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History of Music Censorship

A Short Timeline

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Those who recognize the power of music often learn to fear that power, and government officials are no exception.

1735

The first song banned in North America may well have been John Peter Zenger's satirical "Song Made Upon the Election of New Magistrates to the City" which was, like most of Zenger's work, critical of colonial officials.

1927

The Radio Act grants federal officials the power to suspend the licenses of radio operators and personalities who "[have] transmitted ... radio communications containing profane or obscene words or language." This legislation sets the precedent for future federal radio censorship.

1934

Congress creates the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees regulation of publicly-owned broadcast frequencies.

1936

George Formby's "When I'm Cleaning Windows" is released, but soon banned by BBC Radio. Among the delightfully bawdy lyrics:
"A window cleaner you would be
if you can see what I can see
when I'm cleaning windows.
Honeymooning couples too,
you should see them bill and coo
—you'd be surprised, the things they do
when I'm cleaning windows.

The blushing bride, she looks divine;
the bridegroom, he is doing fine.
I'd rather have his job than mine
when I'm cleaning windows.

The chambermaids' sweet names I call.
It's a wonder I don't fall;
my mind's not on my work at all
when I'm cleaning windows.

Pajamas lying side by side,
ladies' nighties I have spied.
I've often seen what goes inside
when I'm cleaning windows..."

1939

Columbia Records refuses to release Billie Holiday's haunting performance of Abel Meeropol's poem "Strange Fruit."

1956

Elvis Presley appears twice on The Ed Sullivan Show, and—contrary to the urban legend—his scandalous hip gyrations aren't censored. It isn't until his third appearance, in January 1957, that CBS censors decide to film him only from the waist up.

1978

In FCC v. Pacifica, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the FCC may fine a station for airing George Carlin's "seven dirty words' routine—and officially establishes, as a matter of First Amendment interpretation, the constitutional authority of the FCC to regulate broadcast indecency.

1985

Tipper Gore, Susan Baker, and other representatives of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) begin a national campaign to bring more national attention to controversial song lyrics. This leads to a series of U.S. Senate hearings during which performing artists testify in favor of artists' First Amendment right to write, record, and perform controversial music.

Among the artists who testified against the PMRC's efforts was the not-especially-edgy folk singer John Denver, who made an eloquent and impassioned defense of free speech:
I would like to acknowledge the PMRC for bringing this issue to the attention of not only our industry, but our Government and our people. It is obvious that we are dealing with a real problem which warrants our concern. I would like to point out, however, that we address ourselves not to the problem, but to the symptoms.

I suggest that explicit lyrics and graphic videos are not so far removed from what is seen on television every day and night, whether it be in the soap operas or on the news, and that we should point our finger at the recording industry while watching the general public at a nationally televised baseball game chant in unison "The Blue Jays suck" is ludicrous.

The problem, Mr. Chairman, in my opinion has to do with our willingness as parents to take responsibility for the upbringing of our children, to pay attention to their interests, to respond to their needs, and to recognize that we as parents and as individuals have a greater influence on our children and on each other than anything else could possibly have.

To quote a wise old man from ancient China: "If there be righteousness --" not self-righteousness; that is not part of the quote. "If there be righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there be beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there be harmony in the home, there will be order in the Nation. And if there be order in the Nation, there will be peace in the world."
Avant-garde performing artist Frank Zappa also spoke against federal censorship, though in less gentle terms:
Is the basic issue morality? Is it mental health? Is it an issue at all? The PMRC has created a lot of confusion with improper comparisons between song lyrics, videos, record packaging, radio broadcasting, and live performances. These are all different mediums, and the people who work in them have the right to conduct their business without trade-restraining legislation, whipped up like an instant pudding by The Wives of Big Brother ...

The PMRC promotes their program as a harmless type of consumer information service providing "guidelines" which will assist baffled parents in the determination of the "suitability" of records listened to by "very young children." The methods they propose have several unfortunate side effects, not the least of which is the reduction of all American Music, recorded and live, to the intellectual level of a Saturday morning cartoon show.
Although most of the recording industry did adopt voluntary standards identifying explicit content on albums, public outcry put an end to unspecified plans by several legislators to impose federal decency standards on album content.

1990

Members of the controversial rap group 2 Live Crew are arrested on obscenity charges by the sheriff of Broward County, Florida. Local federal district judge Jose Gonzalez defends the decision, and articulates a new conservative legal doctrine on music censorship:
This is a case between two ancient enemies: Anything Goes and Enough Already ... The Florida Legislature enacted a statutory scheme [that] criminalizes the distribution, sale, or production of any obscene thing including a "recording" which can be "transmuted into auditory representations" ... Men and women in good faith may disagree as to whether or not obscenity should be prohibited. They can argue that the obscenity statutes should or should not be repealed. In the meantime, however, the law must be obeyed and the Sheriff has a duty to enforce it ...

Unlike a videotape, a book, or periodical, music must be played to be experienced. A person can sit in public and look at an obscene magazine without unduly intruding upon another's privacy; but, even according to plaintiffs' testimony, music is made to be played and listened to. A person laying on a public beach, sitting in a public park, walking down the street, or sitting in his automobile waiting for the light to change is, in a sense, a captive audience ...

Initially, it would appear very difficult to find a musical work obscene. As noted by the American Civil Liberties Union, the meaning of music is subjective and subject only to the limits of the listener's imagination. Music nevertheless is not exempt from the state's obscenity statutes. Musical works are obscene if they meet the Miller test. Certainly it would be possible to compose an obscene oratio or opera and it has probably been done.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Gonzalez' ruling.
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