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Music in America has faced a perennial battle against censorship for decades now, because there are always certain parties who find a reason to block the spread of music and the access of music to certain people.
When the censorship of music is undertaken with the purpose of protecting children from adult content, then it is logical. It is also acceptable when it is carried out in order to fight piracy, so that the musicians get their rightful share in the profits that they deserve to reap for their hard work and creativity. But, when censorship is carried out with the express purpose of spreading or restricting propaganda, or to stop a public message from reaching the public due to governmental or legal interference, then it is definitely not the right thing to do.
Certain genres of music today have a lot of obscene and profane words in them, and the justification that the artists give, ie. creative freedom, is just fine. Certain artists produce alternative versions where these words are omitted or replaced, and certain other artists carry warning signs on their albums so as to warn parents about the content they contain. Music that contains such content has lead to the birth of several different techniques to disguise these words, and these methods are commonly used by artists all around the world now to get past being censored.
A Brief History of Music Censorship in America and Around the World
After studying the history and the number of incidents that affected musicians and raised public consciousness about music censorship, the following timeline can be referred to. There are a number of other incidents that may have occurred as well, and not all of these incidents are solely related to the use of profanities in music, but, studying it closely will shed some light on the manner in which this censorship has prevailed in the United States music industry.
1936: BBC Radio banned George Formby’s “When I’m Cleaning Windows” for objectionable lyrics. The song describes all the things he sees when he’s cleaning windows, whatever they may be <wink> <wink>.
1955: Radio stations in Chicago receive 15,000 letters in one week which complain about the effect that rock and roll is having on youngsters.
1956: ABC Radio banned Billie Holiday’s “Love For Sale” for singing about prostitution. ABC Radio also made Cole Porter change the lyrics of “I Get A Kick Out Of You” for mentioning the word cocaine.
1957: Elvis Presley was filmed from the waist up only on the Ed Sullivan Show to avoid showing his controversial hips, which were deemed too sexual for prime time television at the time.
1959: “Rumble” by Link Wray is banned by radio stations across the country, even though it is an instrumental song, because it is feared that the song will encourage teenage gang violence.
1966: The Beatles are faced with severe public outcries and banishments after John Lennon claims that the band is more popular than Jesus Christ.
1967: The Rolling Stones were forced to change the lyrics to their song “Let’s Spend The Night Together” to “Let’s spend some time together”. Sullivan was quoted as saying – “Either the song goes, or you go.”
The same year, The Doors were on Ed Sullivan and asked to change the lyrics to “Light My Fire” from “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” to “Girl we couldn’t get much better”. They ended up singing the original lyric and getting banned.
1968: A radio station in El Paso, Texas, bans all songs by Bob Dylan, because they could not understand the lyrics and felt it talked about offensive matters.
1969: BBC Radio banned “Come Together” by The Beatles and “Lola” by The Kinks, because they felt that the songs could be misunderstood as advertisements for Coca-Cola.
1973: In a major happening, the Supreme Court granted the power to local communities to ban music that they felt was obscene and was influencing the youth.
1981: Olivia Newton John’s song “Physical” is banned in Salt Lake City and Provo due to the sexual messages it carried.
1985: Tipper Gore and Susan Baker from the Parents Music Recourse Group (PMRG) set out to monitor and ban objectionable music.
1985: The Village People were deemed too violent for the USSR, with their ‘ideologically harmful compositions’, and were added to a secret blacklist compiled in Moscow by the Communist Party’s youth wing in January 1985.
1987: Ozzy Osborne is sued by the parents of a boy who committed suicide. They claimed that the boy was lead to do so after listening to a song called “Suicide Solution”.
1990: Rap group N.W.A. are sent a letter from the FBI, informing them that the lyrics of their song “Fuck The Police” was not appreciated by law enforcement agencies.
1990: Judas Priest is sued by two families, who claim that the lyrics of their song “Stained Class” encouraged them to perform extremely obscene acts.
1990: In Dade County, Florida, police set up a sting arrest to catch any music retailers who were illegally selling records by 2 Live Crew to children below the age of 18.
1992: Sir Mix-A-Lot had his song, “Baby Got Back” banned briefly from MTV for inappropriate content. The song is about, ostensibly, enjoying a larger frame on a woman. However, the song has a wider social context that spoke to (and still speaks to) how slimmer women are favoured in society, to the point of women hating themselves for how they look. Mix has defended the song again and again.
2000: The parental advisory label is made more profound in the country, and more and more music censorship organizations are set up.
2003: The Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines made a disparaging comment about President George Bush at a London concert prior to the US invasion of Iraq, telling the audience: “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas”. This caused a huge backlash from their fans and got their concerts and records banned, not to mention boycotting them from radio.
2013: The song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke has been called the “most controversial song of the decade”, and it has riled up many people in regards to it’s sexualized content. The original video contains nudity, but that is only part of the reason that this song has been banned and censored in various places. There is an ongoing debate to how “serious” this song should be taken, and whether it promotes the empowerment of women, or the degradation of women.
After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, several radio stations banned more than 150 songs that they felt contained lyrics that promoted violence. Since then, the music industry has faced several new rules and legislations about the censorship of music, and this has, in turn, lead to more artists handling their lyrics more carefully.
The same goes for album artwork. Many artists have released album art which tests the boundaries of what some people consider to be good taste, and that usually gets them banned from places like Wal Mart and other places where parents and their children shop.
From the point of view of the censors, this type of censorship, in the United States at least, has been to prevent obscene content and profanities reaching children. But, when it is used to fulfill the vested interests of certain parties, things need to be brought back under control. As always, there is a delicate balance between the artists and provocateurs who are creating the art and pushing the boundaries, and those who wish to control what people are able to see.
This brief history of censorship in the USA is simply a brief recollection of certain events from over the past 70 or so years, and there are undoubtedly many more such incidents which have also shaped the music industry into what it is today.