Wal-Mart: Pop Culture Gatekeeper?

Wal-Mart’s refusal to sell certain albums carrying parental advisory labels or containing lyrics or album covers deemed offensive has altered the way the recording industry and musicians conduct business.

This policy most conspicuously affects residents in communities where Wal-Mart is the only place to buy CDs, and will only find those albums that Wal-Mart considers appropriate for retail.

With its roots in the southern Christian heartland of Arkansas, Wal-Mart has rigorously imposed the model of a small town, “family” store on its shops across the nation, says labor historian Dr. Nelson Lichtenstein of California at Santa Barbara, who hosted an April 2004 conference studying the mega-store.

Because of this family values credo, Wal-Mart refuses to carry albums with “parental advisory” stickers or CDs with cover art or lyrics deemed sexually explicit or dealing with topics like abortion, rape, homosexuality or Satanism.

According to its corporate statement on stickered music: “Wal-Mart will not stock music with parental guidance stickers. While Wal-Mart sets high standards, it would not be possible to eliminate every image, word or topic that an individual might find objectionable. And the goal is not to eliminate the need for parents to review the merchandise their children buy. The policy simply helps eliminate the most objectionable material from Wal-Mart’s shelves.”

Wal-Mart will even request artists and recording companies to change what they consider objectionable lyrics and CD covers.

Since Wal-Mart in 2003 sold 20 percent of the nation’s music, recording labels and artists recognize they cannot afford to ignore Wal-Mart’s strict family values. Otherwise, their music sales could suffer as a result of not being carried by Wal-Mart.

Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics

When Sheryl Crow released her self-titled album in September 1996, Wal-Mart objected to the following lyrics in the song “Love is a Good Thing”: “Watch out sister/Watch out brother/Watch our children as they kill each other/with a gun they bought at the Wal-Mart discount stores.”

Backed by her record label A&M Records, Crow refused to change those lyrics. In response, Wal-Mart refused to stock the record. The retailer does carry her other albums.

At the time, Crow and her supporters accused Wal-Mart of banning her album because it directly criticized its sale of guns.

Company spokesman Dale Ingram quickly rejected that allegation. “Wal-Mart believes this is an unfair, untrue and totally irresponsible comment,” Ingram said, according to a Sept. 10, 1996 Los Angeles Times article. He said the song insults both the chain, which he stressed strictly prohibits the selling of guns to minors, and many of its employees who work with children’s charities.

Indeed, A&M executives at the time said they feared Wal-Mart’s ban would cost at least 10 percent of her album’s potential sales. Furthermore, many residents in rural areas, where Wal-Mart is the only music retailer, would not be able to buy Crow’s album if Wal-Mart didn’t stock it, the musician told the L.A. Times.

Consequently, most musicians and record companies will decide whether to “clean up” lyrics and album covers to fit Wal-Mart’s standards. To avoid any foreseeable conflicts, record labels will often act preemptively by issuing two versions — one “sanitized” for Wal-Mart and other mega-stores, and another unedited, but only for their star artists. Accordingly, musicians without name recognition must grapple with whether to create music that will not be deemed offensive by mega-stores so that their albums will reach the “masses.”

For instance, John Cougar Mellencamp agreed to airbrush images of Jesus Christ and a devil on the cover of his album “Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky.” Seattle grunge group Nirvana even changed its song title from “Rape Me” to “Waif Me” for the Wal-Mart version. The band also agreed to change the back-cover art on its In Utero album, which Wal-Mart objected to because it depicted fetuses.

On the other hand, the retailer does carry “Bowling for Columbine,” in which filmmaker Michael Moore ridicules the mega-store after walking into a Canadian Wal-Mart to buy gun ammunition without showing any identification.

Moore furthered his attack on Wal-Mart, creating a petition that says: “We call on Wal-Mart to immediately stop the sale of handgun ammunition. Until Wal-Mart does this, we pledge to never again shop at Wal-Mart.”

While Wal-Mart does not carry Sheryl Crow’s self-titled album, it has no corporate policy against selling Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.”

In fact, the corporation does not have a blanket policy on which movies to carry, unlike its ban on “stickered” music, says Wal-Mart spokesperson Karen Burk. While company policy does prohibit the sale of X-rated and unrated films, Wal-Mart stores can sell NC-17 movies as long as customers can show they are legally eligible to buy them, Burk clarified.

The decision on which movies will be ultimately sold, however, is made by individual store managers and local merchandise managers who base the decision on customer feedback, and not on which products have the highest sales, Burk told the Online NewsHour.

Burk referred to Wal-Mart’s “store of the community concept,” saying that those concepts will “reflect what our customers in that area want.”

An informal poll of Wal-Mart associates in stores located in metropolitan areas of Alexandria, Va., Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pa., and Princeton, N.J., generally confirmed Burk’s statements about the company’s “store of the community concept.”

Upon checking inventory lists, associates told the Online NewsHour that their stores did not stock “Bowling for Columbine.” One associate from the Alexandria location said that the decision to “pull (the movie) from the shelves” came from his managers, adding that the store would no longer receive that film from its distribution center.

Associates at those retailers also said they did not carry the extremely violent “Natural Born Killers” by director Oliver Stone or Paul Verhoeven’s sexually explicit, rated version of “Showgirls.” At the same time, all retailers carried the ultra-violent, highly popular Quentin Tarantino movie, “Pulp Fiction,” which associates identified as a high-selling item.

Magazines also must pass an individual store’s “community concept” policy. For instance, certain magazines, including Rolling Stone, Maxim and Cosmopolitan, have been displayed with a shield over the magazine cover or even pulled off the shelves entirely in cases where the store merchandise manager deemed the covers too provocative.

Lichtenstein attributes these actions to Wal-Mart’s tenacious adherence to its southern “pre-Civil Rights” origins and Wal-Mart patriarch Sam Walton’s vision of a company that stood for “traditional values.”

Some musicians and other critics say Wal-Mart’s policy is tantamount to censorship, but Wal-Mart calls it customer service and “target marketing” for shoppers who overwhelmingly prefer products reflecting their community standards and shared values.

“The ‘store of the community’ concept is a policy we have, and we feel our customers are comfortable with it,” Burk said.