Music provides a powerful form of expression that at its most basic level helps to entertain while containing the power to cause revolutions -- both cultural and political. Music’s inherent power scares some people who are afraid of the powerful potential to shape attitudes and beliefs. The banning of music sets a dangerous precedent for the censorship of other forms of expression -- with dangerous consequences for a free society.
Why is music censored? Factors may include clashing moral values, racial motivations, generational value gaps, and fear.
Music has historically been, and continues to be, censored in an attempt to enforce morality. It’s not a coincidence that music censorship in America began to accelerate during the 1950s, when traditional and conservative values began to unravel. At the time, order, strict obedience to authority, and conservative values were part of the accepted mindset. With the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, however, young America began to loosen attitudes on issues relating to morality. Technology also played an important part in shaping the moral power struggle in the 1950s. For example, the 1920s era saw similar complaints against flappers and jazz musicians; however, radio wasn’t as dominant at that time. In the 1950s, radio provided access to new types of music that challenged traditional morality and created the dynamics for music censorship.
Moral authorities aim to determine what behavior is “acceptable” for individuals and for society. Drugs, violence, and especially sex are topics moral authorities attempt to regulate. The end of the 1950s witnessed many members of society, particularly young adults and teens begin expressing new attitudes about these topics: Sex and drugs were no longer hidden and secretive acts, but something to be exposed and celebrated. This shift in outlook began breaking down the traditional moral order in many aspects of society – especially music.
Race may seem a strange factor in music censorship, but it has played a significant role. In particular, the 1950s and early 1960s saw a new genre of music -- rhythm and blues -- emerge onto the national music landscape. R&B music included freely expressed sexual desires, clear drug references, and other features that were not as prevalent in other forms of popular music. R&B was – and still is—dominated by black musicians and traditionally was enjoyed mainly by black audiences. When its audience expanded to include mainstream white youths and young adults, this was a problem for many older whites who considered R&B music as a threat that corrupted young people and promoted immoral behavior.
This phenomenon prompted moral authorities to take action. In 1955, for example, Houston’s Juvenile Delinquency and Crime Commission banned more than 30 songs – many by black artists. A Chicago radio station promised to censor “any controversial music, especially R&B,” after receiving letters from angry listeners. (Sparrow)
Racially motivated music censorship is not a practice limited to the past. More recent cases involve MTV refusing to air videos from many black artists in the infancy of the network. In 1983, during a live interview, David Bowie suddenly asked, “Why are there practically no black artists on the network?” (“Why it Took MTV So Long”) Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” from the album Thriller, released in 1983, is credited with being the first black video aired on MTV in heavy rotation.
The argument can be made that racial motivations also played a large role in the FBI’s 1989 letter to the rap group N.W.A. (Nuzum) The F.B.I.’s intent was to notify the rap group that their song “Fuck Tha Police” wasn’t appreciated by the government. N.W.A. supporters argue the group was only expressing the frustrations of inner-city blacks and holding a mirror to their everyday reality. While no legal action took place, the example helps give context to the pressures behind government and music censorship.
Generational value gaps
Generational value gaps are a large factor in music censorship. Older generations use their power to try to censor the music of younger generations because the new music doesn’t reflect the values of the old. The R&B and rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s and early 1960s contrasted greatly with the values of “the greatest generation,” which grew up during the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and started the production that led to America’s global economic dominance. As a result, obedience, respect for authority, and order were important values for this generation. Conversely, the music being made during the mid-1950s and early 1960s reflected attitudes craving individuality, questioning authority, and exploring freedom, drugs, and sex. In fact, many times the music flaunted these things to society’s elders.
For example, in 1965, the Rolling Stones and the Who were banned from radio stations nationwide because of sexual references in their songs. (Sparrow) In 1968, The Doors’ song “Unknown Soldier” was banned from many stations because of its anti-war theme. (Sparrow) In 1971, the FCC threatened to take away broadcast licenses from stations playing songs that glorified drugs. In the same year, songs by John Lennon and Jethro Tull were changed without their knowledge or consent. Lennon’s music was changed by radio station themselves while Jethro Tull’s songs were changed by their record label Chrysalis Records. (Nuzum) It’s interesting to consider whether entering a museum and painting over an artist’s paintings would be considered acceptable.
The generational value gap continued in the 1970s and 1980s, when heavy metal rock and rap music were particular targets of moral authorities. A Prince album caused controversy at a 1984 PTA meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Sparrow) The incident helped spark the debate for government censorship of music. The National Coalition on Television, which monitored the level of violence in music videos, asked for the federal government to regulate rock music on television. (Nuzum) Although the request ultimately wasn’t acted upon, the demand demonstrates the push from some segments of the population, mostly conservative, for federal governmental action.
The following year, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), pushed the music industry and the government to create a rating systems evaluating the content of artists. The PMRC also hoped for radio stations to become conscious about airing controversial content which would in turn censor artists hoping to become played on the radio. The PMRC was led by Tipper Gore and very influential wives of politicians and businessmen living in Washington, D.C. As a result of testimony before the U.S. Senate, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began labeling albums that may be objectionable, including the infamous black-and-white label “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content,” created in1990 and still in use today.
Generational value gaps continue to influence music and music censorship. Today the focus is largely on gangster rap and sexually explicit hip-hop lyrics. In each case, the music being censored is typically regarded as “the music of youth” and features values different from those of previous generations.
At the root of all of the factors that lead to music censorship is fear. There is a fear by the authorities pushing for censorship that the music will affect young people negatively and prevent them from achieving a morally acceptable life. Many believe that without censorship, society itself will be changed significantly, and not for the better. Because the unknown creates uncertainty, fear of change remains common among those who attempt censorship, even when music merely reflects, rather than causes, changes in society. For example, country icon Loretta Lynn’s 1975 song “The Pill” was censored at many radio stations more than a decade after oral contraceptives became popular. (Sparrow)
From the Vietnam War to today’s Iraq War, and from the advent of the sexual revolution to today’s “culture wars,” music is recognized as a potential source of power to change values, ideas, and beliefs – as well as to influence actions. Those who fear this change try to stop it by censorship, even when, as history has shown us, censorship is futile when change is inevitable.
-- R. Andre Hall, Journalism '09
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Nuzum, Eric. "A Brief History of Banned Music in the United States by Eric Nuzum." Parental Advisory Music Censorship in America. 22 Sep. 1986 ‹www.ericnuzum.com/banned/›.
Sparrow, Kelly. "Music censorship (part 1) : A brief history." Examiner: Inside Source For Everything Local. 22 Sep. 2009 ‹http://www.examiner.com/x-16046-Lexington-Live-Music-Examiner~y2009m8d26-Music-censorship-part-1--A-brief-history›.
"Why It Took MTV So Long To Play Black Music Videos ." Find Articles at BNET. 9 Oct. 2006. 22 Sep. 2009 ‹http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1355/is_14_110/ai_n16807343/›.