Music Censorship

Hi kids/do you like violence?/Wanna see me put Nine Inch Nails through my eyelids?

- My Name Is: Eminem

Music has always been a channel for expressing ideas that oppose and inflame hegemonic powers. Poor? Underprivileged? Disenfranchised? No access to institutional forms of communication? Sing a protest song. It doesn't matter if you're Woody Guthrie or Eminem, it's the only way to get your ideas heard, and heard, and heard, and heard again. All over the world.

Like movies and TV, music is also seen as influencing the behaviour of its audiences, particularly children and teenagers. This is clearly true, given that music audiences divide themselves into tribes, and dress, talk, and do their hair accordingly. Music, alongside other media texts, has been accused by politicians and parents of encouraging teenagers to use violent language and commit violent crimes. There are frequent calls for censorship, both of song lyrics and of the appearance/behaviour of the performers. Commentators on the current furore over rap music should bear in mind that we've already been there done that, back in the 1950s, when the likes of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis were horrifying politicians and parents.

After Elvis, little was the same. His defiantly sexual, racially charged, very loud music struck at the heart of oppressive notions of permissible expression for the young; it was an electrifying signal that life existed beyond the narrow confines of individual experience.

This new force proved too pervasive to be contained, though the powers-that-were surely tried. The New York Times likened early rock dances to the "bite of the Tarantula," to devil fevers of medieval times. The country's deeply entrenched guardians were stunned by this Elvis mania, attacking it in much the same way the body rushes to reject a dangerous foreign substance injected suddenly into the bloodstream. Girls were sent home from school if they wore their skirts (no pants allowed) too short; boys were ordered to cut off their ducktails and leave their blue jeans at home. Records were seized and destroyed. Towns banned rock tours and dances. Parents, radio stations, and commercial TV banned the most defiant music, and ordered the volume turned down. Then as now, academics and pundits worried that civilization was beginning to unravel.

— Jon Katz:Why Elvis Matters (Wired, April 1995)

Popular music has always been subject to internal censorship, as the gatekeepers inside the big record companies decided what could and could not be heard by the outside world. Back in 1939, Billie Holiday's record company, Columbia, refused to release her recording of Strange Fruit (an anti lynching song) as they did not want to alienate their deeply racist audiences. However, a group of Washington politicians' wives, with little else to do during the 1980s other than be shocked by their teenage children's record collections, lobbied effectively (well, when you consider who their husbands were...) and gave us the Parental Advisory system.

Parental Advisory Explicit Content

Parents Music Resource Center

The Washington Wives formed the Parents Music Resource Centre in 1985, as a direct reaction to the "filth" filling the eardrums of their sons and daughters. The two artists who started the conflagration were Prince and Madonna, the former for the lyrics of "Darling Nikki" ("knew a girl called Nikki/Guess you could say she was a sex fiend/Met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine") on the best selling Purple Rain, the latter for "Like A Virgin" and the fact that she was appealing to 7 year old girls. They managed to get a Senate Hearing (No 99-259) about obscenity in popular music, at which artists as diverse as Dee Snider, John Denver and Frank Zappa testified. The upshot was that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) conceded that a "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics" label would warn of songs regarding drugs, sex, violence and other potentially objectionable material. This had the immediate effect that some large record stores refused to carry labelled material, fearing obscenity charges. This meant drastic downturns in sales for rap and metal artists, who were denied distribution through outlets like Wal-mart. The PMRC are still campaigning, determined that their Christian values shall carry the day.

You can watch this occasionally-cheesy made-for-TV-movie about the PMRC's campaign on YouTube. Some delightful 80s period detail.

Music remains a hotly contested battleground, largely because of its associations with youth culture, which, as we all know, is dangerous and needs controlling - hence all those moral panics over the years.

Voluntary Regulation

Many broadcasters have agreed voluntary codes governing what aspects of violence may or may or may not be depicted, on either side of a watershed.

Likewise, the Press have sets of standards when it comes to the reporting of violence. Read the regional variations here.

Further Reading