Mad music

By Harvey Dzodin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, September 2, 2011
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Among the Western acts, Lady Gaga leads the pack with six banned tracks. [file photo/People's Daily]

Very recently the Chinese Ministry of Culture banned over one hundred songs from the Internet because lyrics that "harm the security of state culture must be cleaned up and regulated under the law". Well, I was a TV censor for the ABC Television Network in America for more than two decades and I have decidedly mixed feelings about this.

Many of the banned tunes which the ministry considers to be in 'poor taste' and containing 'vulgar content' come from Hong Kong or Taiwan, but some of the banned songs are by Lady Gaga, Backstreet Boys, Beyonce, Britney Spears and Katy Perry. Previously other artists including Avril Lavigne, Christina Aguilera, Eminem and Kylie Minogue have had their songs banned. Even the Rolling Stones' sixties version of "It's All Over Now" took a hit.

Now I can completely understand that the government has a legitimate interest in preserving security and preventing rebellions, riots and insurrections. Lyrics that promote mayhem are legitimate targets for government action. Even in America we have limits. Falsely shouting "fire" in a crowded theater is not allowed. But regulating based on amorphous terms such as "security of state culture", "poor taste", and "vulgar content" is pointless. The terms are so general that they are basically meaningless.

To use a good English phrase to describe the situation, I have noticed that, in China, the government often "throws the baby out with the bath water." In other words, instead of taking the minimum action necessary to remedy some problem, they go far beyond it. It's like ordering that a house be torn down when only the windows need replacing.

Beyond the songs that clearly promote disorder, I think that parents are better regulators of their children than a national nanny, an all-seeing governmental ayi. Parents, however, need tools. Since last year the government has required that all songs distributed via the Internet must be approved before they are posted. The stated purpose of doing so is to regulate content as well as control privacy.

As the government knows the lyrics, it would be easy for them, an NGO, or some panel of experts to rate the songs and make them easily available. This is nothing new and there are many precedents. Furthermore, in a country such as China, developing tools to empower parents to control the content that their children view online should be no big problem.

One need look no further than my country, the USA, to see long tested examples. The three models which follow were all created in the private sector in response to government pressure. All of them rate content for matters of potential concern such as sex and violence, as well as drug and alcohol use. In each case the private sector concluded that it was in their own best interest to provide ratings to parents, rather than letting the government do something more draconian.

The movie industry has what might be the best-known rating system. It replaced a problematic industry censorship office with a rating system that has now provided parental guidance based on a film's content for more than four decades. A more recent but similar rating system introduced in 1994 by the games industry applies to video and computer games.

The newest model applies to television. After significant consultation and much negotiating, American broadcast and cable TV companies agreed to a rating system which provides parents with advance information about material in television programming that might be unsuitable for their children. This rating system works in conjunction with the V-Chip, a device in television sets that enables parents to block entertainment programming they determine to be inappropriate.

In my opinion, this system, although imperfect, works fairly well to empower parents to guide their children's viewing habits. There is no reason why it cannot be used in a similar manner on the Internet in China.

Interestingly, in the 1980s, Al Gore's then wife, Tipper, attempted to establish a rating system for audio recordings and music videos. After some initial success, the record industry saw a drop in sales and gradually withdrew their voluntary cooperation. The difference here from the other three examples is that non-cooperation by the private sector in those three cases invited increased and unwanted government regulation. Tipper had no such deterrent power behind her. So, there is certainly a continuing role for government as the ultimate deterrent.

It's the job of parents everywhere to teach values to their children. While schools and other public institutions can help, parents are the best people to teach their children to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong. Such ratings systems, facilitated by the government, will give them a powerful tool to do their jobs.

In addition, such efforts will specifically increase respect for the government. The fact is that many people in China have the ability to climb over the firewall. Each time that wall is breached, so is individual and societal respect for authority.

Parents need effective tools. Here is a case where they can take the lion's share of responsibility in promoting both the sweet musical notes of success and social harmony.

Harvey Dzodin currently is a Senior Advisor to Tsinghua University. He was Director and Vice President at ABC Television in New York from 1982 until 2004.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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