Music Censorship and Ratings: Against Artistic Expression or for Our Own Protection

Music Censorship is any discriminatory act that advocates or allows the suppression, control, or banning of music or music related works against the wishes of its creator or intended audience (Nuzum 7). Supporters of music censorship argue that it will protect listeners from vice pollution. Those against censorship feel that it infringes on an artist’s right to free speech.

The First Amendment grants the right to express oneself without restraint. If this is the case, how can activists and other organizations such as PMRC, the Parents Music Resource Center, restrict the distributions of music? Music censorship interferes with an artist’s ability to produce music and a consumer’s choice to listen to it and is therefore an infringement of the first amendment.

The most influential form of music censorship is found at the government level. At a time where references to sex and drugs are heavily loaded into the media it is no wonder parents want to protect children from questionable lyrics. In 1985, Tipper Gore formed PMRC to target the music industry. Their intentions were to lobby for the implementation of a ratings system advising parents and consumers of questionable material. The women of PMRC insisted they were not censors. These were the same women that flexed their political muscles to subtly threaten record companies to “clean up their act, or else face political intervention” (Party 2).

This mandatory ratings system would protect sensitive viewers from explicit lyrical content and graphic album covers. It would be similar to the Motion Picture Associations rating systems designed to restrict accessibility to younger viewers. If regulating the distribution of music wasn’t extreme enough, they also lobbied record companies to “reassess” the contracts of those performers deemed objectionable by the committee

In the fall of 1984, Members of the Ohio Parent Teacher Organization shortly became allies with the PMRC (Nuzum 18). This group also wanted to lobby for the implementation of a ratings system. They wrote a letter to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and were completely ignored (19). Less than a year later, the RIAA could not continue ignoring these organizations. With the political backing from the PMRC and the dedicated grassroots effort displayed by the Ohio PTO, it became clear that something had to be done.

Overall public opinion and concern became the last piece of the puzzle to implement the ratings system. The driving force behind the government’s actions to regulate the music industry came from public pressure. If the public isn’t happy with something, the government is obligated to appease their concerns. Nationwide music distributors were also at the mercy of the buying public. Reverend Jimmy Swaggart was the first to pressure retailers to stop carrying rock music because it was “poison” (Nuzum 23). As a result, Wal-Mart stores across the country were forced to pull all rock albums and magazines from their shelves.

In 1966, the Beatles released the album Yesterday and Today. The album featured the four wearing bloody butcher aprons, with miscellaneous doll parts spreading the cover. Their cover selection was in direct response to the American record companies “butchering” their album to make it sound like previous ones. In response, the public conducted various record burnings, protests, and boycotts of the album. Public outrage forced the record company to devise an alternate album cover to replace the more vulgar cover.

There were a select group of musicians that were in favor of the new music restrictions. Some truly believed in the social responsibility of music censorship while others felt the restrictions created buzz and increased desirability. Among them were Jefferson Airplane, Blind Faith, and Mike Love of the Beach Boys. Love was the first financial investor in the PMRC campaign. He gave a five-thousand dollar start up check to Tipper aiding the political expenses. Paul Kantner, founder of Jefferson Airplane, supported censorship because it created more buzz and publicity for his albums (Nuzum 4).

In 1969, Blind Faith’s debut album cover proves this theory. “The original cover featured a photograph of a naked 11 year old girl, holding a metallic, rather phallic-looking model airplane. The airplane points toward her lower abdomen” (Timeline 5). In response to public outcry, the band’s label, Atco Records, was forced to produce a more scaled down version. The label eventually pulled the sanitized version because it didn’t sell as well as the original (5). Blind Faith wanted the PMRC to assign a ratings system because it would further entice their fans to buy the album.

The PMRC took it one step further by requesting that lyric sheets be handed out to potential patrons. The music industry might as well slap a sticker on CDs saying ‘if you buy me, it’ll piss your parents off.’ Who wouldn’t want to do that? Freedom Party put it best saying:

One must wonder as to the sensibility behind an idea that demands the printing of “questionable” lyrics, the distribution of these lyrics to radio stations, and the segregation of all such material from the rest. Could anyone else have possibly devised a better marketing scheme to attract attention to their product? (Party 4)

Like all new ideas and theory, the ratings system had some problems. Experts were worried about the lengths pro-censorship organizations were willing to go to in order to sanitize our society. If the goal was to suppress violence or sexual content in the music industry, the line would not stop there. Restrictions would affect art, literature, and other forms of media. There were many questions that evolved in response to the formation of the PMRC. What constitutes as questionable material? Will there be unpleasant repercussions by censoring music? Don’t we have more important thing to worry about?
Questionable material is often in the eye of the beholder.

The majority of college students are desensitized to the term “bitch.” Depending on who the audience is, certain words have different connotations. In some circles, “bitch” is a term of endearment and closeness, while in others it could be considered offensive. How can a group of middle aged women speak on behalf of society in differentiating between obscene and acceptable? Hitler thought he knew what was best for Germany, but did that justify concentration camps? No. “A healthy society must stop at nothing to cleanse itself,” as quoted by Hitler. His statement seems to sum up the PMRC’s motivations behind their war on music. (4).

Censoring offensive music has unpleasant repercussions. According to an article found in the Rock and Rap archives, one consequence of sheltering children from images of sex and violence is that it will warp their outlook and make them ill-equipped to deal with the real world (Archive 1). Parents that chose to protect their children from contemporary music should do so in the privacy of their own homes. What’s in the best interest of one child is not necessarily going to have the same effect on another. Parental inflicted music censorship is a family matter, not a societal one. Restrictions should be made on a case by case basis. It is unrealistic to clump everyone into the same category.

A ratings system will purposely filter out songs containing profanity or questionable lyrics regardless of the message. “A record like Cold Blooded by Rick James will be censored despite its moving plea for world unity because it also contains a proposal for a mÃ?©nage a trios” (Archive 1). Censoring positive songs laced with the occasional cuss word is hardly protecting the youth of America. Using music censorship to control problems is tantamount to, in the words, of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, burning the house to roast the pig (Nuzum 9).

Don’t we have more important things to worry about than censoring the music industry? At a time when hundreds of US soldiers are dying in combat oversees, we are still concerned about audibly censoring the airwaves of radio. In 2002, 2.4 millions Africans died of AIDS. 23 children die every minute from world hunger. The PMRC is focusing all their efforts on bettering society, but I can think of a couple dozen worthy causes that could benefit from their political backing.

Musicians opposed to the ratings system formed a group called the Musical Majority. Representatives included Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, Don Henley, Prince, Lionel Richie, The Pointer Sisters, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Donny Osmond (1). At the 1992 Senate hearing musicians opposed to music censorship were given the opportunity to express their opinions.
Frank Zappa became the poster boy for anti-censorship organizations.

At the hearing, he shared the forum with Senator Al Gore emphasizing that censorship should be the parent’s concern, not the governments. Zappa further stated:
I am a parent. I have four children. Two of them are here today. I want them to grow up in a country where they can think what they want to think, be what they want to be, and not what somebody’s wife or somebody in government makes them be. (Nuzum 31)

Dee Snider of Twisted Sister also expressed his concerns at the Senate Hearing. His song, “Under the Blade” was heavily criticized for espousing themes of bondage, rape and sadomasochism (33). In actuality, the song was written to describe his fear of surgery. According to Snider, “The only sadomasochism, bondage, and rape in this song is in the mind of Mrs. Gore” (33). The attacks on Twisted Sister did not stop there either. The band received many more accusations that their music encouraged violence. Snider tactfully responded by summarizing his objections to the music rating and labeling system by saying, “Parents can thank the PMRC for reminding them that there is no substitute for parental guidance. But that is where the PMRC’s job ends” (33).

The intentions of music censorship are good, but in return there are some questionable policies that have been implemented as a result. Questionable lists, zoning laws, and the immediate labeling of controversial artists are a few of the problematic policies.

Censorship is fickle. After the attacks on September 11th, Clear Channel Communications produced a list of 150 “lyrically questionable songs” (Nuzum 1). The grassroots effort was an attempt advising radio stations to exercise sensitivity in a time, post tragedy. Songs featuring words like burning, death, and airplane were included in the list. Songs by Rage Against the Machine (RATM), John Lennon, and Cat Stevens were also placed on the list (Nuzum 1).

Positioned there not because of questionable content, but because those artists have exercised political beliefs challenging those found in mainstream society. Weeding out questionable material will also filter out music with positive messages. According to Nuzum, “[the list] is a perfect example of how a well-intentioned attempt at ‘sensitivity’ can quickly careen down the slippery slope towards stifled free expression” (1).

On a more lighthearted note, retail giant, Meyer thought they were taking the responsible route by creating their own stickering system to warn patrons. Frank Zappa’s high profile as an anticensorship advocate led the retailer’s labeling committee to assume that his music was controversial (Nuzum 39). His album Jazz from Hell was affixed with an “explicit lyrics” label. It was later brought to their attention that the album was entirely instrumental (39).

In 1972, Indiana Attorney General Theodore Sendak referred to rock festivals as “drug supermarkets” (237). Hoosier legislators created a policy that would regulate and limit the allowance of concerts and other controversial venues. In the process, the regulation accidentally outlawed the Indianapolis 500 and all other large outdoor gatherings (237).
The decision to implement a ratings system not only affects the purchasers of music, it also affects the musicians themselves.

Restricting the medium through which artists express their craft is in turn putting the creative process to a halt. Musicians will have to alter the delivery of their message to appease conservative groups like the PMRC to avoid the parental warning sticker. That sticker alone is an automatic accessibility issue. It will alienate fans that purchase CDs from Wal-Mart. If there is a sticker on it, that part of the fan base is denied, because the music distributor doesn’t carry stickered items.

Society’s focus on music censorship will also detour from the positive things that bands do with their popularity. Just as musicians are granted freedom of speech, listeners are allowed the freedom to listen to what ever music they choose. That freedom alone is what distinguishes our country’s policies from those found in other countries.

Mary J. Blige is one of the founding women of the R & B movement. She has dealt with domestic abuse and drug abuse, but through her own strength she emerged as a survivor. Drawing from past pain and heartache she used her personal experience as ammunition to fuel the creative process involved in the development of her albums. Blige used her music as therapy “in hopes that it will one day help someone else as it once helped me,” said Blige (Glamour 67).

If further censorship policies are inflicted into other branches of the entertainment medium, everything will be so picked over and filtered that there will be no room for artistic expression. A musician cannot freely write about life experiences with restrictions.

Another artist, Pink, was critically acclaimed for her deep emotional lyrics on the album Missundaztood referring to her troubled childhood. In the song, Family Portrait, she outlined the pain growing up in the middle of a messy divorce.

It aint easy growin’ up in WW3, never knowing what love could be. You’ll see. I don’t want love to destroy me.
Like it has done my family.
Can we work it out? Can we be a family?
I promise I’ll be better. Mommy I’ll do anything.
Daddy please don’t leave (Arista 4)

There are occasional swear words laced throughout the album but they are merely supporting actors in a much larger production. The language serves as groundwork to pave the way for the positive messages. She documents battling drug abuse and gaining the strength to walk out of an abusive relationship. If her album were to succumb to the wrath of political censors, listeners would be deprived of a lyrical goldmine.

As protected by the First Amendment, along with the freedom to write lyrics without restriction is the ability to use a band’s popularity to make an impact. The Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine are two of such groups. The Beastie Boys were driving forces behind the Milarea Tibetan Freedom Concert. The Milarea foundation is a non-profit organization actively supporting the Tibetan people’s non-violent struggle to regain their independence. In society’s eye, that organization is positive and worthy of participation.

On the other hand, Rage Against the Machine’s fight for the release of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal is frowned upon and lumped in the category of political resistance. In 1999, police organizations across the country called for the cancellation of a sold out concert fundraiser for Mumia (Timeline 17). He has been imprisoned for 22 years despite massive amounts of evidence proving his innocence. How is freeing an innocent man different from freeing the people of Tibet? Why does society try to restrict any political efforts that go against conservative policies?

A recent effort of RATM was the protesting of a Taco Bell in Florida because of intolerable sweatshop conditions on tomato farms. Does fighting for equality and political justice constitute as radicalism? RATM has a strong misinterpreted reputation of being anarchist even though they are protected by the first amendment. Artists should not be chastised for having an opinion.

Pro censorship groups continually target groups like Rage because they are used as scapegoats for other problems.
Supporters of music censorship often resort to irrational tactics just to prove their point, that music is bad. It is common for people to blame artists for suicides and school shootings. Critics attempt to make their case by overanalyzing song lyrics to emphasize the importance of a protective ratings system.

In 1985, the parents of John McCollum sued Ozzy Osbourne, claiming his song Suicide Solution aided, advised, and encouraged their son to commit suicide. Speaking on the controversy, Osbourne said that, “the theme behind Suicide Solution was the drinking death of his friend, former AC/DC front man Bon Scott. He felt that the song was a warning against the slow suicide of alcoholism” (Nuzum 58). The judge ruled that overt lyrics are protected speech and due to a lack of evidence, he could not connect the song to the suicide (Timeline 8). It’s just easier to blame others for someone’s shortcomings.

More recently, the Columbine tragedy prompted accusations that Marilyn Manson was responsible for two teenagers shooting up their high school. Manson believed that examining the two teenager’s interests for signs of culpability made no sense. He commented on the irrational connection by saying:

Did we look for James Huberty’s inspiration when he gunned down people at McDonalds? What did Timothy McVeigh like to watch? What about David Koresh, Jim Jones? When it comes down to who’s to blameâÂ?¦throw a rock and you’ll hit someone who’s guilty. (Nuzum 50)

Once again, society is looking for a scapegoat to hold accountable for their problems. No one wants to take responsibility anymore.

Critics of the music industry appear to have excessive amounts of time on their hands. Freedom of expression is devoid of all meaning if those freedoms are going to be exploited and examined under a microscope. Do you remember John Denver’ Rocky Mountain High? Critics believed that the songs “high” was in reference to drugs. He responded to those accusations by stating, “This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains and also had never experienced the elation, celebration of life, or the joy of living (Nuzum 238).

Music Censorship is nice concept, but before jumping on the Tipper bandwagon, remember, these policies affect a lot of people, not just children. Musicians and their fans are part of the under recognized equation. Restricting the producing and distributing of music may protect the impressionable youth, but it represents an unnecessary step for adults.

I’m a big girl; I can take care of myself. Censorship should be handled on a case by case basis on a small scale that doesn’t affect society as a whole. Participants in the censorship movement like to make a big deal out of things blowing them out of context. It’s like the PMRC is trying to move furniture with a bulldozer.

The intentions of music censorship are good, but protecting children and impressionable listeners from the everyday vulgarities of music will not align the universe in perfect harmony. It is an unrealistic request because violence, profanity, and sex are prominent staples in the media regardless of whether musicians choose to write about them.

Freedom of expression and choice are protected under the policies outlined in the First Amendment. An advantage to living in this country is that I have the freedom to speak my mind, write about anything I choose, and listen to any music I want. God Bless America.

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