Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Music Censorship

In Faculty, Music, Research on September 22, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Music Censorship: When, Why, How, and So What?

by David Valone, Professor of History

I recently took an extended car trip. Since my car is old and therefore lacks much in the way of modern technology, I spent a lot of time listening to the radio. I actually find the opportunity to listen to the radio immensely enjoyable—I have a long-time connection with radio going back to the days when I worked at my college radio station in the early 1980s—and even beyond to my childhood when I would sneak a little transistor radio into my bed and listen to music under the covers before falling asleep. Having the leisure and opportunity to listen to the radio for many hours, I began to think about the level of censorship that exists in music played today on the public airways, and this led me to think about how, why, and when music got to be so censored.

This is clearly a complicated question, and one that touches upon social, cultural, political, historical, economic, legal and artistic issues. Popular culture, of course, has always been a source of ‘dangerous’ material that some have felt the desire to control or censor. And music, particularly rock music, has been an easy and particularly obvious target—whether it was in the visual form of Elvis’ gyrating hips or the lyrical expression of the Rolling Stone’s “Satisfaction,” censorship in rock has deep roots.  Also worth noting is that self-censorship (or business-conscious censorship) in music has a long history. Artists and record companies have a long tradition of producing “clean” versions of songs appropriate for popular radio airplay. A recent example is Ce Lo Green’s very popular  song “Forget You”, which is actually a clean version of the song “F#ck You” released last November on his The Lady Killer disc. Many people have likely never heard the original profanity-laced version, while the radio airplay release has become an international hit.

What has particularly struck me of late is just how idiosyncratic the censorship of music has become. During one particularly striking stretch of radio listening I happened upon an Eminem song that was essentially just one long stream of blurred out expletives—to the point that the song was essentially incomprehensible.  It made me wonder why the radio station choose to play the song, which was completely incomprehensible in the form it was played. But what really got me thinking was a brand new bit of censorship in the Rhianna song “S & M” which I have heard played uncensored dozens of times. It is, as you may know or might be able to guess from the title, risqué–and this is a rather mild description of its theme and content. Still, there is nothing overtly obscene in it. Yet at least one station in central New York felt compelled to delete the word ‘sex’ from the line “I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it. Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it.”

Needless to say, I found this a bit odd, and it set me to thinking. I had first noticed the rather idiosyncratic nature of contemporary radio censorship about six years ago, when I heard a new, “clean” version of the song “Laid” by the Britpop band James. Originally released in 1993, the song became a moderate hit in the US but got very heavy airplay on independent and college radio. The song is a kind of personal reflection on a dysfunctional relationship, but it opens with a somewhat explicit, though hardly again obscene, description of a sexual encounter:

This bed is on fire
With passionate love
The neighbors complain about the noises above
But she only comes when she’s on top

Over the last five years, though, the clean version of the song has been increasingly played that substitutes “sings” for “comes.” The first time I heard the clean version it was quite a jarring experience, given that I had heard the original version played hundreds of times before on the radio. And now, when I occasionally hear the original version played—though it is the clean version that I most often hear now—I wonder why the choice between the clean and original version is being made.

From my perspective, the censorship regime in radio seems to me to be largely a legacy of the late 1990s and first few years of this century. When I worked in college radio during the early 1980s, the level of censorship exercised over music for radio airplay was relatively minimal. In general, the station that I was involved with, WPRB, adhered to a relatively loose policy of avoiding the speaking of George Carlin’s iconic “seven words you can’t say on TV”, and not playing songs that made gratuitous use of the same words. Songs that the Music Director thought went beyond this informal limit were marked as DO NOT PLAY. This demarcation was quite loose, however. For instance, the song by the seminal San Francisco punk band The Avengers entitled “F#ck You”—and whose chorus consisted of repeating that phrase over and over again—was DO NOT PLAY. In contrast, the Violent Femmes “Add it Up”, a classic expression of teen sexual frustration and angst, was played until the vinyl on the track wore out despite twice repeating the line “why can’t I get just one f#ck?” More formally, the station was trying to interpret and comply with the definitions of obscenity of the so-called “Miller test,” named after the 1973 Supreme Court decision that still to this day used as the legal basis of determining the boundaries of obscenity under the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. This decision leaves much up to “community standards” of ‘prurient’ or ‘patently offensive’ materials.

So, what, if anything, has changed over the last thirty years? Are the business interests in radio just more concerned about running afoul of the FCC in the wake of the highly publicized fines it has handed out to Howard Stern and others over the last decade? Have our “community standards” about what constitutes profanity changed? Has the technology to “blur” words out of digital songs just made the logic of censorship too powerful? These are open questions, but questions that would be interesting to research and make an argument about.  Just as the whole issue of censorship in music is, I would argue, and interesting issue to “think through” from a variety of perspectives.

  1. Prof. Valone: have you ever considered that the bleeps may actually add to the appeal of the songs because they signal to the listener: “hey there is a taboo being violated here.” I suspect that if CeeLo Greene and Eminem were not bleeped in their songs, the songs would be less interesting to us. Late night comedians seem to grasp this… I’m reminded of Jimmy Kimmel’s regular segment, “the week in unnecessary censorship” in which regular words are bleeped, so that the speaker actually seems to be saying something obscene. In the same way, CeeLoo Greene’s “Forget You” is popular precisely because (and I think ONLY because), we know that the “authentic” version is “F* You”– we add the expletive mentally even though the record says “Forget you.”

    Your blog reminds me of an interesting NY Times story about why comedy NEEDS the bleep. An interesting read — take a look! I paste it below…

    =Scott McLean, Political Science


    Too Funny for Words
    Published: October 1, 2010
    *WHEN my dad, Allen Funt, produced “Candid Microphone” back in the mid-1940s, he used a clever ruse to titillate listeners. A few times per show he’d edit out an innocent word or phrase and replace it with a recording of a sultry woman’s voice saying, “Censored.” Audiences always laughed at the thought that something dirty had been said, even though it hadn’t.

    When “Candid Camera” came to television, the female voice was replaced by a bleep and a graphic that flashed “Censored!” As my father and I learned over decades of production, ordinary folks don’t really curse much in routine conversation — even when mildly agitated — but audiences love to think otherwise.

    By the mid-1950s, TV’s standards and practices people decided Dad’s gimmick was an unacceptable deception. There would be no further censoring of clean words.

    I thought about all this when CBS started broadcasting a show last week titled “$#*! My Dad Says,” which the network insists with a wink should be pronounced “Bleep My Dad Says.” There is, of course, no mystery whatsoever about what the $-word stands for, because the show is based on a highly popular Twitter feed, using the real word, in which a clever guy named Justin Halpern quotes the humorous, often foul utterances of his father, Sam.

    Bleeping is broadcasting’s biggest deal. Even on basic cable, the new generation of “reality” shows like “Jersey Shore” bleep like crazy, as do infotainment series like “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” where scripted curses take on an anti-establishment edge when bleeped in a contrived bit of post-production. This season there is even a cable series about relationships titled “Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?” — in which “bleep” isn’t subbing for any word in particular. The comedian Drew Carey is developing a series that CBS has decided to call “WTF!” Still winking, the network says this one stands for “Wow That’s Funny!”

    Although mainstream broadcasters won a battle against censorship over the summer when a federal appeals court struck down some elements of the Federal Communications Commission’s restrictions on objectionable language, they’ve always been more driven by self-censorship than by the government-mandated kind. Eager to help are advertisers and watchdog groups, each appearing to take a tough stand on language while actually reveling in the double entendre.

    For example, my father and I didn’t run across many dirty words when recording everyday conversation, but we did find that people use the terms “God” and “Jesus” frequently — often in a gentle context, like “Oh, my God” — and this, it turned out, worried broadcasting executives even more than swearing. If someone said “Jesus” in a “Candid Camera” scene, CBS made us bleep it, leaving viewers to assume that a truly foul word had been spoken. And that seemed fine with CBS, because what mainstream TV likes best is the perception of naughtiness.

    TV’s often-hypocritical approach to censorship was given its grandest showcase back in 1972, when the comedian George Carlin first took note of “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The bit was recreated on stage at the Kennedy Center a few years ago in a posthumous tribute to Carlin, but all the words were bleeped — not only for the PBS audience but for the theatergoers as well.

    Many who saw the show believed the bleeped version played funnier. After all, when Bill Maher and his guests unleash a stream of nasty words on HBO, it’s little more than barroom banter. But when Jon Stewart says the same words, knowing they’ll be bleeped, it revs up the crowd while also seeming to challenge the censors.

    In its July ruling, the appeals court concluded, “By prohibiting all ‘patently offensive’ references to sex … without giving adequate guidance as to what ‘patently offensive’ means, the F.C.C. effectively chills speech, because broadcasters have no way of knowing what the F.C.C. will find offensive.” That’s quite reasonable — and totally beside the point. Most producers understand that when it comes to language, the sizzle has far more appeal than the steak. Broadcasters keep jousting with the F.C.C. begging not to be thrown in the briar patch of censorship, because that’s really where they most want to be.

    Jimmy Kimmel has come up with a segment for his late-night ABC program called “This Week in Unnecessary Censorship.” He bleeps ordinary words in clips to make them seem obscene. How bleepin’ dare he! Censorship, it seems, remains one of the most entertaining things on television.

    Peter Funt writes about social issues on his Web site, Candid Camera.

  2. An excellent topic. I find television censorship to be similarly jarring, if not more so. The most curious case is the “edited for television” movie. Entire scenes are cut due to sexual or violent content, and expletives are blurred out or – worse still – dubbed over. I’ve often wondered why networks and basic cable channels even bother to show these movies, since in many cases, the “flow” of the storyline, the character of the dialogue, the choices made by the director/editor, etc., are lost or badly distorted.

    My favorite example is Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” which is routinely shown on basic cable despite profuse amounts of profanity. The resulting “dialogue” in the cable version is atrocious. The cult sketch comedy show “Mr. Show with Bob & David” featured an excellent parody some years back (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-n-rGnI9XNo).

    I noticed recently that the “Saw” and “Hostel” movies are now being shown on basic cable. I’m no fan of either franchise, but I can only imagine the amount of material they would have to cut from those films to make the “suitable for television.”

    – Mike Sheehan, Psychology

  3. Like professor Valone, I too did a radio show in college–in the mid-70’s–right on the 74-75 cusp that would see the release of Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ and the Sex Pistols. His remembrance of the standards–Carlin’s 7 words–was the red line reaffirmed by the station’s director. I remember him telling his new jockeys–‘if you say one of those words, we could lose our license; you never know if the fcc is listening, or who will report you.’
    But the director never told us–‘ if you play one of those words…’ The fact was, there was just no censorable language in the vast majority of the records we held–a rather rich, deep, eclectic mix of rock, blues, folk, jazz.
    I hated corporate and glam rock, so I played a deep blues and ‘race’ music mixed in with Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Smith, Smith–who i am going to meet in October in Hartford…oh my goddess.

    Because of their deep suffering roots/routes made possible the paler likes of Elvis, the Stones, etc. the blues masters and mistresses raved and paved the way, in their sexually implicit lyrics and double-trouble entendres, for the soon to come explosiveness of punk in the late 70’s, and enabled the kind of fervent stand-off between its followers and disco devotees–creating what then seemed a serious, life or death of art- cultural bifurcation in the student body where i was a student at Sarah Lawrence college. I remember how I and my oh so hip new wave/ proto-punkster friends would lambast and parody the lovers of Donna Summers’ ‘Ah, love to love ya baby’ and her faux orgasmic moaning, refrain. Both groups alternately refused to dance to the other’s offerings, and the battle for who could control the turntable became an exercise in united nations style conciliation and compromise–hilarious in retro-spect.
    I agree with professor McLean about how stand-up comedians–forever indebted to Lenny Bruce’s taboo crashings and transgressions –have gamed the censorship system.
    As far as the bleeping factor in radio play, and as the father of 12 and 15 year daughters, they are part of a generation that doesn’t listen to radio; they watch/listen to their favorites on you tube, and access all of the 7 taboo words on the freely available lyrics a click away from the video performances.
    Just this morning, my younger daughter showed me a video of Nicki Manaj performing her hit, ‘Super Bass’

    She asked me; ‘what do you think, daddy’

    ‘Uh, catchy beat, but she’s no lady, i guess.’

    ‘Oh, dad. Not everyone has to be a lady.’

    I might have asked–so are all of your favorites–from Gaga to Rhianna to Manaj–such self-violent, anti-feminist femmes

    The song features these lines–

    ‘He a motherf#cking trip, trip, sailor of the ship, ship
    When he make it drip, drip kiss him on the lip, lip
    That’s the kind of dude I was lookin’ for
    And yes you’ll get slapped if you’re lookin’ hoe’

    Of course, on radio play ‘motherf#cking’ is bleeped, but the otherwise sexually overt analogy between ‘sailor, ship, drip, lip’ and se/a/men, penis, ejaculation, fellatio is lost on my daughter, who i will not otherwise clue in, though i did wonder aloud–and in light of the present question of censorship’s absurdities–about how americans repress sex as an obscenity and celebrate violence as a necessity… but the point is–

    Censorship is, and always has been in my youthful and now parental mind–in the words of Willie Dixon’s 1954 song–‘gone daddy gone’…a line then riffed on by the Violent Femmes’ 1983 song of that title.

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