Reviewer critiques pop music in terms of family values

Chicago Tribune

April 11, 2003

By Steve Knopper

Bob Waliszewski has never burned a record. But once he smashed a few.

In the mid-'80s, the born-again Waliszewski was a Christian counselor and he thought nothing of blasting Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Black Sabbath on youth-group ski trips. He was hip that way.

Then a student gave him an instructional religious tape, and, listening to it, Waliszewski found himself being convinced that most popular music was evil and inappropriate for his life. Looking back, he says he went overboard, tossing his $2,000 collection of LPs -- even the innocuous soft-rock records by singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg. "I actually went back to the church Dumpster and dumped them," Waliszewski says. "I was a little concerned that somebody could raid them, so I'd crack a few.

"Today, he laughs at his youthful overzealousness. "My wife said, `Honey, I like Dan Fogelberg!'" recalls Waliszewski, 46, who has since restored Fogelberg's work to his home CD collection. "I probably went too extreme at that point. Anything that was secular or mainstream, I dumped. I now believe there's a better way to look at it: Is it positive? Is it uplifting? Is it even neutral?"

These questions are the criteria Waliszewski uses to review pop- music records for Plugged In, a monthly publication of the conservative Christian group, Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs. The magazine, which has a 50,000 print circulation and claims as many as 1.7 million monthly Web site hits, aims to teach busy parents about violent, sexual and immoral culture their kids consume.

Focus on the Family emphasizes preservation of traditional Christian values and the institution of the family. It supports 80 ministries with a $130 million yearly budget.

As might be expected, its reviews are decidedly different from those in secular publications. Albums are critiqued for both "pro-social" and "objectionable" content. Reviewers are named, and each review ends with a summary/advisory.

In the world of Plugged In, rappers such as Eminem, 50 Cent and even the more benign LL Cool J almost always get demerits for foul language, misogyny and gangster violence. The magazine called Eminem's critically acclaimed "8 Mile" soundtrack CD "70 minutes of audio garbage" and Clipse's "Lord Willin'" a "prosecutable confession."

Those are easy targets, of course. Waliszewski, the magazine's youth culture department manager, and editor Bob Smithouser also characterize as objectionable overtly sexual material by pop queens such as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears; and "anti- establishment wailing and dubious theology" from angst-ridden hard-rock and metal bands such as Disturbed and Pearl Jam.

However, among these artists' works, the reviewers find such pro-social content as songs celebrating refusing to rely on others' opinions to see oneself as beautiful; becoming stronger and wiser through adversity; the power of love; and challenging "the empty promises of television advertising."

The Plugged In approach to music reviews can be unexpected. Tom Morello, guitarist for Audioslave and the defunct, liberal-activist band Rage Against the Machine, said, "Quite honestly, I was very surprised when I read the Audioslave review, and I went on to read maybe a dozen more."

Waliszewski gives the metal band's 2002 debut CD "Objectionable Content" demerits for the f-word and "theological miscues," as well as talk about committing suicide and arson.

On the "pro-social" side, the reviewer points out a song in which the singer "pesters a friend on a destructive path to change his ways," two songs that are "prayerful appeals for divine guidance" and a track that "tells a beneficiary of good luck to share it with someone less fortunate."

"Since Audioslave is composed of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and a trio of rockers from Rage Against the Machine, the amount of redemptive content is a pleasant surprise," Waliszewski says. "Still, shackles of obscenity, spiritual confusion and ambiguously violent imagery make it a mixed bag."

"I was expecting it to be these kind of fire-and-brimstone condemnations of all things rock and rap," Morello says. "Instead, I found the reviews much more thoughtful than the typical rock magazine review."

But that doesn't make him an unabashed fan. "It's perfectly fine that those are their beliefs," Morello says. "But to shut off the world of art to their children because it even bumps up against these broadly drawn, forbidden topics seems to me a more dangerous way to raise kids than to allow them to see the world for what it is and to give them moral guidance."

During an interview at Waliszewski's Colorado Springs cubicle, filled with strange-bedfellows books such as "The Power of Abstinence" and Spin magazine's "Alternative Record Guide," the bespectacled, tie-wearing reviewer says his problem isn't necessarily the art -- it's the exposure of children to it. He quotes several musicians, including Eminem, saying kids shouldn't listen to this stuff.

"We've got a file -- yay thick -- we call our cause-and-effect file. `Joe Blow listened to this, he watched this movie and he did something criminal and off the wall.' Our kids are guinea pigs," Waliszewski says.

To support his argument, he points to a small color snapshot on a cubicle bulletin board. It's of himself visiting Jamie Rouse, who shot and killed a teacher and fellow student at a Lynville, Tenn., high school eight years ago. Rouse, Waliszewski says, told him he listened to gangsta rap music repeatedly before opening fire in a crowded hallway.

Entertainment and violence are directly linked, in Waliszewski's view.

"I also am concerned about spiritual growth, and spiritual death, in kids," he says. "So I do look for what I consider theology that's faulty or stuff that makes life seem so meaningless or hopeless that it's, like, why live? And I worry about kids who sit around who do feel worthless who don't have high self-esteem and then wallow with their rock-star artists who seem to feed that in their life -- the Trent Reznors of the world."

Waliszewski's criticism of Reznor, the angst-ridden leader of industrial-thrash band Nine Inch Nails, is particularly troublesome for Audioslave's Morello. "That, to me, shows an ignorance of what art can be about," Morello says. "That Trent Reznor catalog is tremendously healing for fans of that music who have been abandoned, alienated, hurt or betrayed -- by some families that I'm sure subscribe to Focus on the Family."

Until he became a born-again Christian at age 15, after joining a youth group for the free ski trips, Waliszewski was a rebellious youth himself. It was the early '70s, so guns and hard drugs hadn't yet crept into high school culture, and Waliszewski's infraction was planting himself in a cafeteria doorway, refusing to move. For this, and previous incidents of talking back to teachers, he was expelled.

But after eight years as a Christian youth counselor, Waliszewski wound up at Focus in 1991, beefing up its four-page youth-culture newsletter into the more sophisticated Plugged In. The magazine frequently prints praise letters from parents and principals.

A typical letter, from Jeff Crawford of Cherry Hill, N.J., reads: "Your services help to arm my wife and me with intelligence (to use a military term for this spiritual warfare), so that we can make wise and specific decisions in this area of our family life."

Some readers, however, may plug in for the wrong reasons. John S. Hall, the stream-of-consciousness vocalist for the sarcastic, profane punk band King Missile, read the "Plugged In" assessment of his "Happy Hour" album. Noting there was no positive social content, the review declared: "Very nihilistic, this record also includes vile and anti-religious imagery. What isn't downright nonsensical is patently offensive."

Hall pronounced the review "mostly accurate -- so it didn't really bother me." He added, though: "I think from their perspective it's probably a mistake. Because it'll probably sell more of our records."