Although is clearly states in the first amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” censorship in America still exists in a big way. I think censorship can be applied to almost anything, including music of all kinds.
“Music censorship is the term used to describe the act of editing, altering, or preventing the listener from hearing the music as the artist created it in order to either deny certain information or to act as a moral gatekeeper of potentially harmful material” (http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~barndollar/courses/spring98/students/fabfive/index.html). The Censorship of music in the United Stated is documented as far back as 1954, when “Michigan congresswoman Ruth Thompson introduces a bill in the House that would ban mailing of any pornographic recording, punishable by five years imprisonment and a $ 5,000 fine” (http://ericnuzum.com/banned/fifties.html). Even Elvis Aaron Presley, ‘The King of rock-n-roll’ was once thought of as obscene. In 1957, when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show for the third time, the cameramen were told to only film him from the waist up. “Elvis’s dancing was considered lewd” (http://ericnuzum.com/banned/fifties.html). In 1964, “Indiana Governor Matthew Welsh asks the State Broadcasters Association to ban the song ‘Louie, Louie’ by the Kingsmen because he considers it to be pornographic.” (http://ericnuzum.com/banned/fifties.html). This trend has continued all the way up to the nineties, and I’m sure it won’t stop any time soon.
In the past ten years especially, music has been under attack by many law makers, prosecutors and critics of morality and good taste. One attack on this freedom comes from parental advisory stickers. These stickers are used as a form of censorship against an artist and their lyrics. If a label will produce an album, I don’t think there should be any reason that the consumer can’t decide for him or herself if lyrics contained in the album are found obscene or otherwise unsuitable. In order to begin the debate on whether or not parental advisory stickers serve as a form of censorship, one must consider what the word censor implies. The word censor means “the power to suppress publications or excise any matter in them thought to be immoral, seditious or otherwise undesirables”(Webster Dictionary 227). The question of what constitutes “proper” language and obscenity has been greatly forced upon the music industry. The government oversteps the constitution in concluding on which lyrics are appropriate for children. Legislation on this topic has been in effect since the mid 1950’s. Further legislation was not passed until 1985, when music labeling was voluntarily adopted by the Recording Industry of America. Later in 1990, although each company retained discretion regarding the labeling of specific records, the size, placement and wording of the logo were standardized. The current labeling consists of a black and white logo, fixed to the permanent packaging on the bottom right hand corner.
For all the controversy these stickers stir up, do they really serve a practical use for protecting the young people of the nation? Parental advisory stickers, voluntary or mandatory, act as a form of censorship because the stickers effect the availability of a sound recording. More and more music stores are restricting the accessibility of works deemed to be offensive to one group of citizens or another. In 1992 it was announced that Ice T’s song “Cop Killer” would not be in future albums, and that all existing albums would be recalled. Consequently, approximately 1,400 stores dropped the album. Many major retailers such as Woolworth’s and K-mart will not purchase, and therefore not display, an album with any kind of parental advisory sticker on it. While it is true that legally these labels do not prohibit sales to anyone, the labels “amount to an elegant form of censorship, elegant because it is censorship made to look like consumer information.” (1) As controversial as records like Ice T and other artists who use either swears or sexually explicit material are, artistic pieces no matter what kink of message they send, or however unpopular they may be, are still protected by the first amendment to the constitution. The people who vote for and pass the laws prohibiting free speech are taking it upon themselves what they think is moral and right for the rest of the country. I feel I can make up my own mind about what type of music I listen to, how about you? One organization claiming to protect the children is the Parents Music Resource Center. At the center of the music labeling controversy, the P.M.R.C., “feels that current levels of violence, racism, brutality towards women, drug and alcohol glamorization in music, lyrics, videos and stage shows need to be addressed through public discussion and debate”(Hull 23). “The P.M.R.C. hopes to prohibit the sale of records to minors that contain lyrics about sex, drugs and alcohol, murder or suicide”(Weinfeld 46). If that were the case, even the bible may be labeled with a parental advisory sticker, with its descriptions about crucifications, stonings, and other primal methods of punishment. One must also take into consideration that no direct link between exposure to sexually explicit material and antisocial behavior or sexual violence has ever been established or proven.
Many organizations have been founded as a counter attack to the Parent’s Music Resource Center. One group that works for freedom of expression call themselves, Parents of Rock and Rap. Members include students of all ages, parents, grandparents, college professors and musicians.
No matter what side of the issue you stand for, the issues as of now have to be settled by the consumer. “Restricting the purchase of displeasing recordings is censorship”(Zeinert 27). The entire system must be carefully examined, including prior court rulings and decisions on the music industry and the way in which we protect our children from what they see and hear. One must ask if it is constitutionally moral, and then we may begin to change the warning system, so that our guaranteed freedoms do not die. Personally, I feel that any type of censorship is wrong. However, it does not mean that in does not serve its some purpose in cases. That is up to the individual in hand.
Hull, Mary. Censorship in America. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 1999. 23.
Winfield, Betty Houchin. Bleep! : Censoring Rock and Rap Music. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.
Zeinert, Karen. Free Speech: From Newspapers to Music Lyrics. Enslow Publishers, Incorporation. 1995.