The Politics of Aesthetic Response: Cultural Conservatism, the NEA, and Ice-T
By now, all that has to be said to provoke comment is "Ice-T." Everyone knows that he is a rapper and that he advocates killing cops in a song released in 1992 which, simply enough, is titled Cop Killer." But the simplicity of the controversy ends with the literal reading of the song by the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), who saw it as an invocation to kill cops; acting on their reading of the lyrics, they called for a blanket boycott of Time-Warner, the parent company of Warner Bros. Records. CLEAT was reinforced by Governor Guy Hunt of Alabama, who demanded that record stores stop selling the album, Body Count (also the name of Ice-T's speed-metal band). Hunt's request was met by several national chains: Sound Warehouse, Super Club, and Trans World. In a letter to Time-Warner signed by 57 Republicans and 3 Democrats, Congress condemned the song, the artist, and the company. President Bush and Vice-President Quayle joined in the condemnation; Oliver North, not to be outdone, called for action, suggesting that charges of sedition be brought against Time-Warner. The commentary on Cop Killer by these public figures-turned-critics was enlivened by words typically associated with disease and the filth that spawns it, literal and figurative; the implication was quarantine.
The language directed toward Ice-T and his song was drawn from the vocabulary of repulsion: "sick," "obscene," "vile," "despicable," "ugly, destructive and disgusting." This is strong language for any reviewer, even critics of rock 'n' roll. But for cultural critics of the past decade working the trend of linking art, social agenda, and politics, it has pretty much become standard critical vocabulary. Although the stance taken and the message given by Ice-T rivals that of another notorious musical release, The Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen," the reaction to Cop Killer plays not so much as a response to the shock of an attack on an authority figure as a directed effort to make good use of an opportunity to push an agenda.