Timeless Notes ~ Censorship in Music

by JV Myka

America in the 1950’s dealt with the coarse issue of “Rock” music and the consensus was split on whether said material was dirty, obscene or simply expressive. In those days, radio was dominant and conservative. For example, Billy Holliday’s song “Love For Sale” was banned because of its underlying prostitution theme. Stations across the country censored a laundry list of Rhythm and Blues (or black) artists because they were considered controversial. In 1957, producers of the Ed Sullivan Show made sure the camera angle only shot Elvis from the waste up for fear of public outcry. Many in those days labeled Elvis’ moves and dances “obscene.”

In retrospect, America in the 1950’s would likely be aghast by what is considered mainstream today. In an article by Scott Barry Kaufman, published in Psychology Today (2011), he asserts promiscuity and themes of a sexual nature are reoccurring leitmotifs in R&B and Pop music, and refers to them as “reproductive categories.” Kaufman lists four frequent reproductive categories in pop songs: 1) sex appeal, 2) reputation, 3) short term strategies, and 4) fidelity assurance. Yet, the FCC asserts content is obscene if “[materials] depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law.” The law appears to be very gray, but the FCC says “the community” can file complaints if they consider broadcasted materials offensive. In reality, radio stations do censor specific words because the FCC fines stations and can suspend their licenses, but innuendo and sexual inferences (or reproductive categories) are the norm on commercial radio throughout the country. In 2000, the FCC responded to 85 radio complaints and handed down fines totaling $48,000. In 2006, there were 389 and fines totaling nearly $4 Million (which are still pending). Which begs the question: are stations knowingly playing risqué music and challenging social tolerance because profit margins exceed fines?

With a vast amount of music and videos available on the Internet, it is simply impractical to attempt censoring music like in the 1950’s, at least in terms of lyrical poetic license. Some subject matters promoted in music range from basically pornographic to blatantly violent. In 1966, John Lennon commented that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus Christ.” This lead to a boycott of the band, the burning of Beatles’ records in public protest, and the banning of Beatles songs from radio airplay around the country. In March of that same year, the band released their album “Yesterday and Today,” which featured the band sitting atop of butchered meat and dolls with their heads chopped off. The record company removed this album from store shelves and immediately replaced the cover with a much safer photo of the band. But it seems little shocks America anymore enough to warrant CD burnings. Besides, a Strategy Analytics study found CD sales continue to drop another 40% in 2012, whereas digital downloaded music is expected to reach $2.8 Billion in sales, just edging physical mediums. What could people burn in protest even if they wanted to?

Though shock value is a strong strategy in music, the exception is in the case of live music.  Recorded music doesn’t really feel any effects of censorship because even a pop song with words like “shit” can get extensive radio play by simply taking out the word (such as Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”). Live performances, however, require some arbitrary code of decency, especially if artists wish to perform for general audiences. Hollywood, Florida musician and venue owner, Kilmo Doome (nativeflorida.net), asserts, “censorship is more under the radar” in terms of venue preferences. He says, “certain venues don’t want particular bands/musicians to play” and the reasons vary greatly. Then again, if a venue is going to make substantial money, business is business. Ronald Wisler, an A&R and road manager working with La Lirica group (www.lalirica.com), says when performing live, artists are told beforehand of what is allowable and not. For example, an artist he represents, Buk City Boyz, appeared at an open event with families and teenagers in attendance and was told during performances there was “no cursing allowed –no bad words whatsoever.” They obliged by playing the “radio edit” version of their soundtrack.

It may be that raunch and circumstance are ok in the car, on the ipod, on the computer, and in certain social settings. But out in the open, at a festival or event where everyone converges, when all eyes and ears have their moral compasses on for social endorsement, censorship is indispensable.


2 thoughts on “Timeless Notes ~ Censorship in Music

  1. when you throw minors into the mix, it is a whole different game. I found this to be true in my research on art and photography. I do think we have a moral responsibility to protect our children, whose emotionally and mentally development in still extremely impressionable, but to censor for grown adults just doesn’t make sense to me.

    • It is very difficult to keep obscene materials from minors these days, especially with what it is on commercial radio. Adults and children (really) are unnecessarily exposed to sexual content just by listening to music in the car or by watching network TV programs. I agree censoring material for adults is a matter or choice, but the reality is adults lead by example. So kids will do what adults deem ok.

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