Music Censorship in America

“Music censorship is any discriminatory act that advocates or allows the suppression, control, or banning of music against the wishes of the creator or intended audience” (Nuzem 7). So how common is it in America today? Isn”t artist’s freedom of speech protected through the first amendment?Even though the first amendment states “congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” (Nuzum 177), one would be surprised with the number of musicians who have been forced to alter lyrics, who have been the cause of riots, who have had their music destroyed, have had there most famous songs banned from the radio, and even who have had stores refuse too sell their albums.

Is this right? Not according to America’s constitution. “Censorship of the arts is one of the strongest weapons against freedom” (Lewis 1). The more it is approved and practiced, the more freedom America loses.Music censorship is not American.

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Censorship is not new; it has been around for as long as government has. One of the first documented instances of music censorship in America was during the 1860’s. Following the Civil War, Southerners are forbidden from publicly singing pro-Confederate songs. Songs like “I”m a Good Ol” Rebel” (with its open and violent disdain for the Northern way of life) and “Bonnie Blue Flag” (chronicling the cessation of the Southern states at the beginning of the war) are thought by Northern occupation forces to foster anti-Reconstructionist sentiment, which could give rise to a Southern rebellion (Nuzum 211).

Although censorship continued in many minor accounts, it wasn”t until the 1950’s that the problem took a drastic climb. In 1953, Six counties in South Carolina pass a law that “prohibits the playing of popular music in jukeboxes anytime on Sunday or anytime within hearing distance of a church” (Nuzum 214). During this decade, many lyrics of popular songs are forced to be changed. One example of this occurs in1953.

Lyrics in the song “These Foolish Things” are changed by the publisher because of concerns that the original words are too sexually aggressive.The phrase “gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow” is altered to “a seaplane rising from an ocean billow” (Nuzum 214). Also during this decade, many songs are completely banned from the radio, due to certain themes. An example if this is during the year of 1956 when “ABC Radio Network bans Billie Holiday’s “Love For Sale” from all of it’s stations because of its prostitution themes” (Nuzum 219).

During the same year, an issue of the popular magazine Variety “declares that rock music should be banned for causing a staggering wave of juvenile violence and mayhem” (Nuzum 219).It’s doesn”t seem too ironic that the largest and most popular rock star of these times also proves to be the most controversial. But what does seem ironic is that in the late 1950’s “some wanted Elvis Presley to run out of town, though today he is featured on a postage stamp” (Nuzum 6). In my opinion, Elvis Presley was not only the “King”, but he was also the “King of Controversy”.

“In the 1950’s, adults viewed rock and roll with a paranoia regarding the effects of its tribal, jungle beats on their children” (Nuzum 6).As Elvis Presley’s popularity surges, several radio stations across the country pull his records, claiming they are too obscene. A Nashville deejay known as Great Scott burns six hundred Elvis records in a city park; WSPT in Minneapolis vows never to air any of Presley’s records; and Los Angeles station KMBC refuses to play Elvis’s Christmas Album, saying it is tantamount to “having Tempest Storm give Christmas gifts to my kids” (Nuzum 220). If any artist has felt the direct effects of censorship, it was Elvis Presley.

In 1958, his music, along with other rock and R&B music, caused “congress to consider legislation that requires song lyrics to be screened and altered by a review committee before being broadcast or offered for sale (Nuzum 220). During the 1960’s, controversy shifts to bands such as The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. In one instance during the year of 1966, “a pastor at the New Haven Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, vows to excommunicate any church member who listens to Beatles records or attends Beatles concerts” (Nuzum 226).Also, “The Rolling Stones agree to alter some of their lyrics for appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show” (Nuzum 227).

During the next few decades, censorship continues in many ways, such as in 1977, when “British punk band the Sex Pistols are initially denied visas to enter the United States for their first American tour” (Nuzum 240), and in 1989, “the RIAA releases its black and white universal parental warning sticker in early March. It reads, “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” (Nuzum 264). In 1991, Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, announces it will not carry any stickered albums in its stores.Record companies begin altering album artwork, lyrics, and songs in order to maintain access to Wal-Mart’s considerable customer base (Nuzum 275).

Another modern artist who has felt the impact of censorship is Marilyn Manson. As noted by Nuzum, “In New Braunfels, Texas, eighteen-year-old John Schroder is arrested in a local grocery store and charged with making an obscene display for wearing a Marilyn Manson T-shirt (284). “Also, religious groups and parents protest his shows in Lacrosse, Wisconsin; Evansville, Indiana; and Columbia, South Carolina (Nuzum 284).In Saginaw, Michigan, a local minister collects twenty thousand signatures that support canceling a Marilyn Manson concert at a city owned venue” (Nuzum 284).

These are just some of the never-ending list of censorship examples our nation has experienced. But just because censorship occurs this often doesn”t make it right. There are many reasons why censorship does not work, and shouldn”t be attempted. “Curbing new ideas hurts not only individual creators but the audience for which they create and the posterity that inherits their legacy” (Postrel 162).

It is not fair for someone to force the altering of an artist’s work against their wishes. This does nothing but cause misinterpretation of the artist’s original intentions. One example of this is the effects of the World Trade Center attacks. After the attacks, Clear Channel Radio Broadcasting released the now infamous list of “questionable songs”.

Many of the songs on the list were understandably bothersome right after the attacks, such as Dave Mathews Band’s “Crash Into Me”, or Lynyrd Skynard’s “Tuesday’s Gone”. But what about Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets”, or the classic Tramps hit “Disco Inferno”?Even Lewis Armstrong’s touching song, “What a Wonderful World”, was deemed potentially insensitive. One noticeable omission from that music list is Outkast’s “Bombs over Baghdad” (Killingsworth 2). Clear Channel Executives show a perfect example of unfair censorship with their list.

Some people affected by the attacks would love to hear Lewis Armstrong’s classic, “What a Wonderful World” to help them realize that they must move on and how great life really can be, and I”m sure Armstrong wrote the song with similar intentions, but they didn”t hear it because of a “don”t-play” list obeyed by all Clear Channel stations.Outkast’s terrorist-directed song “Bombs Over Baghdad” was not put on this list, even though Killingsworth thought it should be, because of its relation to the attacks. This goes only to prove that no-one has the knowledge to decide what is best for everyone, so therefore no-one should try when it comes to censoring. Another reason censorship should not be practiced is because every person has different morals and past experiences, and these characteristics come in play when interpreting lyrics.

While some rap songs might be considered offensive by one group of people, they are reflections of reality to another (qtd. in D”Angelo 2). An example of this would be the music of Eminem. His lyrics are full of vulgar language use, and slang.

To a person that has lived a life similar to Eminem, these lyrics are familiar because that is more than likely the way that person speaks and is used to hearing. But for a congressman or radio executive that has lived a “pampered” life, and has not been exposed to such language and situations, it can be easy to see why they might find those lyrics offensive and inappropriate.But just because they find it inappropriate does not give them the right to take it away or to alter it to better suite their opinions. Another example of how interpretation can differ is how Johnny Clegg, a white South African musician who experienced years of censorship during Apartheid for his politically-oriented music, chose to fight the system.

To by-pass the restrictive rules, one of Clegg’s solutions was to create lyrics that had double-meanings. When introducing a song during a performance, he would refer to the hidden message. Over time, his audiences came to understand what the lyrics really meant.For instance, in the love song, Two Humans on the Run, Clegg uses the conflict between two individuals as a metaphor for the conflict between two races who were trying to come together but could not.

“The heart is a shattered province, Pockets of love still hold out in the ruins, Old memories send me reinforcements, But they were ambushed on high ground, I”m living through a war in peace time” (Lewis 1). Lastly, the most important reason why censorship should not be practiced is because it’s against the constitution; and the constitution has been the backbone that has made America strong.The first Amendment of the Constitution reads: Congress shall not 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 the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances (Nuzum 177). Censorship clearly does not follow this amendment.

Government censoring is a law abridging the freedom of speech. To keep our nation strong, we must not bend our constitution by practicing censorship. So has our country already proved that censorship doesn”t work?That seems to be the case as Eric Nuzem speaks about Elvis Presley. “What once was a youthful rebellion against the mainstream, has become, decades later, a cultural symbol.

Of course, that’s now that those fifties youth are the mainstream” (6). One would think that people would realize that history repeats itself. Censorship is not fair, practical, nor is it supported by our constitution. The practice of censorship can be summed up excellently by Clare Booth Luce, “Censorship, like charity, should begin at home, but unlike charity, it should end there” (qtd.

in Nuzum 149).

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Music Censorship in America. (2018, Mar 02). Retrieved from