Music and Censorship

Victor Lombardi
December 1991
Second Reader: Alan Stuart
Instructor: Richard Hixon



Our society today largely views censorship as a method that has disappeared from liberal cultures since the enlightenment with the exception of restrictions in time of war. The enlightenment served to cripple the intolerance of incisive religious and government leaders, but did not obliterate censorship altogether. Instead, the job of expurgating unacceptable ideas has simply fallen into new hands using new tactics. Censors now assume the guise of capitalist retailers and distributors, special-interest groups, and less influential but still passionate religious and government authorities. Their new techniques are market-censorship (dominating the marketplace), constituitive censorship (the control of language), power-knowledge (restricting knowledge), as well as the traditional regulative censorship (law). These new forces can be as equally effective as the forces of remote history. We notice the effect of post-enlightenment civilization as early as the nineteenth-century in the great Russian humanist Aleksandr Herzin. Herzin left his native country in protest of Czarist censorship only to feel "profound disillusionment with the extremely narrow limits of permission imposed on freedom of expression by market censorship in the West" (Jansen 1991).

This author will explore how these forces are affecting the free expression of musicians and lyricists of popular music in the United States, show how censorship has failed to work as planned, and provide a solution to the problem.


Music as Literature and Art

Music lyrics are essentially composed as poems, ballads, monologues, and the like, and set to music. They may take the form of actual spoken or sung sounds or of written words, as literature does. Any form of literature can be sung with musical accompaniment and become lyrics. Remove the music and we are left with literature. Lyrics are therefore a form literature. All the concepts that apply to literature can therefore apply to lyrics. This author shall employ such concepts, including laws regarding public speech and public press, in my analysis of music censorship. Censors throughout history are familiar with this association of music and the press, attacking each in similar fashion. Jeremy Collier, a seventeenth-century Englishman, thought that music was "almost as dangerous as gunpowder" and might require "looking after no less than the press" (Rodnitzky 1972).

Lyrics also constitute an art form. Musicians are artists who create something new using a certain amount of creativity. The result displays an aesthetic quality, though it may also have other emotional and analytical attributes. Lyrics can then be considered art and concepts concerning art may be applied to them, as this author chooses to do.


The Importance of Art

Before this author can discuss how and why music is being censored, it is vital to explain the significance of art in our lives. Picasso said, "All art is a lie that helps us to see the truth better." All art is a lie in that it attempts to imitate truth or to reveal something about reality outside the piece of art. Art can be a window, a passage way for our minds to perceive the external world. Art can also be a mirror, a way of looking out and perceiving ourselves. It is important for the images in the mirror to keep changing so they may accurately reflect ourselves. Peter Michelson said:

The responsibility of society, if it accepts poetry as a mode of knowledge, is to remain open to what poets of all genres, including the pornographic, have to say. Otherwise all mirrors will soon reflect the same imbecilic smile (Michelson 1971).

Someone once said, "Fish will be the last animal to discover water, simply because they are always immersed in it." Sometimes truth can be hard to examine because we have difficulty in recognizing it. We have difficulty in recognizing truth because we are constantly subjected to it and gradually become numb to it. Art, whether it be literature, theatre, visual arts, or music, by way of its difference from reality, gives us a mental pinch so that we may awake and perceive the truth with new eyes.

Art can communicate in ways that other media cannot. By manipulating the environment, art can link directly to the emotions. Sue Curry Jansen explained:

...it is also frequently the ragged cutting edge of emancipatory communication, for even in the most permissive times the artful evocations and contra-factuality of Aesopean mischief have a freer range than the language of theory (Jansen 1991).

And Herbert Marcuse noted:

Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience, a dimension in which human beings, nature, and things no longer stand under the law of the established reality principle. Subject and objects encounter the appearance of the autonomy which is denied them in their society. The encounter with the truth of art happens in the estranging language and images which make perceptible, visible, and audible that which is no longer or not yet, perceived, said, and heard in everyday life (Marcuse 1978).

Some may say that the music they consider offensive, rock n' roll and rap music, is not art at all because it is of a lesser quality and is therefore a lower form of entertainment. This opinion relies on the musical taste of the individual and is too subjective to concede. Besides, rap and rock n' roll, being within the genre of popular music, will have many more subjective patrons than will styles of "high art," such as classical music. Even if we accepted this view, based on the general complexity of classical music verses popular music, there is still a case to be made for simplicity:

...the danger exists then of assuming that the other audience, the audience one does not converse with, is more passive, more manipulated, more vulgar in taste, than may be the case. One can easily forget that things that strike the sophisticated person as trash may open new vistas for the unsophisticated; moreover, the very judgment of what is trash may be biased by one's own unsuspecting limitations, for instance, by one's class position or academic vested interest (Riesman 1950).

On a less profound, but no less important point, people gain pleasure from the arts. Indeed, to some people, art's sole purpose is to provide pleasure. Philosophers from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant to John Stuart Mill have argued that happiness is our ultimate goal, the end to all our means. As Americans, we proclaim the "pursuit of happiness" is an inalienable right included in our Declaration of Independence. Music can improve the quality of our life and inspire great feelings within ourselves. Thoreau said, "When I hear music I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times and to the latest" (Rodnitzky 1972).


The Importance of Art to Artists

The desire or need to invoke expressions unusual in everyday life is a passion for some artists. It is not present in everyone, and not everyone who feels this passion has the talent neccessary to succeed as an artist. So then, the artist is a minority among professions, a small voice with a delicate product. This great desire or need to create and share with those in everyday life is important enough for a person to pursue the profession of an artist, a career of spiritual as well as economic need. Once an artist, an individual produces art, something that may be thought of as a commodity. A censor who seeks to limit the distribution of this commodity not only harms the artist economically, but also professionally, because the artist cannot share her best work as she feels the need. The actions of the censor become a dual hardship for the artist. Laurie Anderson, an influential singer/songwriter, summed up her feelings on the subject:

What's this morality play about? Mostly about fear. I'm an artist because it's one of the few things you can do in this country that has no rules, and the idea of someone writing rules for that makes me crazy. Ideas can be crushed, artists can be crushed, and I think this is an emergency (Flanagan 1990).


On Censorship

My ideas on the necessity of free expression are guided in part by the ideas of George Bernard Shaw found in his essay, "On Censorship." Shaw views censorship as an inherently conservative action, that is, performed by those who desire to preserve tradition. He pointed out that morality is a phenomenon dependent on the majority:

Whatever is contrary to established manners and customs is immoral. An immoral act or doctrine is not necessarily a sinful one: on the contrary, every advance in thought and conduct is by definition immoral until it has converted the majority. For this reason it is of the most enormous importance that immorality should be protected jealously against the attacks of those who have no standard except the standard of custom, and who regard any attack on custom - that is, on morals - as an attack on society, on religion, and on virtue.

Henry Miller, whose novel, Tropic of Cancer, was banned in the United States for some time, cited the difficulty an artist faces when dealing with the morality of the majority:

The artist must conform to the current, and usually hypocritical, attitude of the majority. He must be original, courageous, inspiring, and all that - but never too disturbing. He must say Yes while saying No (Miller 1947).

Shaw conceded the need for morality in those that are not capable of "original ethical judgment," for they have no other means for guiding their lives. But for the rest of us,

It is immorality, not morality, that needs protection: it is morality, not immorality that needs restraint; for morality, with all the dead weight of human inertia and superstition to hang on the back of the pioneer, and all the malice of vulgarity and prejudice to threaten him, is responsible for many persecutions and many martyrdoms.

For Shaw, as well as John Stuart Mill, immoral doctrines lead us in new directions that may bring us truth, and which we would not find if it were not for dissenting opinions. Without the writings of Thomas Paine and Henry Miller, the theories of Charles Darwin and Galileo, and even the blasphemy of Jesus, our civilization would be less cultured and truthful than it is. Shaw said

...an overwhelming case can be made out for the statement that no nation can prosper or even continue to exist without heretics and advocates of shockingly immoral doctrines.

To those who said that some ideas may harm society in the same manner as other crimes, Shaw said there is even more harm done by the censor:

whereas no evil can conceivably result from the total suppression of murder and theft, and all communities prosper in direct proportion to such suppression, the total suppression of immorality, especially in matters of religion and sex, would stop enlightenment...

Shaw also recognized the interpretation that says freedom of expression should entail some kind of good sense in what is expressed. There have been several examples of this view through history. Plato wrote that art should display socially acceptable, responsible messages. In the 1950s, Michigan Representative Charles C. Digge thought the altering of lyrics was "just a matter of good taste" (Volz 1991). Recently, a letter by Tipper Gore of the Parents Music Resource Group asked the record industry for "self-restraint" (Haring 1990). And an editorial in The New Republic defines freedom through contradiction: "...it really is wise restraints that make us genuinely free..." (Norwood 1989). Shaw rejected these views as hopelessly relative and bias:

...what he means by toleration is toleration of doctrines that he considers enlightened, and, by liberty, liberty to do what he considers right...

The First Amendment to our Constitution allows us freedom of speech and press provided we do not violate any other laws in the process. As we shall see, there are no laws providing for music censorship.


Music Censorship

Throughout the history of music, would-be censors have primarily targeted controversial lyrics as a problem, but there have been efforts to blame the actual music for causing society’s ills. Every unusual advancement has met with disputes, whether it be Johann Sebastian Bach’s complex counterpoint or heavy metal’s distorted guitars. In this century, jazz, bebop, swing, rock n' roll, and rap have all had detractors. Such attacks have traditionally been initiated by adults ready to attribute juvenile delinquency on a musical form that appeals almost exclusively to young people and which "few of its detractors comprehend" (Epstein 1990). There is definitely a factor of time at work here chiseling away at society’s standards of morality. When once Elvis’ pelvic gyration would not be televised, it is now an accepted entertainment technique. Bach’s adventuresome textures that threatened his employment can sound boring now. Today we become offended by explicit sex or violence or language pertaining to such threats to morality. Robert L. Gross pointed out:

...this controversy is a replay of the age old generation gap, in a new and, perhaps, more striking form. Iron Maiden may strike today’s adults as alien to their culture, but the author suspects that a similar reaction occurred when adults first heard the lyrics to "Good Golly, Miss Molly" (Gross 1990).

At one time these attacks were even racially motivated: In the 50s, petitions were circulated which said, "Don’t allow your children to buy Negro records." The petitions referred to the "raw unbridled passion" of screaming people with dark skin who were going to drive our children wild. Some things never go out of fashion in certain ideological camps. They are like tenets of the faith (Zappa 1988).

There are claims that contemporary efforts to censor music are racist, and this author has encountered more incidents involving black-oriented rap music than white-oriented hard rock music, where the second greatest number of attacks have been aimed. But when trying to ascertain such a prejudice, there is a difficulty in separating the number of attacks on each style of music from the overall content of each style. Rap music may be cited more often because it contains a greater amount of offensive material overall. A claim in either direction would require an independent study.

None of these music-related claims have been popularly accepted, largely due to the difficulty in providing tangible proof. Instances of Satanism have been attributed to drug abuse rather than music (Epstein 1990). Congressional subcommittee hearings of 1955 trying to associate rock music with juvenile delinquency were unsuccessful, as were the 1973 "Buckley report" on rock music and drug abuse and the 1985 senate hearings on obscenity in popular music (Epstein 1990). The 1970 Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (C.O.P.) report asserted that "it is obviously not possible, and never could be possible, to state that never on any occasion, under any conditions, did any erotic material ever contribute in any way to the likelihood of any individual committing a sex crime. Indeed, no such statement could be made about any kind of nonerotic material (Oboler 1974). An extensive study encompassing psychology, physiology, behavioral studies, sociology, and music would have to be done to prove a form of music is capable of causing harm. The researchers would have to be trained not only in research methods but in all these fields and the music involved. A willing, impartial musicologist proficient in the music of subcultures might be a rare find. Given these reasons it is clear why, to my knowledge, such a study has not been performed. The effects of music are still debatable.



Where music is subject to vague interpretations and may alienate people according to subculture, lyrics are a more concrete form of expression. Lyrics are words that are sung or spoken with musical accompaniment, or sung without accompaniment. Lyrics embody the sentiment the writer is trying to convey in a ridged manner, with less free interpretation and more definitive meaning than in music alone. Only knowledge of the language is needed to understand the words, if not the ideas also, and therefore to construct a sensible, believable dialog on their value or non-value. In 1986, the Meese Commission on Pornography "recommended that spoken words not be challenged for obscenity" (Holland 1989), and the C.O.P. report recommended, "the repeal of existing federal legislation which prohibits or interferes with consensual distribution of 'obscene' materials to adults" (Oboler 1974), but challenges on music lyrics continue through 1991. Because of this conflict, lyrical content is the subject that this author will address.



Musicians are often cited for using obscene language, ideas, and imagery in their lyrics. What is labeled obscene is usually a documentation of real people and real events expressed through language suited to the report. It has been said that,

The difference - and it’s an important difference - is that today’s salacious lyrics are not the exception to otherwise generally accepted sexual standards and community values, but a symbol of their collapse (Gross 1990).

Admittedly, lyrics can be shocking, but they describe the reality of our lives in our world. Frank Zappa, a musician of strong influence on early rock music, noted that

...if one wants to be a real artist in the United States today and comment on our culture, one would be very far off the track if one did something delicate or sublime. This is not a noble, delicate, sublime country (Zappa 1988).

Explicit sex, violence, pain, suffering, and unusual human acts are characteristics of the human drama. Lyrical content is now censored when relating to "...explicit sex, explicit violence, or explicit substance abuse" (Baker 1989). Sexual acts, in particular, are commonly accepted in our society, but the language that denotes these acts is not. Perhaps it is the actual acts that the censors wish to curb, especially in youth, and by censoring the symbols for sex - language - they hope to censor the reality of sex. The logic is that without knowledge, there will be no corresponding action. But this logic is backwards, for it is the action that comes first, which is then symbolized through language. Regarding the censorship of the symbols, this author agrees with Goethe's view:

It would be a bad state of affairs if reading had a more immoral effect than life itself, which daily develops scandalous scenes in abundance, if not before our eyes than before our ears. Even with children we need not by any means be too anxious about the effects of a book or a play. As I have said, daily life is more effective than the most effective book (Goethe 1832).

Sex, violence, and substance abuse are certainly real factors of society. If a musician cannot relate explicit information on these topics without being censored, then he or she may feel the need to hold something back. The next logical conclusion is that by withholding explicit information the musician would be sacrificing accuracy. An inaccurate piece of art may still have aesthetic value, but may not contain the message that the musician wanted to express and that the listener may have needed to hear. It is a popular opinion within the artistic sphere that "[Musicians] should be able to sing about drugs and the gang culture and teenage sexuality and a whole list of issues that need to be sung about (Holland 1989). How can we learn from our history if we do not know the whole story and the lessons learned from it? We need to know what issues face us now and suggestions for dealing with them. We need to foresee issues of the future that must be addressed in the present. A dialogue on our societal issues in poetic but inaccurate terms will do us no good when trying to cope in the real world. Gorky summed up the association of art and reality:

Myth is invention. To invent means to extract from the sum of a given reality its cardinal idea and embody it in imagery - that is how we got realism. But if to the idea extracted from the given reality we add - completing the idea, by the logic of hypothesis - desired, the possible, and thus supplement the image, we obtain that romanticism which is at the basis of myth and is highly beneficial in that it tends to provoke a revolutionary attitude to reality, an attitude that changes the world in a practical way (Gorky 1934).

The same reasons for censoring views on sex, violence and substance abuse are the same reasons these views should be heard: because they are controversial. John Stuart Mill asserted that the truth is most likely to emerge from a conflict of opinions. A censored opinion, whether true or false, sidesteps conflict and secures our distance in the truth. In a court case involving censorship of the band Dead Kennedys, Barry Lynn, the Legislative counsel to the national American Civil Liberties Union, revealed the symbiotic relationship of controversy and censorship:

...Dead Kennedy material and visual art in general lampoons the conformism of American society. That is preeminently political speech. We know it works because it annoyed the authorities enough to try to intimidate their critics into submission by calling them obscene (Kennedy 1990).


Importance of Lyrics as a Medium of Information

The same segment of the population that censorship usually aims to protect is the same segment controversial music is intended for: teenagers and young adults. Often these controversial issues are new to or directly affect young people. There is little recognition by parents and particularly by censors of the way music is used by young people in America. The attitudes and ideas embodied in lyrics may act as a catalyst for change from childhood to adulthood. Censors only focus on the aspects they consider to be offensive. David Riesman sees the cause of this as a lack of structure:

Such a "youth movement" differs from the youth movement of other countries in having no awareness of itself, as such, no direct political consciousness, and, on the whole, no specialized media of communication (Riesman 1950).

Youth has no universal link with itself; instead of ideas traveling from the youth to their peers, they travel from musician to youth. Youth therefore need to be educated and informed in some way, and music is a strong link to their lifestyle. Studies have shown that the average teenager listens to rock music about four hours a day (Mann 1988). Musicians can act as the youth’s journalists, reporting the events of the day in a manner that appeals to them more than conventional news. Popular music can inspire a radical mentality, it is a "major political weapon" urging youth to improve their world (Rodnitzky 1972). Henry Thoreau labeled music "the arch-reformer." Chuck D. of the popular Rap group Public Enemy asserts, "Rap is the only way to communicate with black youth anymore. We’re the TV station, the six o’clock news. We’ve got to tell the truth" (DiLeo 1989). Rapper Ice Cube works from the assumption that "Rap music is a form of education" (Cole 1991). Often it is a moral education that lyricists offer, one that is not always taught in school. A 1972 study said, "Their songs constitute a radical influence, but, more importantly, they supply examples of conscience and principle to a society which has increasingly been unable to provide its youth with credible examples of either conscience or principle" (Rodnitzky 1972). After their original album cover was censored, the rock group Jane's Addiction released another cover with only Article 1 of the Bill of Rights on it, and inside was a message addressed to "the Mosquitoes":

We have more influence over your children than you do, but we love your children. Most of you love them too, very much. You want what's best for them. Consider them when planning the future. Right? Oh, mother, father, your blindness to our most blessed gift, NATURE, leaves us with the overwhelming task of correcting your utter mess....I understand why they want to protect their children, but for their own good, let me point out that though you may have to explain subjects to your children that you perceive as wrong, it is better to have the freedom to explain it in your own words than be silenced under a government that has the power to squash anyone who opposes their views....Try to restrict our freedoms and we will fight even harder to preserve them (Farrell 1990).

Principles are not only offered by "offensive" artists, Establishment organizations also try to contribute their share of wisdom. The national collegiate group Campus Crusade for Christ has sponsored a touring folk-rock group (Rodnitzky 1972), and in the 1980s Christian groups have gained popularity, among them the heavy metal group Stryper and the rapper M.C. Hammer. The rock group U2 discredits South Africa’s policy of apartheid. Sting, a popular singer/songwriter, promotes environmental awareness through his music and through his own company. The 10,000 Maniacs, a rock group, has breached the subject of domestic violence. The list goes on. Often explicit language is needed when describing valid opinions and important observations about our world through one of the few means of communication attended to by young people.



Since 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) has been the pressuring force in music censorship. The PMRC was founded by Susan Baker, wife of Secretary of State James Baker, and Tipper Gore, wife of Tennessee senator Albert Gore. The Center is a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to educate parents about media messages. Although they object to some music lyrics, they have not tried to have them removed from recordings. In order to help parents monitor the content of music their children listen to, the PMRC supports "...a voluntary, nonrestrictive consumer labeling plan for albums..." but they "...do not support censorship" (Baker 1989). After senate hearings on "porn rock" in 1985, the PMRC reached an agreement with the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) to place a sticker on certain music albums. The following is "RIAA’s policy statement of lyric content":

To facilitate the exercise of parental discretionon behalf of younger children, participating RIAA member recording companies will identify future releases of their recordings with lyric content relating to explicit sex, explicit violence, or explicit substance abuse. Such recordings, where contractually permissible, either will be identified with a packaging inscription that will state:‘Explicit Lyrics - Parental Advisory’...or such recordings will display printed lyrics (Baker 1989).

RIAA record companies include Atlantic, Arista, A&M, Chrysalis, Compleat, Crescendo, Capitol-EMI, Columbia, Mike Curb Productions, Epic, Elektra, MCA, Motown, Manhattan [now EMI], PolyGram, RCA, Solar, Scotti, Tabu, and Warner Bros. Together they account for 80% of recorded music sales worldwide (Holland 1989).

Ignoring this agreement, 22 states were still proposing legislation to label albums at the beginning of 1990. These bills were offered in spite of the RIAA’s survey that showed only 22% of parents were in favor of labeling and 24% of parents opposed labeling(Marsh 1990). F. Joseph Loeper, Pennsylvania’s senate majority leader, says his mail tallied 4-1 against his state’s labeling bill (Marsh 1991). After persistent lobbying failed to head off legislation, the RIAA agreed to adopt a standard label for use by all member companies and to apply them more consistently than in the past. This action caused 13 states to drop their proposals and quelled the PMRC, who had complained that some albums were slipping through the system. Whether it was the PMRC’s intention or not, warning labels have become a tool for censorship.


Labels Failure to Avoid Censorship - Retailers

In April of 1990 a large retail music chain, WaxWorks, announced it would no longer stock albums bearing warning stickers (Verna 1990). Other retail stores and some music distributors have adopted the same policy. WaxWorks operates approximately 110 Disc Jockey stores in 37 states and 25 Music Express departments in Montgomery Ward stores. Their action effectively limited access to materials because of the warning sticker, which was designed to resolve objections to explicit language without censorship. In the Midwest, where WaxWorks and Wal-Mart, another company with a similar policy, are the only major music retailers, access to some albums was essentially cut. Later in 1990, WaxWorks repealed its policy prohibiting stickered product with the exception of 2 Live Crew’s "As Nasty As They Wanna Be" album, which was only carried in its "clean" version - one with explicit language removed. Instead, WaxWorks has instituted a new policy of examining the content themselves and making a decision whether or not to stock an album, although warning stickers, by informing without censoring, should have made such policies unnecessary. An instance of censorship is clearly present here in light of the fact that over 1000 stores, including WaxWorks, already restrict certain albums to an "18-to-buy" section (Goldberg 1990). The refusal to stock other albums restricts access by all music buyers, regardless of age. The adults-only policy is not prompted by law but only by the retailer’s sense of morality, which the consumer is forced to adopt.

One example of a censored album is "100 Miles and Runnin’" by N.W.A., a Rap group. WaxWorks has decided not to stock the album based on content. Other retailers have made this same decision because of the album’s warning sticker. Not even the three music mail order houses - Columbia, BMG, and Bose - carry N.W.A. at all. These policies are not instituted for business reasons. An album released by a major record company that sells 200,000 units is considered firmly profitable for the record company and for the distributor. Sales figures for the "100 Miles and Runnin’" album have gone over 600,000 units where it is available (Verna 1990). Richard Griffin’s album has been pulled from Record World, a chain of 80 stores. Record Bar, a chain of 170 stores, does not stock any 2 Live Crew Albums. Griffin and 2 Live Crew are even more popular than N.W.A., and these three artists are among the most popular rap groups. Censorship of a very popular artist is obviously not done for business reasons; such recordings can be quite profitable. These actions can be abridged with the term market-censorship. The dissemination of ideas of the artist is restricted in the marketplace because some persons think these ideas may be harmful. Labels have failed in their goal of educating parents without censoring.


The Tacitean Principle

The Technical Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography stated:

...efforts to restrict or censor have the psychological effect of increasing the desirability of the material. Increasing the difficulty of obtaining erotic materials, harassing and punishing pornographers and purveyors of pornography, setting minimum age limits for the purchase of these materials, and so on, may have the unwanted effect of increasing interest in the materials, rendering them more desirable, and producing a greater impact on the recipients, than if none of these measures were utilized (Broch 1971).

When a piece of literature or art is censored, people have a natural curiosity in the offensive material. The relationship is of direct proportions, first recorded by the historian Tacitus under the rule of Emperor Nero: the popularity of books would invariable rise whenever they were censored; they would eventually fall into into oblivion when there was no difficulty in obtaining them (Jansen 1991). With the advent of the press, books were more easily distributed, and by then the authority of the censor changed hands from the Romans to the Roman Catholic Church, which published (and still does) a list of forbidden books. This list naturally encouraged the Tacitean Principle:

...[The list] provided Protestant firms with a list of profit making titles and free advertising while alerting potential Catholic purchasers to the existence of forbidden fruit (Eisenstein 1979).

Today the censor is in the form of the PMRC and their warning stickers will obviously have the same effect. The President of Giant Records noted that one group, Too Much Joy, has given consent their album to be labeled for marketing reasons (Flanagan 1991). Although the RIAA disagrees with such usage, some artists have even used the label to their advantage. The comedian George Carlin peers over an oversized parental advisory logo on his album cover and uses the warning as a title. A rap compilation album issued by Priority Records uses a blown-up version of the label as cover art and replaces the word "lyrics" with "rap" (Rosen 1990). Representatives from the record companies readily admit the logo can be a useful marketing ploy.

Another factor of the Tacitean Principle is the publicity often associated with controversial art. Reports in the media of explicit recordings have sent buyers to independent record stores, where sales of stickered product have increased compared to sales of non-stickered product. Sales have also increased faster than at chain stores where stickered product is not available (Haring 1990).

Teenagers, who often display a tendency towards rebellion, are a perfect breading ground for the Tacitean Principle. Any substance or activity labeled as a characteristic of a cult or a subculture by disapproving parents is sure to attract attention from youth. Robert L. Gross pointed out how this phenomena relates to heavy metal:

The resistance of organized groups and parents to the cult of heavy metal actually reinforces this belief [in the power of rebellion]. The lowly ignored teenager is amazed at how quickly adults' feathers can become ruffled.... The amount of negative attention focused on the heavy metal subculture has probably won more new converts to the cause than anything else! (Gross 1990).

Warning labels have failed to produce a singular result of educating parents. Labels have also increased interest in explicit materials in the merely curious and therefore spread the influence of these materials.


Record Companies

The companies that release this music to the public are also involved in censorship. The precedent of modern corporations appeared in the 1850s when the libretto of Giuseppe's Verdi’s opera La Traviata was altered by each regional opera company in Italy. The line "He took the desired prize, in the arms of love" was considered too suggestive and revised, not by Verdi, but by each opera company’s director and without Verdi’s consent (Volz 1991). Today the primary producers of popular music are record companies. Frank Zappa, who has been recording Rock n’ Roll for 30 years, sees the arrangement between record company and musician as a rather dismal catch-22:

Today rock n’ roll is about getting a contract with a major company, and pretty much doing what the company tells you to do. ...they inflict their taste on the people who actually make the music. To be a big success, you need a really big company behind you because really big companies can make really big distribution deals (Zappa 1988).

To spread your message to the masses, you need the help of a record company to record, manufacture, and distribute your work. Although it may appear that the record companies are in control, this is not always the case. Record companies face a conflict because of pressure from outside parties. Companies weigh the risk of controversy that may damage the image of the entire company against the potential profit of a few albums, and the albums have been losing. John Mitchell, attorney for the National Association of Record Manufacturers, points out:

If you can be prosecuted and the whole corporation put at risk because of one extremist [censor] in one area, American consumers are going to find that suppliers are going to be very gunshy at providing that product anywhere in the country (Marsh 1991).

Rock music critic Dave Marsh offers the corporate profit-principle view:

Anybody who thinks that record companies are going to continue signing and recording bands whose music can’t be sold in major record chains doesn’t understand why record companies exist (Marsh 1990).

What consumers buy is a piece of vinyl, tape, or aluminum, what they pay for is the sounds and ideas recorded therein. Record companies do not deal in goods or services, they essentially deal in ideas, musical and otherwise. By censoring the artist, they censor their own product, even though this censorship may subtract from the quality of the product. It has been shown above that this is not done for profit. Besides the submission to the PMRC in the labeling issue, Executive Vice President of RCA records Rick Dobbis has implied that his firm may have to go further to compromise with outside pressure to censor: "We recognize that we have a responsibility, and if we don’t put our own house in order, someone else will (Terry 1989). Dobbis’ statement hints towards a fear of controversy that has seemingly become a company policy. RCA President Bob Buziak says he is "...not for censorship," but his actions prove otherwise:

...Buziak says he asked one of his new acts to remove the word motherfucker from an old blues song the band recorded for a debut album. The group ended up dropping the song entirely (Goldberg 1990).

On contracting artists, Buziak says, "...we don’t go out looking to sign N.W.A. or metal bands that advocate sodomy or bestiality (Goldberg 1990). Bob Krasnow, Chairman of Elektra records, says he will not contract "groups like Guns n’ Roses and Public Enemy because of their racist and anti-semitic comments and lyrics" (Goldberg 1990). A committee has been established at MCA Records to review music for potentially objectionable lyrics. Other companies, Arista, Atlantic, Columbia, Elektra, Epic, EMI, and RCA, will explain to the artist the possible "consequences" of their material (Marsh 1990).



This pressure to present widely acceptable ideas of expression comes from special-interest groups who aim to protect their own point of view, even if it means suppressing other’s ideas. Throughout history, events such as the Inquisition and the Star Chamber were essentially censorships whose purpose was to eliminate dissenting opinions by establishing and enforcing one "correct" opinion. Some special-interest groups consist of the extremists within a majority, and of themselves, more often than not, constitute a minority. This minority may not accurately represent the views of the majority.

Today, special-interest groups, by lobbying lawmakers and by picketing, have made record companies uncomfortable about their products. Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center referred to Ice Cubes new album as "a cultural Molotov cocktail" (Cole 1991). The Center is trying to bar the album from being sold because they feel it expresses ideas contrary to their cause. Ice Cube raps that his former manager, a "white Jew," should be shot. In general, his may not be a socially desirable opinion, but believing and expressing such an opinion is a legal and allowable act. Similarly, Cardinal O’Connor, head of the New York City Catholic Diocese, blames Heavy Metal for the rise of Satanism in that city (Marsh 1990). Again, the majority of people may think Satanism is a harmful practice, but Satanists are simply enjoying the same First Amendment right to freedom of religion that Catholics enjoy. In fact, Justice William O. Douglas wrote a decision which stated, "...literature should not be suppressed merely because it offends the moral code of the censor" (Douglass 1957). One record company, Geffen Records, realizes the impact of this concept. President David Geffen states,

...I think if you’re going to work in the arts, the question is, is this considered good work? It would be a terrible thing if we all conspired to keep them from being able to make a record because we disagreed with what they have to say. That would be terrible (Goldberg 1990).

Special-interest groups advance their own cause by trampling other causes, without regard to Constitutionality. The hard boots of the courts will not fit their feet, rather, they ironically use language to stand on. When a person in a position of power, such as Cardinal O’Connor, denounces Satanism, those people within his sphere of influence tend to accept his opinion as a fact to be acknowledged and possibly even acted upon. These people may not know anything of or have ever experienced Satanism, but because this person says it is something evil they take him on his word because it is his word. He can use his power to negatively redefine words. Author Sue Curry Jansen describes this as the phenomenon of power-knowledge and points out the importance of correct, consistent language:

The powerful require knowledge to preserve, defend, and extend their advantage. For them, knowledge is power. The way the powerful say things are is the way they are, or the way they usually become because the powerful control the power to name. ...we know because we need to know. We have a vested interest in knowing. Knowledge may help us to rule or survive the rule of others (Jansen 1991).

Jansen explains that without power, an individual has no means of gaining experience. One needs experience in order to become knowledgeable, and knowledge is vital to assuming even an introductory level of power. The censor halts this circular motion by limiting one's knowledge. Brian Turner, President of Priority Records, recognizes this power struggle and uses the Tacitean Principle in his defense:

This [warning] sticker actually came about because of this music. ...because of rap music and how threatening it is to the white establishment. I couldn't imagine a more perfect way of marketing that type of music (Rosen 1990).

If the unpowerful have an opinion that is important to them they must guard the definitions of their ideas which others may wish to suppress.



In this light, branches of the government can be considered special interest-groups also. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1971 informed rock music radio stations that broadcast material ‘promoting’ or ‘glorifying’ the use of drugs could endanger station licenses (Volz 1991). This threat was made without the backing of law or precedent. Although the FCC is a federal power, it is not an elected body and is not answerable to Congress, so in theory the amount of power it exercises is indeterminate.

Since 1971, the FCC has established restrictions on language that can be broadcast. The FCC defines indecency as

...language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs (Pareles 1989).

In 1989, the FCC imposed a fine of $2,000 on WTZA radio in Miami for broadcasting "indecent" material. WTZA’s penalty came as a result of playing "Penis Envy," a song by the folk trio Uncle Bonsai. The offensive lyrics read: "If I had a penis, I’d still be a girl/ But I’d make much more money and rule the world." The station’s encroachment only borders on ‘depicting sexual organs,’ and is more political than sexual. Doctor Ruth’s popular call-in sexual advice program of the mid-1980s may not be allowed on the air today, at least not before midnight. The problem is exasperated by the lack of specific guidelines; a program director will not know what his community’s standards are until he has overstepped them and been fined. Further enforcement of this law will restrict the dissemination of ideas on any subject even remotely sexual for fear of being economically penalized.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) decided music was within its realm of concern in 1989 when it sent a letter on Department of Justice stationary to Brian Turner, president of Priority Records. Priority released a song by the rap group N.W.A. entitled "---- tha Police" (the dashes are part of the title.) The letter, written by F.B.I. chief spokesman Milt Ahlerich, says the song "encourages violence against and disrespect for the law enforcement officer." It continues, "I wanted you to be aware of the F.B.I.’s position relative to the song and it’s message. I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community" (Pareles 1989). Although the letter contains no specific threat, one need only remember the F.B.I.’s involvement in suppressing alternative newspapers in the 1960s and 70s to realize what kind of fear the F.B.I. is capable of inducing. As a result of Ahlerich’s letter, local police departments have been reluctant to provide security officers for N.W.A. concerts, resulting in the cancellation of shows. The Bureau’s action was its first pertaining to a work of art, but not its biggest. N.W.A. was treated lightly compared to actions taken against photographer Robert Mappelthorpe and the art gallery his works were displayed in. An analogous action in music would be the removal of an artist’s records from stores and the confiscation of any works in progress.


Political Philosophy

Statements on free expression such as the F.B.I.’s were rejected by the composers of our Constitution. They are reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes’ political theory that expression must be controlled in order to keep the peace. Our government is instead founded on John Locke’s theory which says rulers may be every bit as corrupt as the citizens, and checks must be placed on the government. This is an important concept when dealing with the press because the press not only acts as a medium of expression, it may also act as the check on government. By criticizing the ruling party, the press (in our case, music recordings) can inspire change and improvement. By censoring the press, the government (the FCC and the F.B.I., for instance) preserves their own ideas; ensuring power-knowledge.

Eli M. Oboler extends this application from the way the government rules to the way the people rule:

The democratic philosophy is based on man's presumed ability to reason, to decide for himself in his own best interest. It relies on man's educability and his free exercise of conscience in moral issues. Censorship represents the complete denial of all of these, and is, therefore, both anti-democratic and pro-totalitarian (Oboler 1974).



Throughout this essay are reasons against the effectiveness of censorship and reasons why censorship should not be tolerated. They are condensed below.

Art is important to us. Art lets us see the world in new ways, and gives us pleasure. It is a unique language in which we can say things that cannot be said otherwise, regardless of quality. Music lyrics are of value because they are an artform and because they comment on reality. The specific issues that popular music comments on are of particular value to youth, the age group whose access is most restricted.

For an artist, the sharing of artwork is a matter of pride and self-worth; it is an individual's contribution to civilization. It is also one's profession, a vital mean of self-support.

The labeling of music albums has had undesirable effects. In some cases it has limited access to materials not only to minors, but also to adults. Contrary to the censor's wishes, labels have served to increase interest in controversial ideas.

Record companies, whose assistance is vital to a writer of popular music, enforce artistic and market-censorship out of fear for their economic welfare. Special-interest groups generate this fear through intimidation.

The definition of what is obscene or profane is determined by the majority and is used to suppress the views of the minority. The watchdogs from the majority are often extremists, themselves a minority that may not accurately express the views of the majority. This minority consists of special-interest groups that assert their own notions of morality to confine other's right to freedom of expression. By limiting an individual's expression, the knowledge which is necessary to overcome such oppression is not disseminated. These groups use this method to guard their own power and to paralyze the power of others. The actions which these suppressed ideas denote may be the censor's actual target.

Censorship is contrary to the political philosophy on which the United States was founded. The Bill of Rights ensures an individual's right to free expression. The use of this freedom to criticize the ruling party agrees with the Constitutional conviction that there must be checks on government. A democracy assigns the individual the task of choosing the most appropriate manner of life. Censorship restricts these choices, and is therefore in conflict with democracy.


A Solution

It is now clear that censorship is unacceptable to American individuals and to America as a nation. What should also be made clear is that censorship doesn't work, even if the intentions are noble and accepted. The censor's effort is ultimately futile, defeated by three factors: the desire for freedom of expression, time, and the Tacitean Principle.

History has shown that the desire for freedom has won, and is winning, many battles against oppressors. Religion and government have been severely weakened in their power to censor. Even in the past when these forces were powerful they did not completely crush ideas, they just delayed their flowering. The words of Jesus, Galileo, and Darwin have escaped initial condemnation, and there is no reason why contemporary words will not do likewise, given time. The desire to hear and express these words has led to modern liberal nations such as the United States. It is presently weakening Apartheid in South Africa, dismantling the Soviet Union, and reunifying Germany as well. The desire to express oneself is a deeply rooted characteristic of the human persona.

The example cited from Verdi's La Traviata demonstrates that morality is not what it used to be. Time serves to erode moral standards regardless of the censor's efforts. There have been censors since Aristotle with the power to torture and to kill, but controversial ideas have emerged anyway, along with their respective influence on our lives.

The Tacitean Principle ultimately overcomes the censor because the censor unknowingly encourages it. The harder the censor works the brighter the Principle will shine, illuminating the offensive material for all to see. A more acute censor would quietly suppress a work, but fortunately in our society it is rarely possible to quietly overcome legal constraints and artistic spirit. Allowing an artwork to fall into obscurity by itself would be more effective censorship than drawing attention to it through controversy.

Independently of the censor, we must decide for ourselves whether or not music lyrics are beneficial to us. There is no proof that they are harmful, so it would be wrong to censor them. Then again, they may be harmful and we are simply ignorant to this fact. In this case, as is shown above, censorship would not be the solution.

History has shown that censors do not change the course of music, music itself does. Great artists and their ideas influence other artists. Bob Dylan pioneered the protest song. Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, and Run D.M.C. did the same for bebop, heavy metal, and rap, respectively. These forms of music were successful because they prevailed upon other artists and because consumers found them interesting.

Within our culture are people who want to provide for a safe, rational, and happy society and who see some music as a threat to this goal. Changing the course of music through censorship is not a viable solution. So if these people wish to reach their goal, they must find another way to influence artists as well as the buying public. The way to do this is to become artists themselves; to enter their own music and ideas into the pool of the marketplace. If their product is good (interesting, truthful, popular, influential), then other artists and consumers will absorb it, enjoy it, buy it, and/or let it influence them. If their product is not good, then, just like other artists throughout history whose work was not good, it will not be an influential force. This would be a more probable and historically-precedented way of "protecting" society.

This solution relies on the humanistic idea that people know what is best for them. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote in a famous 1919 decision that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market (Steinbauer 1991). This concept is the cornerstone of the whole democratic system.

Paramount to this system is access to a wide variety of choices. Market-censorship should be confined as much as possible to allow many different ideas into the market. Consumers can then decide for themselves what they will absorb and what they will reject.

If we cannot avoid all market censorship, or if we choose to accept it as an unfortunate by-product of an otherwise good capitalist system, then we should at least let the consumers decide from what has reached the market and refrain from the censorship of influential minorities.



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Copyright © Victor Lombardi