Time Warner Again Faces the Music Over Song Lyrics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Time Warner Inc., the media giant that drew heat several years ago for selling a record called "Cop Killer," is now promoting a song called "Smack My Bitch Up"--a tune that critics say glorifies domestic violence.

The song, recorded by Britain's top-selling act, Prodigy, was released last week as a single on Madonna's Maverick label, which is half-owned by Warner Bros. Records, a subsidiary of Time Warner. The single is being played uncensored on about a dozen radio stations across the nation, including KROQ, the top rock station in Los Angeles.

"This is a dangerous and offensive message advocating violence against women," said Janice Rocco, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women. "I think it is deplorable for Madonna's record company to be putting this kind of message out into the mainstream music market."

Prodigy producer Liam Howlett, interviewed on Wednesday from his Essex, Britain, home, denied that the song is about hitting women. " 'Smack My Bitch Up' is a phrase [that means] doing anything intensely, like being on stage--going for extreme manic energy," Howlett said. "You could say we were smacking the bitch up."

That meaning may not be apparent in the song, which repeats the lyric a dozen times, or in the 3,000 promotional posters making the lyric into a slogan for display in record stores.

Since the controversy over explicit lyrics began raging over the past decade, records companies, retailers and radio stations have grappled with how to monitor the content of potentially offensive music, often rap songs by black artists. Prodigy's song raises questions about those efforts and also suggests a double standard between rap and rock music.

"Smack" passed through Warner's internal review committee, which decided it didn't need to be sold with a parental advisory sticker, and is being sold by Wal-Mart and other mass merchandisers that frequently reject albums with violent or sexually explicit themes.

Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin declined comment about the corporation's opinion of the song or its involvement in the promotional campaign. Sources said, however, that top officials in Time Warner's music division had no idea that the company financed the "Smack" marketing blitz until they received a call from The Times.

Levin's spokesman referred calls to Bob Merlis, senior vice president of worldwide corporate communications for Warner Bros. Records, who said the company has received no complaints from consumers, retailers or radio stations about "Smack."

"The notion that this song lyric would create an atmosphere for anyone to commit an act of violence is farfetched," Merlis said.

Madonna, whose company retains creative control over all music released under its deal with Time Warner, could not be reached, but her publicist, Liz Rosenberg, said Madonna would never inhibit the creative impulses of any act on Maverick's roster.

"As a record executive, Madonna's stance regarding free speech is exactly the same as the stance she maintains as an artist: She is firmly committed to artistic freedom," Rosenberg said. "Madonna would never restrict any artist on her label from saying what they want to say--whether she liked it or not."

Controversies over violent or explicit lyrics have dogged record companies, and particularly Time Warner, for years. Time Warner pulled Ice-T's "Cop Killer" off the market in 1993 and cut the rapper loose from his record contract after police groups threatened to boycott the company. Two years later, Time Warner sold its stake in Interscope Records after criticism about the media giant's distribution of music by rappers Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg that allegedly promoted gang violence and degradation of women.

Ironically, the lyric heard on Prodigy's "Smack' was electronically sampled from a rap album released nine years ago called "Give the Drummer Some" by the Ultramagnetic M.C.'s. That recording included a phrase by rapper Kool Keith that says: "Smack my bitch up like a pimp/Change my pitch up."

Prodigy producer Howlett took a snippet of that phrase and transformed it into the central theme of the Prodigy song. The vocal line is chanted about a dozen times over electronic melodies and driving hip-hop beats.

Prodigy made a music video based on the song, which Warner declined to finance and which has been rejected by MTV. Among other things, the video contains images of women being manhandled as well as an explicit scene of injecting drugs in the bathroom of a dance hall.

"Smack My Bitch Up" is manufactured and distributed by Time Warner, which shares in the profits of every copy sold. The song is also included on Prodigy's Time Warner-distributed "The Fat of the Land" album, which debuted in April at No. 1 on Billboard's national pop chart and has since sold 2 million copies in the U.S.

Last month, Warner Bros. Records manufactured 3,000 promotional banners that prominently feature the slogan "Smack My Bitch Up" and shipped them to retailers across the nation. The company also provided a large sticker of an ant (Prodigy's logo) to place over the word "bitch" for merchants who might deem the 24-inch banner offensive.

Sources say officials at Maverick and Warner Bros. Records determined that the album's lyrics did not merit a parental advisory label. Nevertheless, the companies, with Prodigy's approval, manufactured an "amended" version of the record's artwork--one that obscured the word "bitch" on the CD jacket--to be sold to mass merchants that refuse to stock albums with lyrics or cover art that they deem objectionable.

Wal-Mart, which has refused to stock rap records containing similar lyrics, is currently selling the "amended" version of Prodigy's album, which contains exactly the same lyrics as the original album.

Les Copeland, director of public affairs at Wal-Mart, said the retail chain was unaware that Prodigy's album contained potentially offensive lyrics.

"Wal-Mart is committed to selling merchandise that our customers can feel good about; for that reason, we are looking into this issue," Copeland said.

KKBT, the top hip-hop station in Los Angeles, voluntarily bleeps violent and sexually explicit words--including "bitch"--in every song it broadcasts. A representative for KROQ said the uncensored version of "Smack" is currently one of the most heavily played songs on the rock station--and has generated no complaints.

Feminist Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. magazine, said Time Warner wouldn't dare show other minority groups the disrespect that they have shown women by promoting "Smack."

"I know these lyrics are protected by the 1st Amendment, but they are also just as dangerous and subject to consumer boycott as if every 'bitch' were replaced" by racially derogatory terms for Jews and blacks, Steinem said. "Time Warner and Maverick do not allow women the dignity and safety that would be afforded to a man of any race or religion."

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