Musical Space: Censorship

Oct 26, 2016

Warning: Some of the lyrics featured in this Musical Space podcast contain explicit language.

The arts hold a mirror to society, and sometime those in power don’t like the reflected image. There has always been censorship in music, and as the media have become more institutionalized, so has censorship.

As you can imagine, the Nazis and the Soviet Union clamped down hard on music. Not only were many pieces permanently taken from society, but their composers as well. Modern Russia has also done its share; witness the imprisonment of the feminist Russian protest-punk band Pussy Riot in 2012.

But the United States is not entirely guilt-free, either, First Amendment notwithstanding. Pro-Confederate songs were banned here even after the Civil War. McCarthyism suppressed the music of many; Pete Seeger’s career essentially stopped for the 10 years after his conviction of contempt of Congress. The FCC was able to prevent radio stations from playing songs with even vaguely subversive references like the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.”

But self-censorship can be just as chilling as the government kind. The media have routinely stifled music to avoid controversy. Billie Holiday’s signature song “Strange Fruit,” which describes a lynching, was immediately banned by American radio stations in 1939. “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys was squelched just because it mentions “God.” Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” was chopped in 1975 - too socially aware.

And that’s the kind of censorship we see today. I’m hearing a polite avoidance of anything political in pop right now, which is counter-productive. Because if sellers of music want their product to be relevant, then they have to reflect the times instead of look the other way.

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Listening list:

Frank Zappa – “Night School” (plays under commentary): from the album Jazz From Hell, which was given an explicit lyrics advisory despite being entirely instrumental.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of Project Censored, a group that works to stop this exercise of power because they believe “censorship undermines democracy.”

Shostakovich String Quartet #8, Fourth Movement. The harsh three-chord gesture represents the midnight knock on the door by the KGB.

Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” immediately banned by American radio stations in 1939.

Beach Boys, “God Only Knows,” Pet Sounds 1966, just because it mentions “God.”

Fela Kuti, “Zombie,” Zombie. This album released in 1977, a huge hit in his native Nigeria which criticized the army. They retaliated by storming his house, beating him, destroying his instruments and killing his mother.

Kate Bush, “Army Dreamers,” Never for Ever. Banned by the BBC for questioning Falklands War.

Rage Against the Machine, “Take the Power Back,” Bombtrack. This song was deemed illegal by the head of the Arizona Education Department last year.

Pussy Riot, “Punk Prayer, Mother of God Drive Putin Away.” performed at a Russian church, for which they were arrested.

Buddy Holly, “That’ll be the Day.” This song, and 164 others were on a list sent from Clear Channel, which owns a third of American radio market, to its stations after 9/11. Not an outright ban, just discouragement. Shows how arbitrary and institutionalized censorship can be.

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