Sanders Jett-Folk | United States
Despite the continuous efforts of enraged parents, pro-censorship politicians and record companies who will do anything in order to make money, efforts to censor music in the United States have repeatedly failed. Freedom-loving musicians and music fans alike have stood firm in their belief that musical expression should not be inhibited by the government.
Various governmental organizations and officials have tried to censor music. However, this has often with limited success.
In October of 1973, a New York City radio station, WBAI, aired a comedy routine called “Filthy Words” by comedian George Carlin. The routine, which contained vulgar language, angered John Douglas, a member of the non-profit Morality In Media.
Douglas filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, stating that his 15-year-old son had heard the vulgar comedy routine’s airing. The radio station’s owner, Pacifica Foundation, received a letter of reprimand from the FCC.
The case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court. In the landmark case, Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, the Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s actions with a 5-4 vote. The Court ruled that the FCC had the authority to prohibit indecent or obscene broadcasts during hours when children would likely be listening. This led to the FCC securing more power to censor radio broadcasts.
An attack on Popular Music
The freedom of musical expression hit a major roadblock in 1985 with the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC).
Tipper Gore, the wife of Senator and future Vice President Al Gore, founded the PMRC. The organization sought to implement music censorship in several forms. One form of censorship included laws forcing record stores to place explicit albums under the counter. Another was pressuring television stations not to broadcast explicit songs or music videos.
Most prominently, the PMRC demanded that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) develop “guidelines and/or a rating system”. The film industry still uses a rating system today.
To show how supposedly vulgar and violent music is, the PMRC developed a list of 15 songs. The list, known as the “Filthy Fifteen,” contained songs that were deemed to be especially heinous. This included pop hits such as Madonna’s “Dress You Up” and Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” It also included heavy metal thrillers like Judas Priest’s “Eat Me Alive” and Black Sabbath’s “Trashed.”
In August of 1985, 19 record companies agreed to place a warning label on records with explicit content. The warning label reads “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content.” It is still in effect today.
On September 19th of that year, a Senate hearing began. At the hearing, Senators Al Gore and Paula Hawkins appeared in support of a required warning label on explicit records. Appearing to testify against such a label were musicians John Denver, Frank Zappa and Dee Snider.
John Denver, a multi-platinum folk-rock musician, testified that censorship was counterproductive. “That which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting,” he stated.
World-renowned rock musician Frank Zappa referred to the PMRC’s call for a warning label as “an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretation and enforcement problems inherent in the proposal’s design.”
Results of Censorship
At first, it seemed that efforts towards censorship were a success in preventing children from obtaining explicit music.
Several retailers, most notably Wal-Mart, refused to sell albums that contained the new parental advisory label. MTV restricted or banned the airplay of music videos from artists such as Madonna, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and others.
However, the parental advisory warning created a “forbidden fruit effect”. Young people who were banned from purchasing explicit music only wanted to hear the supposedly dangerous music even more. Rapper Ice-T later emphasized this point in his song “Freedom Of Speech,” with the lyrics “The sticker on the record is what makes ’em sell gold./Can’t you see, you alcoholic idiots/The more you try to suppress us, the larger we get.”
In 2000, law enforcement officials confiscated CDs from a Louisiana roller skating rink. The police claimed that the music had started a fight in the parking lot. A federal judge later ordered that the CDs be returned. The judge stated that the local sheriff had no right to restrict what music the skating rink may play.
The Digital Age
In the early 2000s, pirating music through the Internet became a major phenomenon. Websites and programs like Napster and Limewire allowed people to download any song for free. This allowed young people free, albeit illegal, access to explicit music that they could not listen to otherwise.
Nowadays, streaming music makes up an astounding 75% of all music that is consumed in the United States. With streaming services, such as Spotify and Apple Music, young people can listen to explicit music without any restriction. Free versions exist of these services. As such, a parent does not even have to pay for their child to be able to listen to music.
Music censorship is simply another way to limit and punish artistic creativity. Parents should protect their children from harmful media, not the government. Citizens cannot be free when the government acts as a nanny-state, determining what is and is not appropriate. If the government manages to suppress music, nothing will stop them from controlling what else we can see, hear and do. A free society fights censorship.
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