Tune in Tonight: "Rock: It's Your Decision"
Back before the internet, social media, and video games, parents only had to worry about the Devil working his infernal magic on young people through comic books, roleplaying games, and, of course, music. It’s a little shocking to believe that, even by 1982, when music was perhaps at its very blandest, gullible moms and dads thought that it was responsible for teen rebellion, rather than the natural desire to question authority and push boundaries. Forget considering if perhaps you’re a bit too strict and unbending, it’s that darned REO Speedwagon!
If you believe that negative behavior in teenagers should in no way be connected to their parents, let alone that some negative behaviors are, in fact, perfectly normal, then Rock: It’s Your Decision is for you. Oh sure, it was meant to be shown to Christian youth groups, but it’s really wishful thinking for parents who think it’s appropriate to force young people to choose between having a healthy outlet for stress and anger, and dedicating their lives to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Shot with the same kind of grainy, low-lit effect as a B horror movie, it stars Ty Taylor as Jeff, an allegedly troubled teen who’s sold his soul to rock ‘n’ roll. Jeff, who resembles a Burlington Coat Factory version of Crispin Glover, has the jittery mannerisms of someone who knows a good place to dump a dead body, but otherwise seems like an okay kid. Much to his mother’s chagrin, however, he just can’t tear himself away from the sweet licks of a song where the lyrics consist of someone repeating “Devil in me, lady in black,” although the music itself has a sort of jazzy yacht rock sound that few teenagers were listening to in 1982.
“Jeff’s attitude changed right after we gave him a stereo for Christmas last year,” his mom tells Pastor Jim (Steve Wedan), though we see no evidence of this change in attitude, or any attitude at all. She later admits that she doesn’t know anything about the music Jeff listens to, only that “it’s loud and it drives me crazy.” Though the situation would seem to be easily solved with a pair of headphones, Pastor Jim calls Jeff to his office to lecture him on the ungodliness of the one thing in life that Jeff seems to enjoy. “Illicit sex, drugs, mocking God, the occult, aren’t these things often found in rock music?” he asks.
Well, to a certain extent, yes, but it’s important to point out here that among the top selling albums around the time Rock: It’s Your Decision was released were Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits, Journey’s Escape, and the soundtrack to the Neil Diamond remake of The Jazz Singer. Yes, AC/DC’s “Back in Black” was a radio hit, but so was “Pac-Man Fever.” Nevertheless, Pastor Jim challenges Jeff to take a two week break from listening to all rock and pop music, while doing “research” about the questionable content in it and trying to find passages in the Bible that would back up the appropriateness of his continuing to listen to it. Obviously, or else there would be no reason for this film to exist, it would be impossible to find such a thing, unless there’s a Gospel of Iron Maiden I’m unaware of. Speaking in the soothing, subtly manipulative tone of a cult leader, Pastor Jim repeatedly tells Jeff that “it’s your decision” as to whether to continue listening to his beloved rock music, while knowingly setting him up to fail in this assignment.
Because this is very much an all or nothing game, in which even listening to Christopher Cross would be too risky, Jeff switches to music that sounds like it would be piped into a nursing home dayroom, while his “research” consists of reading completely unbiased Christian propaganda, like 1971’s The Big Beat: A Rock Blast, a book that describes Bob Dylan as the “filthy-minded king of pop” (its author, Frank Garlock, wrote a follow-up just this year called The Rock Generation: 6 Decades of Decline, so clearly he still has a lot to say on this subject). It takes barely two days before Jeff is a believer in the destructive power of rock, and his decision to stop listening to it and rededicate his life to Christ is met with anger and rejection from every single one of his peers, even the ones who go to his church.
That’s understandable, because Jeff is a dork. Worse, he’s a preachy, judgmental dork, given to saying things like “While we’re trying to reach people for Christ, the record industry is pumping sex and Satanism into the minds of little kids.” He also harasses record store managers, demanding to know the ages of the impressionable youth buying albums from noted Satanists Billy Joel and Bob Seger, and expresses shock and disgust when a friend invites him to a party and has the audacity to put on the music he wants to listen to in his own home. Whenever anyone plays the befouled rock tunes in his presence, even if they don’t have lyrics, Jeff acts like a recovering junkie with a bag of heroin shoved in his face, sweating and panting in discomfort.
After fleeing the party and getting into an argument with his mother (rightfully pointing out that her enjoyment of soap operas makes her a hypocrite), Jeff seems like he’s teetering over the edge that Pastor Jim, in his creepy bland psychiatrist’s voice, warned him about. Just when you think he might return to the party with a loaded rifle, he instead drives out to the middle of nowhere and begs God for guidance.
As you might expect, God doesn’t respond with “Crank up the Sabbath, dude!” The film concludes with Jeff giving a presentation to his youth group on his music “research.” “I like rock music!” he proclaims. “That is, the flesh, the carnal part.” Considering Jeff is wearing a sweater and a flannel shirt and a tie all at the same time, how much he actually likes flesh is questionable. It’s not so much a presentation as an impassioned plea against the evil of rock, and those who peddle it, “some of whom are admitted homosexuals!” Jeff quotes from the Eagles’ “One of These Nights,” inadvertently revealing that he doesn’t understand metaphors and believes that Don Henley is literally possessed by demons. He even brings The Captain and Tennille and Barry Manilow into it, claiming that if even just one line in one song on an album vaguely hints at an ungodly subject matter, it’s tainted and should be rebuked.
The expressions on the other kids’ faces by the end of Jeff’s presentation suggest that there’s going to be a big old vinyl bonfire on the front lawn of the church afterward, when, really, it was far more likely that Jeff would get a massive wedgie at school the next day and not lose his virginity until he was 27.
If there’s one thing “youth pastors” have traditionally done that’s damaging to their charges (besides sexually abuse them, of course), it’s encourage them to isolate themselves from their peers if their “values” don’t align. Combine that with broad interpretations of the Bible that leave one believing that merely by getting up and leaving the house in the morning they’ve failed God in some way (and the only way that can be fixed is with prayer and a generous donation to the church), and congratulations, you’ve indoctrinated some impressionable teen who’s going to enter the world believing that one false move (or one Lynyrd Skynyrd album) will send them spiraling into Hell.
It doesn’t help that Jeff is as dumb as a bag of hammers, and takes everything literally. His interpretation of song lyrics is like putting on the sunglasses from They Live, but they make you stupid. It takes very little to convince him that anything harder than Debby Boone should be assumed to promote sex, drugs, and/or worshiping the Devil, and thrown into the trash. Pastor Jim’s scheme worked—Jeff’s a trained parrot now, free of his own wants and desires, obedient and serving a God who he’s told is constantly moving the goalposts.