Pop goes positive

May 2, 2004 The Baltimore Sun By J.R. King

PHILADELPHIA - The backlash over Janet Jackson's halftime performance at the Super Bowl has now stretched through spring training and into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Congress is working on a bill that would give the Federal Communications Commission the power to levy fines up to $500,000 for each "patently offensive" broadcast incident.

Clear Channel, which owns nearly 1,200 radio stations in 99 markets, recently dropped Howard Stern and others after receiving FCC fines for indecency.

Aside from the three months of discussion about a three-second breast exposure, the irony is that Congress and the FCC are taking aim at indecency in an era when pop culture has turned positive in its message.

Whether a reaction to the fear of global violence or just the natural ebb and flow of popular trends, many of today's artists are finding success in uplifting spirits rather than playing on traditional stereotypes of sex, violence and drugs.

The music industry has put self-absorbed, violence-driven rap music on hold and is instead churning out fun-loving party music. Outkast's infectious and retro dance hit "Hey Ya" could be heard about every 90 seconds on a number of radio stations. Similarly, Black Eyed Peas' "Hey Mama" was one of the songs chosen to push the new iPod in Apple's colorful commercials.

Hip-hop duo Outkast entered heavy radio rotation with their 2002 hit "Ms. Jackson" in which the narrator vows to accept the responsibilities of raising a child. "I will be present on the first day of school," the group's Andre 3000 says, "and graduation."

Black Eyed Peas made a splash with their thoughtful and melodic R&B response to the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedies in which they ask "Where is the Love?" While reminding the listener that terrorism in this country can be found in many forms - including inner-city violence and racism - the band asks God and country to "turn the other cheek" and seek peaceful solutions to these violent problems.

Beyond the Top 40, other artists have found hits with songs with positive messages.

Jurassic 5 and Nelly Furtado's "Thin Line" talks about friends who try not to fall in love because their friendship is so strong. Talib Kweli's "Get By" is a party anthem celebrating the day you realize that - with the right friends - smoking and drinking are unnecessary.

All the artists I've mentioned have songs with language or subject matter that many parents would feel is inappropriate for children. But that's why albums come with warning labels and edited versions. Parents can decide whether the language or substance of the material is appropriate.

Overall, the music business is experiencing a recent decline. Yet the Christian market - complete with rap groups and hard rock bands - has seen an upturn of about 13.5 percent. Even the angst-ridden members of the rock band Linkin Park say they refuse to use profanity.

The highest-rated television show on the WB Network is 7th Heaven, a family drama about a minister, his wife, and their seven children. Since the days of Beverly Hills, 90210, all teen dramas have involved young people dealing with the issues involved in growing up. 7th Heaven confronts this teen angst with spiritual guidance. Meanwhile, CBS has upped the ante this season with the popular Joan of Arcadia, in which a high school student has conversations with God in order to help those around her.

In fact, pop culture is rife with religion at the moment. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ has become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, while sales of Glorious Appearing, the latest novel from Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' "Left Behind" series, are approaching Harry Potter-like numbers.

Of course, for every example of positive influences in pop culture there are artists still trading in tired stereotypes of money, sex, violence and drugs. That's the nature of popular culture: Messages vary as widely as tastes.

But if there's to be a discussion among legislators and parents about the influence that artists have among our nation's young people, we should at least recognize that some of today's artists have something to say that's worth listening to.

J.R. King is a law student at Temple University.