Censorship in music is a topic that has brought about much controversy in the past few decades. There have been many different arguments on the topic, however, the question still remains, should music be censored? Censorship is the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive”. It occurs when certain people succeed in imposing their personal or moral values onothers. The debate over censorship, for Americans, deals mainly with the first amendment and whether it is constitutional for a group of people to decide what is right for other people. For the purposes of this paper the focus will be what censorship is, how it is imposed, and how it has succeeded or failed to affect music.
Perhaps the first known case of censorship occurred in 1873 with thepassing of the Comstock law by Congress. The law was advocated by Anthony Comstock, head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. The law forbade the mailing of anything lewd, obscene or indecent. Comstock claimed to have burned 120 tons of books and art including the works of Chaucer- Canterbury Tales, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemmingway, Eugene O’Neill and John Steinbeck. Like the literatureComstock destroyed, music lyrics are essentially literature set to music. Any form of literature can be sung with musical accompaniment and become lyrics. Remove the music and we are left with literature. Censors throughout history are familiar with this association of music and the press, attacking each in similar fashion. Jeremy Collier, a seventeenth-century Englishman, thought that music was"almost as dangerous as gunpowder" and might require "looking after no less than the press" (Rodnitzky 1972).
Musicians are often cited for using obscene language, ideas, and imagery in their lyrics. What is labeled obscene is usually a documentation of real people and real events expressed through language suited to the stile. It has been said that, “The difference - and it’s an importantdifference - is that today’s salacious lyrics are not the exception to otherwise generally accepted sexual standards and community values, but a symbol of their collapse” (Gross 1990).
Admittedly, lyrics can be shocking, but they describe the reality of our lives in our world. Frank Zappa, a musician of strong influence on early rock music, noted that
...if one wants to be a real artist in the UnitedStates today and comment on our culture, one would be very far off the track if one did something delicate or sublime. This is not a noble, delicate, sublime country (Zappa 1988).
Explicit sex, violence, pain, suffering, and unusual human acts are characteristics of the human drama. Lyrical content is now censored when relating to "...explicit sex, explicit violence, or explicit substance abuse"(Baker 1989). Sexual acts, in particular, are commonly accepted in our society, but the language that denotes these acts is not. Perhaps it is the actual acts that the censors wish to curb, especially in youth, and by censoring the symbols for sex they hope to censor the reality of sex.
Throughout the history of music, would-be censors have primarily targeted controversial lyrics as a problem,but there have been efforts to blame the actual music for causing society’s failures. Every unusual innovation has been fought, whether it be Johann Sebastian Bach’s complex counterpoint or heavy metal’s distorted guitars. In this century, jazz, blues, bebop, swing, rock n' roll, and rap have all had resistance. Such opposition has traditionally been by adults ready to attribute juveniledelinquency on a musical form that appeals almost exclusively to young people, and few in opposition understand. Elvis’ pelvic gyration would not be televised but is now an accepted entertainment technique. Today we become offended by explicit sex or violence or language pertaining to such threats to morality. Robert L. Gross pointed out,
...this controversy is a replay of the age old generation...