Music Censorship in America

Table of Content

According to Nuzem (7), music censorship refers to any discriminatory act that advocates or permits the suppression, control, or prohibition of music, disregarding the desires of the creator or intended audience. The question arises: how prevalent is it in contemporary America? Furthermore, isn’t the freedom of speech for artists protected under the first amendment? Despite the first amendment’s assertion that “congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” (Nuzum 177), one might be astonished by the numerous musicians who have had to modify their lyrics, incited riots, had their music destroyed, witnessed their most popular songs being banned from radio airplay, or even experienced stores refusing to sell their albums.

According to America’s constitution, music censorship goes against the principles of freedom. As Lewis (1) argues, it is considered one of the most powerful weapons against freedom. However, the more it is accepted and implemented, the more America’s freedom is compromised. Thus, music censorship can be seen as un-American.

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Censorship has been present throughout the history of government. In the 1860s, music censorship was documented in America. After the Civil War, Southern individuals were prohibited from publicly singing pro-Confederate songs. Northern occupation forces believed that songs like “I’m a Good Ol’ Rebel” and “Bonnie Blue Flag” could fuel anti-Reconstructionist sentiment, potentially leading to a Southern rebellion (Nuzum 211).

Despite ongoing censorship in various smaller instances, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the issue escalated significantly. In 1953, six counties in South Carolina enacted a law that banned the playing of popular music on jukeboxes on Sundays or within earshot of a church (Nuzum 214). Throughout this decade, numerous popular song lyrics were required to be altered. An instance of this took place in 1953.

The publisher of the song “These Foolish Things” made changes to the lyrics because they felt that the original words were too sexually explicit. In the altered version, the phrase “gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow” was replaced with “a seaplane rising from an ocean billow” (Nuzum 214). In addition, numerous songs were banned from radio broadcast during this time period due to certain themes. An example of this occurred in 1956 when the ABC Radio Network banned Billie Holiday’s “Love For Sale” from all of its stations because of its prostitution-related themes (Nuzum 219).

According to an issue of the popular magazine Variety, there was a declaration that rock music should be banned for causing a significant increase in juvenile violence and disorder (Nuzum 219). It is not ironic that the biggest and most popular rock star of that time also happened to be the most controversial. However, what is ironic is that during the late 1950s, some people wanted Elvis Presley to leave town, but now he is featured on a postage stamp (Nuzum 6). In my opinion, Elvis Presley was not only known as the “King,” but also as the “King of Controversy.”

During the 1950’s, adults held a fear of the impact that rock and roll, with its tribal and jungle-like beats, would have on their children (Nuzum 6). Elvis Presley’s rising popularity resulted in numerous radio stations banning his records, citing explicit content. A deejay in Nashville named Great Scott publicly burned six hundred of Elvis’s records at a local park. WSPT in Minneapolis declared a permanent ban on airing any of Presley’s music. Additionally, KMBC in Los Angeles refused to play Elvis’s Christmas Album, claiming it was as inappropriate as “having Tempest Storm give Christmas gifts to my kids” (Nuzum 220). Nobody felt the effects of censorship more directly than Elvis Presley.

In 1958, his music, along with other rock and R&B music, led to a consideration by congress for legislation that would require song lyrics to be examined and modified by a review committee before being broadcast or offered for sale (Nuzum 220). The controversy then shifted to bands like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones during the 1960s. In 1966, a pastor at the New Haven Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, made a vow to excommunicate any church member who listened to Beatles records or attended their concerts (Nuzum 226). Additionally, The Rolling Stones agreed to change some of their lyrics for their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show (Nuzum 227).

Throughout the next few decades, various forms of censorship persist. In 1977, the Sex Pistols, a British punk band, initially face visa denials for their first American tour (Nuzum 240). Similarly, in 1989, the RIAA introduces a black and white universal parental warning sticker that states “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” (Nuzum 264). Following this, in 1991, Wal-Mart, the country’s largest retailer, declares it will not stock albums with such stickers. As a result, record companies start modifying album artwork, lyrics, and songs to maintain access to Wal-Mart’s extensive customer base (Nuzum 275).

Marilyn Manson, another contemporary artist, has also been affected by censorship. In one incident, eighteen-year-old John Schroder was arrested in a grocery store in New Braunfels, Texas and charged with making an obscene display for wearing a Marilyn Manson T-shirt (Nuzum 284). Additionally, Marilyn Manson’s shows have faced protests from religious groups and parents in Lacrosse, Wisconsin; Evansville, Indiana; and Columbia, South Carolina (Nuzum 284). In Saginaw, Michigan, a local minister collected twenty thousand signatures in support of canceling a Marilyn Manson concert at a city-owned venue (Nuzum 284).

These are just a few examples of censorship in our country. However, the frequency of censorship does not validate its presence. There are many reasons why censorship is ineffective and should be avoided. “Limiting new ideas not only harms creators, but also their audience and future generations who inherit their contributions” (Postrel 162).

Forcing an artist to alter their work against their wishes is unjust and only leads to a misinterpretation of the artist’s intended message. A notable instance of this occurred after the World Trade Center attacks, when Clear Channel Radio Broadcasting released a widely criticized list of “questionable songs”.

According to Killingsworth (2), many songs on the list were understandably bothersome right after the attacks. Examples include Dave Mathews Band’s “Crash Into Me” and Lynyrd Skynard’s “Tuesday’s Gone”. However, even songs like Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” and the classic Tramps hit “Disco Inferno” were considered potentially insensitive. Surprisingly, Lewis Armstrong’s touching song, “What a Wonderful World”, was also deemed unsuitable. It is notable that Outkast’s “Bombs over Baghdad” is missing from the list. This blatant act of unfair censorship by Clear Channel Executives serves as a perfect example (Killingsworth 2).

Some individuals impacted by the attacks would find solace in listening to Lewis Armstrong’s timeless piece, “What a Wonderful World,” as a means to inspire them to move forward and recognize the beauty life has to offer. It can be assumed that Armstrong composed the song with a similar intention. However, this song was not heard by these individuals due to a comprehensive ban enforced by all Clear Channel stations. Surprisingly, Outkast’s track “Bombs Over Baghdad,” which has direct references to terrorism, was not included in this list. Despite Killingsworth’s belief that it should have been included due to its connection to the attacks, its omission only reinforces the point that no one possesses the ability to determine what is suitable for everyone. Therefore, censorship should not be employed. Another compelling reason for avoiding censorship is that each individual possesses distinct moral values and personal experiences, which inevitably shape their interpretation of lyrics.

According to D”Angelo (2), although certain rap songs may offend certain individuals, they are an accurate representation of the world for others. Eminem’s music serves as a prime illustration of this. His lyrics contain explicit language and slang.

If you have a life similar to Eminem’s, these lyrics may sound familiar as they use a particular style of language. However, congressmen and radio executives who have led privileged lives might find the lyrics offensive or inappropriate due to their lack of exposure to such language and situations. Nonetheless, their disapproval does not give them the power to remove or modify the lyrics according to their preferences. Johnny Clegg, a South African musician who faced censorship during Apartheid for his politically-oriented music, serves as another example of how interpretation can differ and how he opted to confront the system.

Clegg invented lyrics with dual meanings to overcome the restrictive regulations. During his performances, he would unveil the concealed messages when introducing songs. Gradually, his audiences grasped the true intentions behind the lyrics. An example lies in the love song titled Two Humans on the Run, where Clegg symbolically represents the struggle between two individuals as a reflection of the struggle between two races attempting to reconcile but failing.

“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). Ultimately, censorship should not be practiced as it opposes the constitution; a vital force that has made America strong. The First Amendment of the Constitution 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 the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances (Nuzum 177). Clearly, censorship goes against this amendment.

The act of government censoring goes against the law’s guarantee of freedom of speech. It is essential to preserve our nation’s integrity by avoiding any compromise on our constitution through censorship. Eric Nuzem’s discussion on Elvis Presley serves as evidence that censorship has proven ineffective in our country. Nuzem explains how what was once seen as youthful defiance against societal norms has transformed into a cultural symbol over time.

“It is evident now that the youth of the fifties are now part of the mainstream,” (6) reminding us that history tends to repeat itself. Censorship is unjust, impractical, and goes against our constitutional principles. Clare Booth Luce succinctly captures the essence of censorship, stating that it should start at home but not extend beyond that point” (qtd.

in Nuzum 149).

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

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