albums such as Zombie's or Dupri's, stores such as Blockbuster or Tower typically carry only the explicit version, although they will order the edited copies. Some people have called for all stores to carry both clean and explicit versions -- as the online retailer CD Now does -- to allow parents a wider choice.

For Mary O'Brien, however, there simply isn't enough time to spend comparing albums in stores. "I like having only one [album version]," she said. "It's simpler to realize what you're getting."