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Says Who? Music Censorship In The New Millenium

Says Who?
Citizenship in America holds many rights. Among these rights are the right to vote, the right to bear arms, and the most widely treasured but largely manipulated, right to free speech. As a citizen of America the right to free speech comes along with many responsibilities, but for the small percentage that exercise their right of free speech to a large public forum, it comes with many stipulations. The more prominent figures under a barrage of criticism are those involved in the arts. In our history classic books have been burned, news stories have been edited, and music has been turned off. What’s interesting about this group is that the latter is not covered by the first amendment. In this essay I will be exploring the accusations made based on the influence of music, the backlash of the artists, and hypothesize how the scapegoat accusations and censorship of music will affect the twenty first century.

First I would like to address the idea of music censorship. When the majority of the population thinks of music censorship the first amendment comes to mind. Americans are mislead in this assumption. The first amendment states, ?Congress shall make no law representing an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and petition the Government for a redress of grievances.? From this one may assume that the censorship of music is prohibited based on the law of our constitution. However, when music is censored, our government does not do it, but instead by special interest groups. In the instances that court hearings are conducted to determine whether or not an artist or artists have the right to produce and mass market their work, the court hearings are rarely tried as a civil rights hearing. ?According to existing laws, art is constitutionally protected speech. But music is not censored on the basis of art; it is censored on the basis of obscenity.? (Nuzum 2) Special interest groups and corporations claiming to be protecting the interests of their consumers have enforced most of the censorship that has been placed on music in the United States.

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Organizations such as the Christian Collation, The American Family Association, and The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) have been leaders in bringing offensive music into the mainstream eye. Their attempts to shield minors from more distasteful music have been publicized and fueled all the way to the Supreme Court. Tipper Gore founded the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985. Gore, along with other board members were involved in the placement of warning labels on music. The labels read Parental Advisory-Explicit Lyrics and are placed on albums according to set guidelines. This instatement of the labels has been enforced, though there is still no evidence that the labels have deterred the youth from listening to the music. Instead there may be evidence that the labels have actually boosted sales. PMRC head, Barbara Wyatt, recognizes this truth. ?In an issue of the Roc, a magazine that opposes music censorship, Wyatt was quoted, ??Even if there is a label on [a recording], any child can buy it, and the forbidden fruit is often the most appealing fruit.? (Hull 18).
Censorship done by corporations is evident in history. Decisions made such as the Ed Sullivan show taping Elvis from the waist up was were not court mandated, but instead agreed upon and enforced by the employees of the company. The Beatles who are arguably one of the most influential recording groups in popular culture were molded into a marketable commodity by their record label, Capitol Records. Their musical lyrics were controversial, but more offending than that was the original cover for their album, Yesterday and Today. The original cover had the men wearing ?white smocks covered with raw, bloody meat and surrounded by decapitated baby dolls.? (Nuzum 1) This cover was recalled and then replaced with the four men wearing suits and smiling by the record label.
In recent history, stores such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart have taken stands against offensive music. Neither store will carry recordings that have been tagged with the Parental Advisory sticker. ?Wal-Mart has even go so far as to Ban Sheryl Crow’s self titled album because on of the songs contains an unflattering comment about the retailer’s gun sales policy.? (Nuzum 10) Wal-Mart’s ban of recordings with warning labels has caused much of the controversy since Wal-Mart is the largest distributor of music in the United States. Without Wal-Mart carrying major artists the labels would be losing a lot of money. ?Because of Wal-Mart’s clout record labels and bands will design different covers and booklets, omit songs from their albums, will electronically mask objectionable words and even change lyrics in order to gain a place on Wal-Mart’s shelves.?(Strauss). This has been dubbed ?corporate censorship?. The corporate censorship is thought to be as powerful if not more powerful than government censorship.
The next question to ask is what exactly is considered offensive? In this day when one thinks of music censorship, their thoughts may immediately jump to a new genre of music called rap. Others may think of alternative bands such as Marilyn Manson or Korn. With further investigation, however, one may find that all genres of music have come under the eye of censorship and have carried the blame of problems in society. I was shocked to find that Mozart’s ?Marriage of Figaro’ was frequently censored (Economist 1) as well as the play that was based on the work. The work was censored because its servant hero fools his master. Jazz music was thought to be ?the Devil’s Music? when it appeared in the early 1900’s. ?At least sixty communities across the nation had enacted laws prohibiting jazz in public dance halls.? (Carter and Lindsay 2) Elvis Presley who is now a popular cultural icon was criticized and censored because of his dancing.
In the past ten years censorship has targeted the rap community. In 1990 a rap group named 2 Live Crew released an album titled ?Nasty as they want to be’. A nationwide manhunt for the group was commenced and the album was banned in six states claiming that the album was obscene. The album was not to be sold without proof of identification from the purchaser proving that they were over the age eighteen or the store could face up to $100,000. In 1992 ?MTV [refused] to air Public Enemy’s video for ?Hazy shade of criminal? because it [violated] the networks standard for violence.? (Nuzum 6) Ice Cube’s pictures were banned from retail stores following the controversy of his album Death Certificate, the ban extended to his ads for St. Ides Malt Liquor, for whom Cube was a spokesperson.? (Nuzum 7) ?Ice-T was forced to drop the song Cop Killer from his Body Count Album one month after the album was released.? (Nuzum 7,8) Critics feared the song would provoke youth in America to go on a police-shooting spree. In 1997 2 Live Crew was again catching bad press because owners of a hall they played at were arrested and sentenced to six months in jail for holding the concert. In 1999 the National Football League dropped a series of four commercials based on Eminem’s song ?My Name Is’ because they felt the song was too controversial. (Nuzum 21)
In all of these instances, the artists or promoters were not chastised under terms of the First Amendment, but instead for obscenity. The genre of rap originated in what can be defined as ghettos. The inner cities of New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Oakland were breeding discouraged youth with much to say but no platform to tell their story from. It was the emergence of rap in the mid eighties that showed the rest of America the brutal reality of what was going on. Instead of politicians and other citizens of the country taking note and inspecting the situation, it seemed that the main focus was to hush the raging, abrupt voices and pretend like nothing was wrong. The overall ideal was to stop the music before it tainted the innocent, virgin minds of the middle class children being raised in Middle America.
Rap artists haven’t been the only ones feeling the brunt of skeptics. Rock bands such as Marilyn Manson and even radio friendly Third Eye Blind have been banned from the mainstream. Pop sensations such as the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera have been under microscope for their style of dress and the appropriateness of their lyrics for their target audience’s. Garth Brooks has had videos banned from The Nashville Network because of depictions of domestic violence. K.D. Lang was boycotted because she is a lesbian and the Indigo Girls have seen their share of concerts cancelled for the very same thing, yet Eminem is boycotted because he talks in his songs about how homosexuality is wrong. Marilyn Manson and his cohorts have felt the wrath of the media with every step they take. Prevalent in this example is the murders of 15 people at Columbine High School in 1999.The band was blamed for influencing the two teenage gunmen enough to get them to open fire on the school.
With all of this controversy and finger-pointing going on in society, I thought that I would next disclose what the artists have said in their defense. The artists have used many tactics in fighting the snarling media machine. They have battled it in the courtroom, on television, at concerts, and using the very format that made the media fume in the first place- their music. When Tipper Gore went before the Senate in the eighties with the PMRC in tow she not only encountered rapper Ice T, but also musician Frank Zappa. ?In the hearings Zappa commented that ?Taken as a whole, the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of toilet training program to house-break all composers and performers of the lyrics of a few.’? (Sunset Strip 1) He also continued to say that ?The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense that fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes on the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design.? (Superlink)
After the accusations were made for the Columbine shooting, recording artists took powerful stances. Each artist that commented on record of their thoughts of the influence the music had on the murderers pointed out that music wasn’t the reason for the shooting, instead they each implied that the parents were to take full blame for the actions of their children. Marilyn Manson chose to write an essay in the music magazine Rolling Stone. The essay was two pages long and finished with the following paragraph:
?I think that the National Rifle Association is too powerful to take on; so most people choose [the game] Doom, The Basketball Diaries, or yours truly. This kind of controversy does not help me sell records or tickets, and I wouldn’t want it to. I’m a controversial artist, one who dares to have an opinion and bothers to create music and videos that challenge people’s ideas in a world that is watered-down and hollow. In my work I examine the America we live in, and I’ve always tries to show people that the devil we blame our atrocities on is really each one of us. So don’t expect the end of the world to come one day out of the blue ? it’s been happening every day for a long time.? (Manson 2)
Rapper Eminem took a different approach and included his thoughts in his sophomore album, The Marshall Mathers LP. There are three songs directly addressing censorship on this album. Track number 3 titled The Way That I Am deals with the hype around Columbine. In the second verse he states ?All of this controversy circles me and it seems like the media immediately points a finger at me?When a dude’s getting bullied and shoots up his school and they blame it on Marilyn?where were the parents at? And look where it’s at, Middle America. Now it’s a tragedy, Now it’s so sad to see and upper-class city having this happening. Then they attack Eminem cause I rap this way.? (Eminem) Eminem also has a song on the album that dismisses the pressure put on him by the record label and the critics called Who Knew. The song explains that most of his songs were recorded before he was a celebrity and being marketed to impressionable youth, all the while maintaining that he has little influence in decisions made by other people.

In the wake of the Columbine massacre and the White House summit where President Clinton asked makers of CDs, movies, and video games to stop marketing violent products to children Richard Patrick of the rock group filter voiced his opinion to reporter Christopher O’Connor. Among some other choice words he stated ?[The President and other politicians seem to be suggesting that] It’s not the parents who are to blame for children. It’s not religion. It’s not the fact that these kids have slipped through the fingers of society. It’s not the institution that has failed the kids. It’s pop music. It’s movies.? (Massmic)
Overall the feeling of an ever-stifling government and society is wearing thin on those scapegoat artists that can’t seem to stay out the minefield. In all the ludicrous accusations that have been cast it seems that the genres of rock and rap continue to wear the scarlet letters. But when will it end? My prediction is never. As long as artists continue to push the limits they will be chastised for tainting the minds of youth. As long as new ideas are brought to the table there will be people to veto them.
In looking at music history and considering the ban of jazz music in the 1920’s I feel that until the older generation has passed, acceptance will not be unanimous. Jazz, by today’s standards, is thought of by most as mellow, non-abrasive music. The stigmas that followed it around eighty years ago have been forgotten. The fact is the question remains, where should the line be drawn for what our society considers acceptable. If in this day mainstream music is pushing moral codes such as murder, adultery, and domestic violence, how long will it be before society deems today’s music mellow and non abrasive?
Hold That Tune (1998, November 28). The Economist. [Online] Available:
The History of Music Censorship(2000). [Online] Available:

Carter, M.A.; Calvin, L.A. (2000). The Devil’s Music: 1920’s Jazz. Culture Shock: The TV Series and Beyond. [Online] Available:

Eminem (1999). The Way That I Am. The Marshall Mathers LP. Interscope Records
Hull, M. (1999). Censorship in America (First Edition). California: ABC-Clio.

Manson, M. (1999). Columbine: Who’s Fault Is It? Rolling Stone Magazine. [Online] Available:

Nuzum, E. (2000). A Brief History of Banned Music in the United States [Online] Available:

Nuzum, E. (2001). Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America (First Edition) HarperCollins
O’Connor, C. (1999). Addicted to Noise. [Online] Available

Zappa, F. (1985) Senate Testimony [Online] Available:



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