Music Censorship in America: A Brief History

Governaments seem to have an uncontrolled urge of limiting the liberty their citizens. The famous philosopher Michel Foucault has an interesting work on this matter. Censorship is just of them. Here is a UG’s interesting article about the matter. Read it here:

Just as any other form of self-expression, music has been a target for different restrictions and prohibitions. The Land of Free is no exception: the first case of government’s attempt to ban occurred almost half a century before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Back in 1735 in New York City, the journalist John Peter Zenger published materials, including some ballad lyrics, expressing his displeasure with the actions of colonial governor William Cosby. Zenger’s victory in court with the help of the lawyer Andrew Hamilton has become a major case in defense of freedom of speech. Who knows, maybe without it, we would never have “F**k White People” by AJJ.

There were and still are many cases of different kinds of censorships taking place all over the world, from centuries-old South American ban of slave music and dances (which contributed to the development of Cajon) to the modern-day prohibition of bearded singers’ performances in Uzbekistan, but these bans are too numerous to observe. So let’s glance through the history of the censorship of music that occurred in or affected America.

1927 – the Radio Act prohibits the use of “obscene, indecent, or profane language.”

1934 – US Congress establishes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate the wire and radio communication.

1948 – Memphis police chief and vice mayor decide that some songs in local stores and jukeboxes were obscene, so they confiscate and destroy about 400 records.

1952 – a folk music quartet The Weavers is blacklisted for its progressive and communist views during the sire of the Red Scare.

1957 – Ed Sullivan Show’s first take on censorship in this list. Elvis is recorded waist-up in order not to show his sick hip moves. The screams of the audience cement Presley’s rock’n’rolla reputation despite Sullivan calling him a “real decent, fine boy” at the end. Way to go, Ed.

1965 – the Rolling Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” is banned by radio stations all across the country due to its aggressively sexual nature.

1966 – the Beatles face massive outrage after John Lennon famously stated that they are “more popular than Jesus.” with their songs banned from radio stations and records burned in piles.

1967 – Ed Sullivan strikes again. The Rolling Stones are forced to change the lyrics from “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” despite Jagger’s protests.

The same year, Ed Sullivan attempts to make Jim Morrisson change the lyrics of “Light my fire.” But “girl we couldn’t get much better” doesn’t stick with Jim, and he sings the original lyrics. The band has been banned from appearing at the show ever again.

Although Sullivan’s show contributed a lot to popularizing bands and singers who would eventually become music icons, these examples are not the only ones when artists had to change to fit the format. We have to keep in mind that the show was too popular to be bias-free. In any case, if someone didn’t want to cross almighty Ed, they could follow the example of Bob Dylan who, when asked to pick a song other than “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”, simply refused and walked away.

1968“Unknown Soldier” by the Doors is banned from radio amid Vietnam war due to its anti-war orientation.

1970 – FCC fines a radio station in Pennsylvania over the interview with Jerry Garcia containing references to sex. This is the first case since the Radio Act of 1927 has been enacted. This year is the starting point of Nixon’s War on Drugs, although the term itself would only be coined a year later. The president and the governors of forty states request the radio stations to censor songs with drug references.

1971 – a list of popular songs with drug references is released, including “Yellow Submarine” and a children song “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

1973 – court rules that discussions of illegal drugs are not a crime since it would violate the First Amendment. But in the same year, the Supreme Court allowed the local communities to censor the music they find indecent.

1975 – radio stations across the country refuse to air “The Pill” by Loretta Lynn because of the references to birth control.

1978 – George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” monologue leads to the Supreme Court ruling that the FCC can restrict indecency. Even though the monologue itself has nothing to do with the music, it sparked lively discussions on the extent of the use of obscene materials in broadcasts.

1984 – the music video “I Want to Break Free” by Queen is banned from MTV.

1985 – “the Filthy Fifteen”, a list of the most objectionable songs from the point of view of Parents Music Resource Center. We’ve all seen the Parental Advisory stickers, it’s a whole other story that you can check out, so we won’t focus on it too much.

1989 – FBI condemns N.W.A.’s “F**k tha Police.”

1990 – a bill is passed by Missouri legislators, banning the sales of records with violent and sexually explicit lyrics.

1994 – the number of censored music videos on MTV reaches one out of thee, a rise of over three times over a decade. Some videos are simply banned, but mostly they are returned to the producers for rework.

1998 – police attempts to use the lyrics as proof of parole violation. Shawn Thomas a.k.a. C-Bo is arrested for the behavior encouraging gang and criminal lifestyle, but the charges were eventually dropped.

Rappers are often the victims of their own lyrics. In 2018, NaNa, 20-year-old rapper from Dallas was sentenced to 12 years in prison when the events from his songs were linked to the actual real-life crime.

2001 – Clear Channel memorandum, a list of 165 lyrically questionable songs is issued in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

2003 – radio stations around the country refuse to play Dixie Chicks’ songs after one of its members said she was embarrassed that George W. Bush is from the group’s home state of Texas.

2007 – the City Council of New York City unsuccessfully tries to have the Recording Academy ban musicians using the word “nigger” from receiving Grammys.

2010“Born Free” music video by M.I.A. is banned from YouTube for graphic content. After multiple iterations, the restrictions are lowered to simply a “graphic content” warning at the beginning of the video.

2013 – both lyrics and music video of “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke have sparked a lot of controversies. Music video featuring nude models is deemed too revealing and the words like “I know you want it” – promoting rape culture. On top of that, Thicke and Pharrell Williams were sued by Marvin Gaye’s family for copyright infringement.

2017Madonna’s explosive speech at Women’s March about having “thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House” leads to her songs being banned by some radio stations as “a matter of patriotism”.

Overall, it’s safe to say that over the years the music censorship in the States has become much less noticeable, especially since there’s such a wide variety of sources to listen to music. Who actually cares about the Federal Government’s opinion, or what’s in radio rotation when you can listen to any track on a streaming service? Nowadays it’s more of a matter of personal taste, so it’s easier to cause a massive public outcry by mocking a tragic recent event than to have the government censor you.