As I’m sure you’re all aware, this is the week of the Banned Books. I believe books get the bigger spotlight because it’s been a lengthy and uphill battle. Even today. Video game censorship and its effect on players is still being hotly and publicly waged. So what does that leave? Music.
I think it’s interesting that while movies and television shows face light criticism on their content, books and music still face strong critique. They are both primarily non-visual mediums but they get hit the hardest. Parents want books removed because of ‘violence’ yet will take their impressionable youngsters to the newest Justice League or Avengers movie. Radio stations will refuse to play certain songs because of a variety of reasons. Most of them ridiculous. From their political content to suggestive lyrics the ‘reasons’ run a gamut of ridiculousness.
One thing I will say for music censorship – it transcends race, religion and genre. It’s been spread far and wide up and down the spectrum. Country, gangsta rap, Elvis…it’s all in there.
One of the first recorded instances of music censorship was back in the 1700’s and was essentially a protest song against the King at the time (England, not Elvis). Turns out he was not amused. However, and this is especially impressive considering that the Constitution wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s brain at the time, it was considered ‘the truth’ as it was written in a newspaper. Thus, it was considered a fact.
In 1934 the FCC was formed. It was supposed to be an oversight commission but they just couldn’t wait to jump in the fun pool of censorship themselves.
Since then songs and singers have been censored for lewdness, suggestiveness, Satanism and violence. A few famous instances were on the Ed Sullivan Show. When Elvis appeared on the show he was filmed only from the waist up to prevent the famous Elvis Pelvis from corrupting the ardent female fans. Bob Dylan chose not to perform when asked to replace his song ‘Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues’ with another song less political in nature. The Rolling Stones were asked to perform after changing a line in ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’. They complied, changing the line in question from “Let’s spend the night together” to “Let’s spend some time together”. They complied but to this day Mick Jagger declares that he “mm-mmm’ed” the line. Despite clear evidence to the contrary. One of the biggies was The Doors’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. They had agreed to play ‘Light My Fire’ with the line “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” amended to something not quite so stoned sounding. The Doors played the actual line and were never invited back. Oddly enough, the only group to receive fallout after the show was The Doors. They were refused bookings. The police would show up at venues with blank warrants “just in case”. It didn’t seem to hurt their popularity with their fans, however.
Record burning, just like book burning, seems to be a popular method of showing displeasure with a band. Although it would probably stink a lot more than books. Iron Maiden wrote their song ‘Holy Smoke’ as a slightly tongue in cheek jab at self-righteous, hypocritical church groups and televangelists that seems to take pleasure in a good vinyl bonfire. Bruce Dickinson had the best response to this ever (as quoted from Classic Albums): “They have to buy the records to burn them.” Usually the very public outcries are met with “I have got to read/watch/listen to/play that!!”
In 1985 the Parental Advisory: Explicit Content label was created. Some fought against it, seeing it as a form of censorship as some stores would refuse to stock albums and CD’s with this sticker. There are also usually ‘clean’ versions available. I actually have no problem with it as to me it’s a warning and you have the choice to purchase whichever version you wish. Back in the day it was a bit harder but record stores would generally order the requested version. I don’t see it as censored material as it provides options for listeners to choose to listen to music enjoy with less profanity or sexual terms. Listeners aren’t restricted to one form over another. In fact it gives a bit more leeway than movies, television, video games and movies as there are no alternate versions available for them.
Most of the censorship that bands have faced was decreased radio play, cancelled bookings, protests by church groups and lawsuits. Just a warning, it gets a little dark in the next three paragraphs. I’ll be referencing suicide, rape, murder, and necrophilia but not in detail. If this will bother you feel free to skip down to the fourth paragraph. I honestly wouldn’t mention it if I didn’t think it was necessary to make my point.
In 1986 Ozzy Osbourne was sued by parents after their son committed suicide after allegedly listening to the song ‘Suicide Solution’, claiming that the song led to their son’s death. The case was thrown out before it reached trial with the plaintiffs being unable to prove that the song contributed to their son’s death.
In 1996 a fifteen year old girl was raped, murdered and violated after death by two acquaintances who claimed they had killed her as part of a Satanic ritual. Despite the case being similar to other sexually motivated crimes the parents of the girl believed that Slayer songs were to blame for their daughter’s death. The case was thrown out with the judge saying “There’s not a legal position that could be taken that would make Slayer responsible for the girl’s death. Where do you draw the line? You might as well start looking through the library at every book on the shelf.” This didn’t stop the parents who filed a lawsuit alleging that Slayer had “knowingly distributed harmful material to minors”. The judge threw this case out as well.
The most public of the lawsuits and the only one to actually make it to trial was a lawsuit alleging that Judas Priest was directly responsible for two young men (ages nineteen and twenty) who attempted suicide after listening to a Judas Priest song. The first young man was successful but the other survived the attempt with massive facial injuries. He overdosed on methadone before the case went to trial but had written his mother a letter claiming that it felt as though he had been programmed and didn’t want to do it but something was making him. The case gained traction because the plaintiffs claimed that Judas Priest had inserted subliminal messages into their songs urging “do it”. Before the trial began the judge ruled that subliminal messages was not clear and articulate speech and was not covered under the protection of the First Amendment. The judge ruled in favor of Judas Priest.
Why do I bring these up? Because they are clear examples of censorship in a form that is both insidious and frightening. It doesn’t look like censorship but that’s exactly what it is. Hiding behind abnegation of personal and moral responsibility to place blame where it does not belong. Books and movies have also faced this same form of criticism/censorship.
Song lyrics, books, movies and games may deal with extremely dark subjects. Does that mean they shouldn’t be read? Shouldn’t be heard? People who don’t watch, listen to or read horror are usually confused as to why fans like it. I can’t answer for everybody but sometimes you read something and it hits home. That author has taken what you’re feeling and put it into words. And now you know that someone else has gone through what you have. Someone else at least has the imagination and empathy enough to feel what others are feeling. And you know you’re not alone. It’s the same with music. Someone else has felt those feelings and put them to music. Be it love, rage, disillusionment or sadness. It’ there. For the length of a book or a song you are in complete sympathy with them. Why would anyone want to silence that?