Dan Quayle took on "Murphy Brown" about single motherhood. William Bennett battled Time Warner over gangsta rap. Each had limited success. Now, the 900-pound gorilla of retail, Wal-Mart, is making a substantial contribution to a cleaner (or at least less polluted) entertainment environment.
The huge retail chain has decided to "edit" some of the raunchier lyrics and art work from its stock of compact disc recordings. Since it accounts for 52 million of the 615 million CDs sold in the United States, Wal-Mart's decision packs an Evander Holyfield-style punch.
Most of the changes are minimal--a deleted profanity here, an edited blasphemy there, a clipped racial slur. One teenager in the small town of Murphy, N.C., was quoted in a New York Times story as saying that after he ordered Nirvana's Incesticide (nice title, huh?), his stepmother saw the CD, smashed it, and told him he could buy his music only at Wal-Mart. Good for her!
The chain's decision not to sell a product that offends the values of the company and its customers is having an effect on the recording industry. Some companies record separate songs in order to meet Wal-Mart's standards. Others avoid the really bad stuff altogether. Film studios are following suit, sometimes avoiding extremes or even shooting separate scenes, because they want their movies to go to video heaven at Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Blockbuster after the theater runs.
Oliver Stone is upset by Wal-Mart's behavior. The creator of Natural Born Killers, one of the most violent movies ever made, says, "Essentially, it's the sanitation of entertainment." Coming from a top cultural polluter, this is like a major corporation protesting an EPA regulation to restrict the dumping of toxic waste in our rivers and streams.
Says Mr. Stone: "People don't understand how much power corporations have." Excuse me? Is he complaining because Hollywood and other media elites don't want to share all the power they have so far amassed? Unfettered, the entertainment industry has been able to produce whatever it wants, pumping it into the minds of impressionable children. Now the places where average Americans shop are flexing their muscles and telling the industry their customers have had enough. If it wants to sell its products in their stores, it will have to come up to the standards of the stores and their customers.
Do people have too little access to material advocating or depicting violence and promiscuous sex? Is there a shortage of material that takes God's name in vain, insults parents, trashes the police, and ridicules traditional values?
Recording and film industry people are threatening to push for legislation that would require labels on the edited material. (These are some of the same people who opposed warning labels on their most violent and sexually explicit products.) They want to alert 13-year-olds that the White Zombie album they're about to purchase might lack the profanities they've come to love. Good luck getting that through Congress.
Mr. Stone says he would now think twice before directing a movie with explicit sexual content because of the editing policy at Wal-Mart and the other big chains. Good. That's the idea. Since Mr. Stone apparently thought not at all (or didn't care) about the negative impact some of his films were having on the culture, thinking twice will be a new experience for him. And his considering something other than playing to an audience's lower nature will benefit a lot of people.
Wal-Mart deserves the support of everyone who is tired of garbage peddlers masquerading as descendants of the Founding Fathers. Strengthening Wal-Mart's hand (and its bottom line) will strike the biggest blow against the cultural dictators who don't seem to have our best and brightest interests at heart. They will also learn a lesson in humility and responsibility, two character traits not often observed in the entertainment community.
Copyright 1996, Los Angeles Times Syndicate