Is Censorship in Music Completely Necessary?
MY enjoyment of music is being sullied…
by this generation’s fear of anything honest and direct. It may seem odd to condone all censorship in music but I feel we are being too rigid and puritanical. Everyone today has exposure to bad language and controversy. The world is consensual and unfiltered. There is no way to shield the ears and imagination of those young and vulnerable. I understand why some songs need editing: homophobic and racist language, often heard in Hip-Hop, should not be allowed through the airwaves. There is a thin line between offensive and rude. There should be reasoned debate because, in order to get on the radio, so many artists either can anything mildly offensive – fearing mainstream radio will filter their songs out or edit them to the point of mutilation. That is how it sounds when music is edited so strongly: you get lots of gaps and it takes away the flow and reality of the piece. As I said; I can see reason and logic when it comes to offense. I am a big fan of Hip-Hop and Rap but know a lot of its artists (not all of them) perpetuate sexist ideals that seem natural to the culture – woven into the fabric of the genre so its artists are desensitised and immune to its toxicity. I wrote a piece about Eminem a couple of months ago in relation to his phenomenal record, The Marshall Mathers LP.
IN THIS PHOTO: Eminem (photographed in 2000)
The album received incredible praise upon its release back in 2000. One of the reasons some critics were left sour by the record was because of its misogynistic, homophobic and provocative language. One can argue Eminem is an artist imbued with enough genius and purpose – one should not sweat the odd off-the-cuff remark or acidic moment. The fact of the matter with the album is this: it is rife with offense, explicitness and vile. I am a huge fan of the album but do feel the homophobic nature of the songs – not all of them but many – does not represent who Marshall Mathers III is and what he talks about in his personal life. The same can be said regarding violence towards women and the misogyny one hears in many numbers – a man who is not prone to domestic violence and anything like that. Eminem is, as we hear in interviews, quite modest, shy and loveable. One hears no malice and he is an artist, one imagines, loosens morals to shock and get people reacting – rather than believing what he puts on the page.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
The same way the troublemakers at school would rebel and create conflict: they are doing it for show and to get noticed; take them away from that environment and they are very different people. I can do not defend or condone the contents of the album – when it comes to racism, sexism and homophobia. The fact The Marshall Mathers LP is a fantastically intelligent and accomplished work is a testament to the phenomenal wordplay and commanding performances throughout. How does one reconcile and adjudicate the debate between talent and controversy?! I love the album (and Eminem) but feel he is someone who walks a dangerous line between off-putting and encapsulating. Recently, after his performances at Leeds and Reading; he whipped the crowd up in an anti-Trump shout – getting them to flip off the President; Eminem used his set to tirade against Trump and his governance. That, to me, is a good use of language and offense – rebelling and protesting against tyranny and allowing that crudeness to articulate an aggression and anger that straight, more refined language cannot articulate. I use Eminem as an example as his songs, as you’d expect, are heavily redacted – few manage to get regular play on the airwaves.
PHOTO CREDIT: John Gress/Getty Images
I do worry we are being over-protective and hysterical when it comes to artists. Any slightly mild language gets edited and erased: even the merest suggestion of a bad word get cut before you hear it. In spite of that; there are plenty of songs that are sexually suggestive and lurid. Why do we feel it is okay to allow sexual language and intimations to slip through?! Is swearing a lot worse than talking about sex and chasing girls/boys? People do not sit down and discuss what is classed as genuinely unacceptable – or that which is deemed offensive to a small sector. I find no rationale for including any racist or homophobic language in ANY song. I understand, in some ways, racist language is part of certain genres. Is it okay for a black artist to use the N-word? Is it okay for a radio station to broadcast it? Those are different debates: I agree with the first statement (to an extent) but disagree with the latter.
It is a lot more acceptable for a black artist to use the N-word than other person but does that mean we should allow them to get onto radio unedited – and white artists, who use the same word, being censored?! If a gay artist used homophobic language than we would not allow that to make its way onto the airwaves – there cannot be any exceptions and loopholes in these areas. We are a modern and progressive society and feel we should not be so rigid when it comes to language. I get fed up hearing so many songs with pauses in them. A lot of times word like ‘crap’ are removed – if we have a scale and gradation of explicit language; where does ‘crap’ fall on the scale? Radio can be heard by anyone at any time. We can pick up albums with explicit content and play them to anyone. There are no age-limits when it comes to selling C.D.s – or, people are not enforcing them if there is. We can sell a Hip-Hop album to a child and they can experience a torrid of foul language and terrible messages.
Why, then, do we allow the same songs no freedom when they are on the radio – a platform where the same child can listen to the same song; only without all the language and explicitness they heard before. I was reading an article about Hip-Hop/Rap and artists re-recording songs so they are deemed radio-friendly and safe. Looking at the piece and some interesting points emerge:
“LISTENING to rap radio is often like reading a declassified government document in which thick black lines obscure the most tantalizing parts. Except that instead of black marker, rap singles are doctored for the public with sound-effects CD's. Gunshots, sirens, car screeches, turntable scratching and lyrics played backward conceal words deemed dirty, derogatory or harmful to minors. Some songs, especially ones with obscene words as their chorus, become so bowdlerized that their meaning is no longer even fathomable on the radio.
But recently, certain rappers have made it their duty to go back into the studio and rap extensive new lyrics to a song being considered for airplay. In one extreme example, Eminem takes ''My Fault,'' a song about fatally overdosing a girl with psychedelic mushrooms, and makes it PG by rapping instead about how he slipped normal, everyday mushrooms onto his friend's pizza, triggering an allergic reaction.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
Typically, the notion of artists changing their music to please the prudish and commercial elements of society is odious to critics, but in the case of several recent singles, the editing has actually improved the song. In a pop landscape in which the crude come-on has replaced the sly innuendo, some remakes are bringing a touch of subtlety back to urban music”.
That piece was written in 2000 – the same time Eminem was alienating a lot of media types with his album The Marshall Mathers LP – and one wonders whether things have got any better? More recently, in 2014, another piece added a new dimension:
“Music censorship has a long history. As early as 1940 George Formby had his song “When I’m Cleaning Windows” banned due to its alleged smutty lyrics!!! The Sex Pistols infamous Jubilee punk anthem ‘God Save The Queen’ suffered a similar fate, and one of my favourite anarcho-punk bands Crass, had to suffer the indignity of a record pressing plant refusing to press the song, "Reality Asylum", accusing Crass of blasphemy. Instead, they had on the record a blank space with silence in its place, which Crass humorously dubbed "The sound of Free Speech" in protest.
More recently fewer songs are getting outright bans, however the BBC, and similarly the USA radio network Clear Channel, also deemed some songs inappropriate for airplay during the Gulf War such as “War” by Edwin Starr, “Give Peace A Chance” by the Plastic Ono Band and “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” by the Cutting Crew-which in my humble opinion should be banned outright for just being plain awful.
IN THIS PHOTO: Sex Pistols
However the ‘alteration’ of lyrical content to enable airplay, or ‘radio edit’ versions is becoming more commonplace as artists strive to express themselves more freely whilst their record labels try to maximise airplay by remaining within broadcasting guidelines. Of course with the availability of music online, either as downloads or streams, censorship is now losing some of its bite as listeners are freely able to source ‘explicit’ versions of popular songs”.
It is interesting posing a straight question: Should we allow censorship in music? Many would say we shouldn’t: everyone has a choice to listen to what music they want and do not have to subject themselves to anything distasteful and ‘adult’. I mentioned how we, in the streets and homes, are open and free to swear and say what we like. How is that kind of permissiveness fine and healthy for a child, for instance?!
PHOTO CREDIT: William Matthews Photography
Many parents swear around their children and take them through streets where one might hear awful expressions, violence and sex – that might be a rough area but one can see some rather risqué and sworded sight if you are on certain streets at a particular time. Do we wrap children in cotton wool and shield their eyes and ears?! No, of course not, as that is ridiculous nannying and hysteria. The government is busy doing that so it should not be down to broadcasters to deem what is acceptable. I listen to BBC Radio 6 Music daily and find a lot of new songs are censored really heavily. Artists, in a bid to be accepted, popular and radio-worthy are dumbing—up their music and carefully picking their words – so their song can remain virginal and unspoiled when it gets to a D.J. I do get annoyed hearing a song with many gaps. You know that is their way of bleeping the swearing out but I know what the words are! We all know what is being said so what is the point of removing them?!
I think we have become less hysterical and overreacting when it comes to censorship. I remember a time when a ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic song was edited/banned on MTV because it name-checked banned streaming/downloading platforms. Sex Pistols and other Punk bands of the time were barred because of their anti-establishment rhetoric. More recently, artists have been censored because of the rather mild language on their albums. The braggadocio and womanising rituals one hears spat and boasted by many male Hip-Hop stars, apparently, is more acceptable than someone saying the S-word a few times.
I agree we should have barriers to prevent homophobia and racism reaching people’s ears but, actually, that is only for radio consumption. One can never (nor should) tell an artist what they can say and how far they can push themselves. If we start limiting expression and speech we are impinging a human right. By the same token; one should not indulge hatred and vile sentiments. That might seem like a contradictory standpoint but, when it comes to radio-play, I agree listeners of a younger disposition should not be vulnerable to that kind of extreme language. Play those songs later in the day but why do we need to be so strict when it comes to language?! A lot of artists, knowing sexual expression and innuendo is less immune to censorship than bad language, are upping that side of things in a bid to express themselves through sex – that bad language manifests itself in something a lot more controversial. It is good to see artists reacting this way and finding ways to circumvent censors. Should we arrive at a time when the big acts have to do this I wonder? There should be no limits or boundaries for artists at all. If they do release a song/album that causes controversy then that is on their own head. Eminem, in 2000, was a subject of derision and accusation.
Many saw him as the worst kind of musician; a villain who was trying to corrupt the impressionable. He was, in actuality, verbalising cultural and pre-existing traditions countless artists projected before him. The fact his celebrity was on the rise was the reason he was targeted and criminalised. Hip-Hop artists are those recidivist characters who say exactly what they want to. They should be allowed to write about anything but people do not have to love certain aspects of their music – homophobia is something that needs eradicating. There is a school of thought that argues those who hear artists swear, use disparaging expression and perpetrate causal sexism are setting bad examples. Everyone has their own mind and should not be guarded and monitored. There are worse things in the world and if we castigate musicians for expressing themselves it damages the threads of music and undermines its power. Music is an immense platform that can bring about change and inspire generations. Part of that is the freedom to say what you should and put a bit of spice into the music. If artists can talk about sex and violence; if they can brag about shootings and blaspheme – why is swearing the enemy of the radio bastions?!
I should end this argument soon but think a lot of the problem lies in other areas of the industry. Consider T.V. and film, for example. Swearing is a lot less rigidly policed than sex, for example. There is nothing offensive about sex but it is seen as more corrupting and provocative than bad language. I watch sex scenes that see the parties disrobe slightly and, someone, have sex in underwear and layers of bedding. They usually get through with things in a matter of seconds without any nipples, genitalia or organismic moaning being revealed to the audience. Even if there is a suggestion people are naked and fully committed – when you see them in the morning, they are either clothed (or underwear, at least) or wrap themselves in sheets! How unrealistic and stupid is that?! There are a lot of syndicated shows, even The Simpsons, where a minor bit of swearing or explicitness if cut. One sees entire scenes removed and the show butchered. It is happening in music and it is completely unnecessary. I am not suggesting we allow the F-word to freely flow through the daytime schedules: I am arguing we should be less rigid and show some common sense and understanding.
One can look back at the ridiculous days of Mary Whitehouse and how insane the censors were. That is still happening now – to a lesser degree – and it is stopping artists fully expressing themselves. Swearing is all around us and, while it something that should not be encouraged to breed unnecessarily, we cannot ostracise and eviscerate those who indulge that habit. We are all human and responsible for our own minds and voices. That is true of music so I wonder why we still ruthlessly and obsessively censor music in such a regimental fashion?! The argument about censorship is not binary, by any extension of reason. In terms of what we hear on the radio, of course, we need to judge things on a case-by-case basis. I agree Eminem is an artist whose music needs to be heard a lot more – his peers and many like him find few stations who play their music. Artists who rely on certain times of day to get exposure are angry and aggrieved. A daytime show should not play a song like Kim or The Way I Am (The Marshall Mathers LP) unedited. That said; why is every suggestion of swearing removed?! It is a tiresome fallacy that needs to be removed from its cloistered environs and shown the unfiltered reality of the modern world. We are less stringent about political censorship because artists do not write about it so much. How successful and likely would a Punk movement be if we took every song by The Clash, Sex Pistols, Ramones and took our all the edgy and anti-establishment messages?!
IN THIS PHOTO: Mary Whitehouse
Music needs to address a lot of issues and problems: censorship is right near the top. The same way the lack of working-class journalists and musicians exist – to show the country the realities of a less-privileged society – censoring an artist so candidly is turning music into a scholastic and overly-disciplined forum – it should be Socratic and rational (with a leaning towards the liberal and accepting). Censors and the music industry cannot reasonably edit music and think issues like sexism and racism do not exist in music. Those are big concerns but not being tackled as energetically and persistently as censorship. I think we have become more tolerant and less parental but still lack the perspicacity and reasoning to work pragmatically. There are, however, areas of society where the spicier and more human elements of the human psyche are allowed to fly unharnessed and without surveillance. An interesting article by Rockandrolljunkie.com looked at some older examples where censorship reached extremes - words and phrases being misheard and misconstrued:
"When the Taylor Swift song “Picture to Burn” first hit airwaves, some radio stations changed the line, “That’s fine, I’ll tell mine that you’re gay” to, “That’s fine, you won’t mind if I say”.
In Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, the line usually censored from airplay is “Let’s roll another joint”. In MTV’s airings and on many radio stations, the word “joint” was reversed, obscuring it.
In 2009, Britney Spears’ single “If U Seek Amy” sparked controversy in the United States due to the implications of the title. When sung fast, as Spears does in the song, the words “if you seek Amy” appear to spell out F-U-C-K me. The song was censored in the United States and retitled as “If U See Amy”, removing the “k” from “Seek”. However, the song went uncensored in most other nations. In the United Kingdom, the song was retitled “Amy” in which the chorus and bridge lyrics are mostly removed or replaced. This is the version that has been played on BBC Radio 1 and most other radio stations in England.
IN THIS PHOTO: Britney Spears in 2009
In many songs, the word “ass” is usually censored when it is used as an insult or sexually, usually by distorting the word, or silencing part or the whole word. The word “asshole” is usually completely censored, but sometimes, only “ass” is censored, while “hole” is not.
The word “crap” is usually censored in songs, like in the clean version of “Hip Hop is Dead” by Nas featuring will.i.am. When the word “sex” is used in a sexual way, it might be censored; exceptions include rapper 50 Cent’s “In da Club” and Ed Sheeran’s Don’t (in which the entire first line of the chorus is removed). The word “pissed” would not be censored if used in a way meaning “angry”, like in Papa Roach’s “Scars”, Lloyd Banks’ “Hands Up” and Lil’ Kim’s “Lighters Up”, but censored if used in a way meaning “urinating”, which is also on “Lighters Up”.
In a time when we should encourage our artists to articulate their anger and discontent with less mediation and fearfulness, censorship is a parochial and unstructured matriarch that needs…
TO allow musicians to say whatever the hell they need to!