Censorship Under the Guise of Protecting the Children
Rock and Roll Culture
Hip Hop Culture
Is Censorship in Music Viable and Does it Make a Difference?
There have been many attempts by society control music. Governmental statutes, agency regulations, business controls and parents have all tried to censor the music. Sometimes they have succeeded and sometimes they have not. The examination of various aspects of rock and rap music censorship involves general societal reactions to new and alien music, racism, governmental responses, media outlets such as Rolling Stone magazine and the New York Times, and the music industry itself. Each of these serve as gatekeepers, veritable controllers of the music and lyrics that make their way out into our collective consciousness.
Rock and roll has become a prime target for the censorship campaigns of a wide range of special interest lobbies, including religious, political, economic, and musical. Such vehement opposition, whether well intentioned or cloaked in self-interest, has existed almost perpetually throughout rock music's rather short lifetime. Strangely, the passion and energy that have been used in attempts to either alter or suppress rock and roll music seem only to have spurred rock musicians to further flaunt whatever aspect of their music or behavior is considered to be objectionable in a show of defiant celebration.
At the heart of the issue is the fundamental departure of attitudes and practices from those that have characterized the power culture since the colonization of the United States. This change in taste is dramatic because it symbolizes widespread acceptance of the musical customs of black America and rural white America. These sectors of society had very little prestige and were dismissed as irrelevant to national standards and priorities. What was new in the 1950s was the appearance of an enthusiastic audience of middle-class teenagers from white America, coupled with a new designation for the music - "rock and roll." Young people with a new fascination for minority music proved to be one of the major forces behind the reshaping of many social patterns in American society during the second half of the 1900s.
American parents have attempted to censor music by organizing and pressuring government and industry in the direction of control of youth-based music and youth culture. Much of the censorship by Caucasian adults has been done under the guise of protecting children. The fear is clearly that children might emulate the behavior of the rock and rap culture, as they become adults through new and increasingly shocking music and lyrics.
Much more than just music for its fans, rock and roll is a subculture in the strictest sense of the word. Initially, most of the reporting on rock music took the position that it was merely a gimmick, but later observers of popular culture wrote on its social, economic, and political functions, along with the music's possible implications.
One way to control new creative music sounds and messages is through public criticism. Public disapproval by special interest groups has been especially notable in the past several years.
The earliest censorship efforts in rock were, of course, concerning the lyrics. As early as 1950, an official attempt was made to ban shipping and selling "obscene disks" via interstate commerce regulation. The courts ruled that records fell under the same provision as films and printed material. Broadcasters were aware of potential problems over risque lyrics and self-censored in order to avoid potential problems. In 1951, Dottie O'Brien's "Four or Five Times" and Dean Martin's "Wham Barn, Thank You Ma'am" were banned from airplay by LA radio stations. In 1953, Congress rejected a bill to regulate interstate shipment of obscene music. These incidents illustrate the same concerns that were later applied to rock and roll.
At the same time that America was reveling in the afterglow of the crossover anthem, "We Are the World," the popular black music culture of the mid-1980s underwent profound transformations. The emergence of rap dealt the apparent this celebration of racial melding that had been taking place square between the eyes. Since that time, hip-hop culture, with rap music as just one element, has been both a key influence on the tastes, styles, and modes of personal expression among American youth, as well as a representation of the emergence of a new cultural orthodoxy.
The misogynistic flavor of many rap lyrics, including "Wild Thing," along with the violent brutality of the act of rape itself, are justifiable causes for concern. However, contrary to the implications in the tone of much media coverage and public outcry, there is no proven casual relationship between rap music and violent crime. Regardless, the hip-hop culture and African-American youth, notably males, have become inextricably associated in the mainstream media with rape, the rise of drug trafficking, gang activity, car-jacking, and overall violence against the police.
Hip-hop culture resonates in vastly different ways with various groups. For its core audience of urban youth, hip-hop is uses the material and symbols of inner city life and death to clarify the search for meaning and empowerment. Hip-hop moves beyond aesthetic expression and functions almost as an alternative media form that is distinct from mainstream entities. Chuck D, leader of Public Enemy and a self-styled spokesman for hip-hop, has often referred to rap music and the larger hip-hop community as the CNN of African-American youth.
Since 1956, censorship, regulation, and control have all been issues concerning rock n' roll. Public indignation and virulent criticism were responses to the very nature of the music form. Rock music was so alien at its beginning that it scrutinized, at first over the sounds, then over the lyrics. Yet, rock went on, albeit in many hybrid forms. Over 40 years of rock music and its offshoots are all the evidence that is needed that the music flourished despite vehement opposition and blatant attempts at censorship.
Censorship in any form goes against the grain of many Americans. The desire to protect children, to control and regulate behaviors and attitudes, to provide positive role models is certainly legitimate for most parents. But where does "control" turn into "censorship?" At what point are creative thought and new ideas being irreparably harmed? Society has always undergone changes, and that will continue to happen.
Is Censorship in Music Viable and Does It Make a Difference?
There have been many attempts by society control music. Governmental statutes, agency regulations, business controls and parents have all tried to censor the music. Sometimes they have succeeded and sometimes they have not. It is important to take a look at censorship efforts through the offending lyrics and the surrounding youth culture beginning with rock in the mid-1960s and on through rap and the hip-hop culture beginning in the mid-1980s. It is a dilemma for many people to ideally believe in free expression as part of democracy, yet at the same time to not be absolute in that belief for various reasons. The limits of such tolerance about popular music are interesting to examine (Davidson and Winfield, 1999).
The examination of various aspects of rock and rap music censorship involves many diverse and wide-ranging topics. It involves general societal reactions to new and alien music, racism, governmental responses, media outlets such as the New York Times, and the music industry itself. Each of these serve as gatekeepers, veritable controllers of the music and lyrics that make their way out into our collective consciousness. Censorship, or "bleeping," has been a part of a diverse American society for a long time. As nineteenth-century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville once noted, "intolerance runs alongside of a democracy."
Legendary music producer Sam Phillips has had firsthand experience with disapproval of musical expression. In 1957, when promoting Jerry Lee Lewis' song, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," a record distributor wanted him to delete the word "it" from the "shake it, baby" refrain. Needless to say, Phillips refused. Another 1950s rocker, Elvis Presley, "frightened a lot of people," according to Kenneth A. Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, speaking at an Associated Press Managing Editors conference. He noted it was Elvis' appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," during which the producers of the show refused to show the singer below the waist, that provided many young Americans with their first taste of censorship. For Jill Sobule, censorship reared its head when her single, "I Kissed a Girl," struggled to find airtime due to its lesbian theme. Steppenwolf's John Kay learned early on about the effects of censorship. Growing up in East Germany after World War II made him keenly aware of how badly things can go when oppression to ideas sets in and no one speaks up. Phillips noted that instead of spending their time suppressing music, people should encourage and celebrate it. "Music has done more to break down areas of censorship, racism, international understanding... More than all of the damn ambassadors put together... around the world" (AJR, 1990, p. 20).