Those of us liberal geezers who escaped the musical revolution of the 1960s have for a generation endured the derision and pity of a rock music community that imagined it alone invented high-minded anarchy, radicalism, scorn of authority and left-wing foolishness.
We have suffered their volume, screech, atonality and the pomposity of their lyrics blasted incoherently from boom boxes and amplifiers of cruel and stupefying wattage. Now it's our turn to patronize them. They were a sorry lot last week, these princes of popular music, appealing to the mercy of the Senate Judiciary Committee to be saved from the ''pirates'' who are ''hijacking our music without asking.''
What has caused the music industry to have a fit is Napster, the Web site that allows rock fans to download music they'd otherwise have to go to a record store to buy. Instead of paying dearly for a CD that costs a few cents to make, rock fans are, in imitation of their oppression-hating rock star idols, tearing down the barricade of copyright laws that has separated them from free access to their music.
It's as if Tower Records had been stormed by an unruly mob of rock fans and looted of its inventory.
The star of the Senate hearing was a drummer for a group called Metallica. To uncool people who know nothing about it -- which before 1981 would include the entire human race -- this is what is called a heavy metal band because, for all I know, it has the same effect that lead deposits have on infants. They are so famous that members of the Senate staff drooled incontinently for autographs. The most unlikely chairman of this celebrity-crazed spectacle was Orrin Grant Hatch, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, a gentle Mormon from Utah who writes Christian hymns that are available on CD.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told the committee that his 15-year-old daughter is such an enthusiastic user of Napster that ''I can never use my own computer.'' Besides tying up at least one senator's computer, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., complained that free-for-all music ''entirely violates the purpose of copyright laws.'' Napster's chief executive, who did not appear dressed in a pirate's costume with a green parrot on his shoulder, testified in a theme of wounded innocence. ''Napster simply facilitates communication among people interested in music,'' said Hank Barry.
Take your pick of the villains: Rich, greedy rock stars who forgot they were ever poor or unknown; the record cartels; the people who listen to this dreadful stuff; or middle-aged senators who'll always stage a pointless hearing when the witnesses are people their teen-age children or grandchildren swoon over.
Hatch expressed a reluctance to get into this cat fight, which is already the subject of a lawsuit in which Napster and others are accused of violating copyrights of the recording industry. ''The last thing I want to do is have the heavy hand of government in there,'' Hatch said. And of course, the rock stars don't want the heavy hand of government discouraging their violent lyrics, and Napster is horrified that the heavy hand of government might imperil its downloading windfall. Nobody wants government's heavy hand except when their own revenues are threatened.
But the heavy hand of government -- the one nobody wants -- does a pretty fair job of keeping the securities industry honest, of making sure polluters don't give us all cancer, of keeping drunk drivers off the road, of maintaining the purity of the food supply. The idea that the Internet is a pristine world from which ordinary rules and laws must be excluded, where copyrights have no meaning, where even taxing retail sales must be forbidden, is silly. The Internet is here to stay, doesn't need such unspoken government encouragements and subsidies, and is as full of charlatans and profiteers as the rest of society. It will thrive and profit and take over our lives without being treated like a coddled and fragile infant.
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