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Music Censorship

Musical lyrics have been the subject of censorship through the years, particularly those that were deemed sexually suggestive or violent. Censorship has affected the works and performances of such disparate artists as Cole Porter, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen, Rosemary Clooney, the Carpenters, Sheena Easton, Perry Como, and Bob Dylan.

In 1954, for example, Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out of You” was edited for radio broadcast to re-move the line “I get no kick from cocaine” (it was replaced with “I get perfume from Spain”); the American Broadcasting Company bans Rosemary Clooney’s performance of “Mambo Italiano,” citing inadequate standards for “good taste”; and police in Long Beach, California and Memphis, Tennessee confiscated jukeboxes thought to contain songs with suggestive lyrics (the owners were fined as well).

Sometimes, the censors’ rationale had nothing to do with the lyrics. In 1968, a radio station in El Paso, Texas banned the playing of songs performed by Bob Dylan because his lyrics were hard to understand. (The did not ban performances of his lyrics when sung by other artists.) And in 1990, a radio station in Nebraska led a boycott against the music of k.d. lang—not because of what she sang, but because she was a vegetarian.

Although the music industry has frequently come under attack by opponents they deemed too reactionary or literal-minded, mainstream concerns about lyrics were being expressed more openly. In 1985, twenty wives of politicians and business leaders in Washington, D.C. (including Tipper Gore, wife of then-senator Al Gore) formed the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The group’s goal was to lobby the music industry for a ratings system for music similar to that used in the film industry, the printing of lyrics on album covers, and an overall reassessment of musicians and lyricists whose work could be deemed violent or explicitly sexual. In 1990, a parental warning sticker system was adopted by the recording industry that would place warning stickers on records deemed explicit. A year later, Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, announced that it would refuse to stock any stickered albums in its stores. In 1995, former U.S. education secretary William Bennett and national Political Congress of Black Women chair C. Delores Tucker addressed a shareholders’ meeting of Time-Warner, Inc., deploring rap music lyrics that promoted violence or that degraded women.

After the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, Clear Channel Communications (the largest broadcast station owner in the United States) released a list of 150 suggested songs it deemed “lyrically questionable” because they had metaphoric references to planes, crashing, and death. The list included Steve Miller, s”Jet Airliner,” the Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me,” Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” and the Jerry Lee Lewis song “Great Balls of Fire.”

Inside Music Censorship