This article contains explicit content.
Or so some would believe. From Shostakovich to Frank Zappa, Elvis Presley and The Beatles, writer Ariane Todes investigates what has caused aural offence and how artists have boldly defied the censors through music.
Depending on who’s in charge, listening to music makes you feel, dream, dance, love, masturbate, copulate, fornicate, think low thoughts, think high thoughts, believe, disbelieve, convert, renounce, abandon, swear, rebel, plot, revolt, hate, go mad, fight, kill.
And depending on who’s in charge, that has often led to music being banned.
The Filthy Fifteen
Take, for example, ’the Filthy Fifteen’, a collection of tracks that featured many of the above, plus the occult, and which became collateral in a conflict between American morality and free speech. The fight was triggered in 1984 when Tipper Gore, wife of then Senator Al Gore, sat down to listen to Prince’s Purple Rain album with her 11-year-old daughter, only to be shocked by the lyrics to ‘Darling Nikki’:
‘I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess you could say she was a sex fiend, I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine’.
In May 1985 she and three other ‘Washington Wives’ set up the Parental Music Resource Center to ‘educate and inform’ parents about ‘the growing trend in music towards lyrics that are sexually explicit, excessively violent, or glorify the use of drugs and alcohol’. There was, they felt, a correlation between such songs and the rising rates of rape, teen pregnancy and youth suicide. They felt that their chosen Filthy Fifteen songs by WASP, Mötley Crüe, AC/DC, Prince, Sheena Easton and Madonna, among others, exemplified this trend.
The PMRC wanted to find a way for parents to be able to control what their children listened to. Technically, they couldn’t ban songs – under the First Amendment, censorship is a violation of free speech. Rather, they tried to pressurise the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to adopt a labelling system, with ratings and lyrics printed on the covers. They also wanted explicit covers kept under the counter, and to be able to ‘reassess the contracts of performers who engage in violence and explicit sexual behaviour onstage’.
On 1 November 1985, the RIAA and PMRC introduced a voluntary warning sticker for releases saying, ‘Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics’, to which 22 record companies agreed. It wasn’t technically censorship, but some shops refused to sell CDs with the sticker, and sales dropped. The system was voluntary, though, and by 1988 PMRC’s own research found that less than half of CDs with explicit lyrics were labelled. In 1990 they standardised the wording ‘Parental Advisory Explicit Content’, and in 1992, following Al Gore’s election to Vice President, Tipper Gore resigned from the PMRC, and the group eventually dissolved.
’Technically, they couldn’t ban songs – under the First Amendment, censorship is a violation of free speech...’
As part of the PMRC and RIAA negotiations, in September 1985, the US Senate held hearings to examine the pornographic content of popular music, and their testimonies still stand as important evidence in the debate. The PMRC’s position was put by Susan Baker: ‘There certainly are many causes for these ills in our society, but it is our contention that the pervasive messages aimed at children which promote and glorify suicide, rape, sadomasochism, and so on, have to be numbered among the contributing factors.’
Frank Zappa was fierce in his defence of free speech and summarised:
‘The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretation and enforcement of problems inherent in the proposal’s design.’
John Denver’s testimony shifted the moral responsibility away from musicians and record labels, back to adults. The folk singer (whose own song ‘Rocky Mountain High‘ was banned by radio stations for drug references that he denied) took the empathetic view: ‘The problem… 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 recognise that we as parents and as individuals have a greater influence on our children and on each other than anything else could possibly have.’
In other words, censorship doesn’t solve the root problems on whose symptoms it focuses. Only society itself – and parents – can do that.
It’s an argument that still resonates in today’s discussions about whether Drill music should be banned for its depiction of violence.
Many of the Fifteen featured sexual references, and no doubt a fear of burgeoning teenage sexuality was at the root of much parental disquiet.
This was certainly not new in 1985, although it was exacerbated by the new MTV and the videos it played. The previous generation also had its culture shock with the advent of television, and the visual aspects of music that it revealed. CBS censors were so worried about Elvis ‘the Pelvis’ Presley’s raunchy hip moves that when he appeared for the third time on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957 they showed the 22-year-old from the waist up. Television viewers maintained their innocence, while the studio audience screamed its way through ‘Hound Dog‘, channelling the sexual hysteria that grown-ups were so worried about.
We may be used to the twerking and gyrating of today’s music videos, but even today, watching Elvis and his moves, you can imagine the shock of his sexuality at the time – and how terrifying it must have been for parents who were used to Bing Crosby and Perry Como.
Across the Atlantic, here in the infamous culture of ‘no sex please, we’re British’, bans were largely administered by Auntie BBC and took on a less salacious character. During the war, proscription aimed at maintaining that most stiff of upper lips.
A 1942 statement by the BBC’s Dance Music Policy Committee read:
‘We have recently adopted a policy of excluding sickly sentimentality which, particularly when sung by certain vocalists, can become nauseating and not at all in keeping with what we feel to be the need of the public in this country in the fourth year of war’
The arguments about dumbing down classical music were already live, with the BBC’s Director of Music Arthur Bliss taking issue with songs that were based on classical hits, putting paid to any airplay for the Chopin-based ‘I’m Always Chasing Rainbows‘ (even sung by Ken Dodd) and the whole of Kismet (based on Borodin). No Liberace or Mantovani for licence payers, either, as Auntie tried to send the brows of the nation higher. And certainly no double-entendre, with George Formby’s 1937 ‘With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock’ falling foul.
According to Philip Larkin, sex finally reached the UK in 1963 – ‘Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP’.
Paradoxically, though, the Beatles were hardly the raunchiest of bands, and their songs were more often taken off playlists for their drug references. 'A Day in the Life' was their first to be banned, for the line, ‘Had a smoke and everybody spoke and I went into a dream’. Lennon and McCartney innocently denied the reference, but a BBC spokesperson at the time tried very hard to find the link, reporting, ‘We have listened to this song over and over again. And we have decided that it appears to go just a little too far, and could encourage a permissive attitude to drug-taking.’
‘I Am the Walrus‘ was banned for its ‘pornographic priestesses’ and ‘knickers’ references, but one of the most difficult moments for the band came in 1966, after John Lennon’s reasonable but ill-advised comments about the band being ‘more popular than Jesus’. This led to bans in countries including Spain and South Africa, denunciation by the Vatican, a ban by some US radio stations, and demonstrations during their US tour. The resulting censorship was relatively limited, though, and the damage was more to their mental health.
Maybe, by then, they were just too successful to ban, or possibly, by 1966 religion had lost its power.
It was not always that way, though. In medieval times the church even had rules that forbade the interval of the tritone. This sinister-sounding chord, most recognisable as the ‘Maria’ gap from Bernstein’s West Side Story, and beloved of heavy metal bands, creates a restless, yearning feeling, and in later centuries became associated with the devil, nicknamed ‘Diabolus in Musica’. Some have concluded that it was banned by the church because of this diabolic undertone, but most likely it simply didn’t sound nice and was difficult for singers to pitch – it just didn’t conform to the rules of polyphony.
Opera was often banned on religious grounds, with Pope Clement XI banning performances in Rome between 1703 and 1708 as a response to an earthquake in the city in 1703, which he believed was God’s punishment and for which banning opera was suitable repentance. A 14-year-old Mozart famously circumvented a Papal ban on Allegri’s 'Miserere' being played outside the Vatican by memorising and transcribing the parts after visiting the place.
Beyond classical music, a campaign to ban jazz in Ireland in the 1930s was largely driven by the Catholic Church, scared of the moral threat of this ‘engine of hell’, as described by Father Conifrey, who led a New Year’s Day Parade in Mohill, County Antrim, with banners decrying ‘Down with jazz’. More recently, the Taliban banned music outright in Afghanistan from 1996 and Mali’s magnificent music tradition was almost crushed when Islamists in the North imposed their hardline sharia law (it has returned since 2016).
In such cases, the enforcers may be religious, but the motivations are often political, and music censorship has often belonged in the toolboxes of fascists and dictators as a means of controlling the population. Under Stalin, Russian composers survived at his whim.
In 1936, Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mstensk, which was initially praised by critics, was savaged in the newspaper Pravda, under the headline ‘Muddle Instead of Music‘, after Stalin saw it and disapproved, and it was subsequently banned. Shostakovich’s life became a dangerous game of conforming to the demands of the Soviet while trying to maintain some artistic integrity. In 1948, Zhdanov’s Decree condemned him as well as others including Prokofiev and Khachaturian for their ‘formalist’ approaches, and banned many of their works. For a change, music was being censored for being too intellectual.
Similarly, in China, in the years of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 until Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, Western classical music was denounced as bourgeois – works banned, instruments smashed and conservatoires shut. And as in Russia, traditional music that served the nationalist narrative was approved.
Of course, the irony of any censorship is that, as any toddler knows, as soon as you command someone not to do something, they want to do it. Tell a teenager that Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax‘ is ‘disgusting’ and stop playing it on Radio 1, as Mike Read did in 1983, and it goes to number one for five weeks, having previously languished in the top 40. Vince Neil, of Mötley Crüe, whose song ‘Bastard‘ was in the Filthy Fifteen admitted:
‘Once you put that sticker on, that parental warning sticker, that album took off. Those kids wanted it even more.’
As John Denver testified:
‘That which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting.’
And so, most of the Filthy Fifteen artists thrived and were grateful for the exposure. Shostakovich outlived Stalin and was free to write again, even incorporating a portrait of the dictator into his Tenth Symphony. The Vatican newspaper published an article about the Beatles that admitted they had ‘shown an extraordinary resistance to the passage of time, becoming a source of inspiration for more than one generation of pop musicians’. Allegri’s 'Miserere' regularly appears in favourite music lists. Music by Jewish composers who were banned by the Nazis has been brought to life in recent years. Cecilia Bartoli recorded a CD of Opera Probita. China is now one of the greatest consumers of Western classical music.
Time has a way of smoothing out the memory of disruption and leaving behind the good stuff.
It always will.
About The Art of Change
At a time of significant national and international uncertainty, The Art of Change, our 2018 season, explores how the arts respond to, reflect and potentially effect change in the social and political landscape.
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About the author
Ariane Todes is a music writer, editor and communications specialist.