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CAN MUSIC CORRUPT? The battle lines are drawn over whether heavy metal's raucous lyrics really endanger teens

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IT'S dark in the barn-like club. Kids sit quietly on the floor, while ``roadies'' set up for the next band. Suddenly four long-haired, disheveled guys in torn jeans and leather jump out on stage, grab the mikes, and start screaming unintelligible lyrics over a lightning-speed guitar buzz and a deafening drum beat. Immediately the kids jump up and start slamming into each other and lifting each other up, trying to push past the burly bodyguards who line the front of the stage.

This scene at a popular Manhattan rock emporium might be described as a typical night on the town for a teen-age subculture - fans of heavy metal. Except that now heavy metal can no longer be regarded as a subculture; it has moved into the mainstream of pop music.

In spite of the bad publicity metal has gotten over the past couple of years - including accusations that the sexually explicit, savage, and even demonic lyrics it sometimes projects can lead to teen-age violence and suicide - bands like Def Leppard, Guns 'n' Roses, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Metallica, Poison, the Scorpions, and Cinderella were steadily in the Top 10 on the Billboard magazine charts during 1988.

In fact, heavy metal is more popular than ever, in spite of the efforts of the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC), founded by Washington wives Susan Baker and Tipper Gore, to persuade record companies of the need to put voluntary warning stickers on albums that might be offensive, and in spite of efforts last autumn in Congress to pass anti-pornography legislation, sponsored by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, which included an ``auditory pornography'' clause that would have levied stiff fines on distributors of ``pornographic'' records. This portion of the legislation died in the last Congress, and the sponsors have no immediate plans to reintroduce it in the new one.

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