So with the nonsense from last week out of the way, I can get to the topic I originally intended for then, censorship of music. Music censorship has been around as long as music has and it should surprise no one in the least that every bit of music has always offended someone who made it their duty to stop others from hearing it. See guys, censorship of music is not a new thing, it goes all way back to before even organized music, but I am going to focus on our era, I don’t think anyone really wants to read about how people tried to censor Beethoven. I am going to point out some of the most egregious examples from my memory and research but rest assured, these are only the smallest and most minute of incidents, the censors are never happy unless they are stopping someone from audibly ingesting something they feel is dangerous. Hell, “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen had so many censorship attempts thrown at it that you would be forgiven if you actually thought it was somehow a “dirty” song (it’s not).
Since I can’t talk about every incident of this bullshit, lets focus on some of the ones that effected me as a rebellious idiotic teen. The biggest enemy I had on the music scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s was the PMRC. The “Parents Music Resource Center” sounds so… educational and helpful does it not? Well in reality they were a CENSORSHIP organization, despite all of the protestations to the contrary. They claimed that they only wanted to inform parents about the content of music and help steer parents in the right direction. They flat out lied. Their idea of “informing parents” was to decide that anything not pro-christian was “Satanic” (even if it was talking about Judaism, yes, they classified the Jewish Star Of David as a “Satanic Symbol”), anything anti-authoritative was to get stickered (more on that in a moment) and anything that made even the slightest reference to sex was PORNO. The PMRC liked to use the term “Porn Rock” to describe bands such as Ozzy Osbourne and Twisted Sister. Now, what they wanted was a sticker that would cover the front of any album THEY deemed inappropriate and that sticker (if they got their way) would disallow anyone under 18 years of age from purchasing the album in question* plus most mass market realtors would refuse to carry any album with a sticker. What this stickering of albums did was it severely limited the potential sales of your record all the while telling your record label that maybe if they wanted to see sales go up, they should stop you as an artist from even making songs like that, or even perhaps not signing bands that might be future sticker targets. It was trickle down censorship, they send a message to the retailer who sends the message to the record company who sends the message to the artist; stop being edgy or we drop you. It’s a tacit censorship technique all the while exalting the virtues of being nothing more than “information”. The PMRC was started by the bored wives of congressmen who used their political access (talk about being in bed with a politician) to even get congressional hearings convened on the topic of so called “Porn Rock”. This hearing was as large of a farce as you think it was and in the end the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” sticker (also called a Tipper Sticker after Tipper Gore the founder of the PMRC) was born. In the end that sticker really did nothing more than tell kids exactly what record they SHOULD spend their money on and the PMRC was eventually outed as the censoring morons they claimed they were not. Tipper Gore was even personally responsible for Jello Biafra being prosecuted on obscenity charges for The Dead Kennedy’s “Frankenchrist” album (allegedly over it’s poster insert of HR Geigers “Penis Landscape” but the jury actually spent more time on the lyrics themselves than the offending poster). At the time Gore denied the PMRC had any involvement in that prosecution yet still gave this quote to a local newspaper:
Reporter: “What about Jello Biafra’s obscenity trial?”
Gore: “I mean, I’d like to take credit for that.”
And they claim to be just about giving information to people and nothing more. They are censors who fear for the fragile eggshell minds they encounter and like most censors they feel they are righteous and that history will vindicate them, but history will (and has already) shown them to be the censors they are. They will find no vindication in history, only vilification.
The PMRC might have been the most organized (as it were) but their impact and the fallout from the Tipper Sticker would be felt for years to come. Anyone remember the fervor over the first Body Count release “Cop Killer”? Remember how the police, the NRA (of all groups), radio stations, MTV, news organizations and the like all wanted to get this album banned? That is all due to the influence and the cause and effect of the PMRC. I lost quite a great amount of respect for Tracy Marrow (you know him as Ice-T) when he caved into the pressure and took the “Cop Killer” song off of his record and changed the artwork. He did what they wanted him to do and he did it for his career, they were able to prove that he cared more about being a rock/rap star then being an artist with integrity. You can never bow to the censors, never give them an inch, if you do then we all lose.
Just about every metal or punk album I grew up buying had one of those Tipper Stickers on them and here is the real hard hitting danger that those stickers had; places like Wal-Mart, Target, Musicland, Sam Goody and the like will not, under any circumstances, carry albums with a Tipper Sticker. So what you have is that 60%-75% of your potential market is cut off from your product (pre-internet), as a record label that wants to make money do you allow that? No, you do not. You change the songs, you chastise the artists and you bow to the artificial monetary pressure. That is the real hazard that giving in causes, it strengthens their position and puts more factitious walls in front of you. As an artist you can not simply conceive of how the cowardly actions you take today will cascade into the future and how what you do right now can (WILL) effect artists that come after you. If you don’t stand up then how do you expect those who follow you to? You have to fight censors here and now, not there and later.
It’s not just heavy metal songs or punk songs or rap songs that draw the ire of the censors eye, did you know that songs like John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”, Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”, Frank Zappa’s “Jazz From Hell” (and instrumental album with no lyrics), Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out of You” and Jerry Lee Lewis‘ “Great Balls of Fire” all had attempts to censor them? That is just naming a few of the more surprising attempts at music censorship but it goes on and on. Every year there are dozens of albums singled out for some kind of censoring be it for political messages, racial insensitivities, “pornographic” lyrics/imagery or anything else, it does not stop. A while back in this column I did a satirical entry on how censorship was much easier in the 1990’s, well that was satire and what does all satire have in it? TRUTH. I was not exaggerating the examples I gave in that column, in fact I downplayed them somewhat (in trying to be funny I had to). The 2 Live Crew incident(s) showed just how much unchecked power the censors actually have and just how dangerous that power is if we sit by and allow it to spread unfettered. The laws should protect us from them, not them from us.
The 90’s were a great time of censoring strife and the true irony of it all was that even protest songs, specially protesting the PMRC, were in turn censored for being songs that protested censorship. Anthrax’s “Starting Up A Posse” is a great protest song… that the PMRC slapped with a Tipper Sticker. Ah the ironies of life. I wanted to go into more instances of particularly egregious censoring but as I was writing this I realized that I needed to go more into the tactics and the effects of this rather than the specifics, I can do those another time.
*But if your album got a sticker you could always recut the album to fit the PMRC standards… nope totally not censorship at all, do it our way or you don’t do it.
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