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Rap Cenorship Essay, Research Paper


Music and Censorship

Victor Lombardi

December 1991

Second Reader: Alan Stuart

Instructor: Richard Hixon


Our society today largely views censorship as a method that has disappeared from liberal cultures since the enlightenment with the exception of restrictions in time of war. The enlightenment served to cripple the intolerance of incisive religious and government leaders, but did not obliterate censorship altogether. Instead, the job of expurgating unacceptable ideas has simply fallen into new hands using new tactics. Censors now assume the guise of capitalist retailers and distributors, special-interest groups, and less influential but still passionate religious and government authorities. Their new techniques are market-censorship (dominating the marketplace), constituitive censorship (the control of language), power-knowledge (restricting knowledge), as well as the traditional regulative censorship (law). These new forces can be as equally effective as the forces of remote history. We notice the effect of post-enlightenment civilization as early as the nineteenth-century in the great Russian humanist Aleksandr Herzin. Herzin left his native country in protest of Czarist censorship only to feel “profound disillusionment with the extremely narrow limits of permission imposed on freedom of expression by market censorship in the West” (Jansen 1991).

This author will explore how these forces are affecting the free expression of musicians and lyricists of popular music in the United States, show how censorship has failed to work as planned, and provide a solution to the problem.

Music as Literature and Art

Music lyrics are essentially composed as poems, ballads, monologues, and the like, and set to music. They may take the form of actual spoken or sung sounds or of written words, as literature does. Any form of literature can be sung with musical accompaniment and become lyrics. Remove the music and we are left with literature. Lyrics are therefore a form literature. All the concepts that apply to literature can therefore apply to lyrics. This author shall employ such concepts, including laws regarding public speech and public press, in my analysis of music censorship. 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).

Lyrics also constitute an art form. Musicians are artists who create something new using a certain amount of creativity. The result displays an aesthetic quality, though it may also have other emotional and analytical attributes. Lyrics can then be considered art and concepts concerning art may be applied to them, as this author chooses to do.

The Importance of Art

Before this author can discuss how and why music is being censored, it is vital to explain the significance of art in our lives. Picasso said, “All art is a lie that helps us to see the truth better.” All art is a lie in that it attempts to imitate truth or to reveal something about reality outside the piece of art. Art can be a window, a passage way for our minds to perceive the external world. Art can also be a mirror, a way of looking out and perceiving ourselves. It is important for the images in the mirror to keep changing so they may accurately reflect ourselves. Peter Michelson said:

The responsibility of society, if it accepts poetry as a mode of knowledge, is to remain open to what poets of all genres, including the pornographic, have to say. Otherwise all mirrors will soon reflect the same imbecilic smile (Michelson 1971).

Someone once said, “Fish will be the last animal to discover water, simply because they are always immersed in it.” Sometimes truth can be hard to examine because we have difficulty in recognizing it. We have difficulty in recognizing truth because we are constantly subjected to it and gradually become numb to it. Art, whether it be literature, theatre, visual arts, or music, by way of its difference from reality, gives us a mental pinch so that we may awake and perceive the truth with new eyes.

Art can communicate in ways that other media cannot. By manipulating the environment, art can link directly to the emotions. Sue Curry Jansen explained:

…it is also frequently the ragged cutting edge of emancipatory communication, for even in the most permissive times the artful evocations and contra-factuality of Aesopean mischief have a freer range than the language of theory (Jansen 1991).

And Herbert Marcuse noted:

Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience, a dimension in which human beings, nature, and things no longer stand under the law of the established reality principle. Subject and objects encounter the appearance of the autonomy which is denied them in their society. The encounter with the truth of art happens in the estranging language and images which make perceptible, visible, and audible that which is no longer or not yet, perceived, said, and heard in everyday life (Marcuse 1978).

Some may say that the music they consider offensive, rock n’ roll and rap music, is not art at all because it is of a lesser quality and is therefore a lower form of entertainment. This opinion relies on the musical taste of the individual and is too subjective to concede. Besides, rap and rock n’ roll, being within the genre of popular music, will have many more subjective patrons than will styles of “high art,” such as classical music. Even if we accepted this view, based on the general complexity of classical music verses popular music, there is still a case to be made for simplicity:

…the danger exists then of assuming that the other audience, the audience one does not converse with, is more passive, more manipulated, more vulgar in taste, than may be the case. One can easily forget that things that strike the sophisticated person as trash may open new vistas for the unsophisticated; moreover, the very judgment of what is trash may be biased by one’s own unsuspecting limitations, for instance, by one’s class position or academic vested interest (Riesman 1950).

On a less profound, but no less important point, people gain pleasure from the arts. Indeed, to some people, art’s sole purpose is to provide pleasure. Philosophers from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant to John Stuart Mill have argued that happiness is our ultimate goal, the end to all our means. As Americans, we proclaim the “pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right included in our Declaration of Independence. Music can improve the quality of our life and inspire great feelings within ourselves. Thoreau said, “When I hear music I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times and to the latest” (Rodnitzky 1972).

The Importance of Art to Artists

The desire or need to invoke expressions unusual in everyday life is a passion for some artists. It is not present in everyone, and not everyone who feels this passion has the talent neccessary to succeed as an artist. So then, the artist is a minority among professions, a small voice with a delicate product. This great desire or need to create and share with those in everyday life is important enough for a person to pursue the profession of an artist, a career of spiritual as well as economic need. Once an artist, an individual produces art, something that may be thought of as a commodity. A censor who seeks to limit the distribution of this commodity not only harms the artist economically, but also professionally, because the artist cannot share her best work as she feels the need. The actions of the censor become a dual hardship for the artist. Laurie Anderson, an influential singer/songwriter, summed up her feelings on the subject:

What’s this morality play about? Mostly about fear. I’m an artist because it’s one of the few things you can do in this country that has no rules, and the idea of someone writing rules for that makes me crazy. Ideas can be crushed, artists can be crushed, and I think this is an emergency (Flanagan 1990).

On Censorship

My ideas on the necessity of free expression are guided in part by the ideas of George Bernard Shaw found in his essay, “On Censorship.” Shaw views censorship as an inherently conservative action, that is, performed by those who desire to preserve tradition. He pointed out that morality is a phenomenon dependent on the majority:

Whatever is contrary to established manners and customs is immoral. An immoral act or doctrine is not necessarily a sinful one: on the contrary, every advance in thought and conduct is by definition immoral until it has converted the majority. For this reason it is of the most enormous importance that immorality should be protected jealously against the attacks of those who have no standard except the standard of custom, and who regard any attack on custom – that is, on morals – as an attack on society, on religion, and on virtue.

Henry Miller, whose novel, Tropic of Cancer, was banned in the United States for some time, cited the difficulty an artist faces when dealing with the morality of the majority:

The artist must conform to the current, and usually hypocritical, attitude of the majority. He must be original, courageous, inspiring, and all that – but never too disturbing. He must say Yes while saying No (Miller 1947).

Shaw conceded the need for morality in those that are not capable of “original ethical judgment,” for they have no other means for guiding their lives. But for the rest of us,

It is immorality, not morality, that needs protection: it is morality, not immorality that needs restraint; for morality, with all the dead weight of human inertia and superstition to hang on the back of the pioneer, and all the malice of vulgarity and prejudice to threaten him, is responsible for many persecutions and many martyrdoms.

For Shaw, as well as John Stuart Mill, immoral doctrines lead us in new directions that may bring us truth, and which we would not find if it were not for dissenting opinions. Without the writings of Thomas Paine and Henry Miller, the theories of Charles Darwin and Galileo, and even the blasphemy of Jesus, our civilization would be less cultured and truthful than it is. Shaw said

…an overwhelming case can be made out for the statement that no nation can prosper or even continue to exist without heretics and advocates of shockingly immoral doctrines.

To those who said that some ideas may harm society in the same manner as other crimes, Shaw said there is even more harm done by the censor:

whereas no evil can conceivably result from the total suppression of murder and theft, and all communities prosper in direct proportion to such suppression, the total suppression of immorality, especially in matters of religion and sex, would stop enlightenment…

Shaw also recognized the interpretation that says freedom of expression should entail some kind of good sense in what is expressed. There have been several examples of this view through history. Plato wrote that art should display socially acceptable, responsible messages. In the 1950s, Michigan Representative Charles C. Digge thought the altering of lyrics was “just a matter of good taste” (Volz 1991). Recently, a letter by Tipper Gore of the Parents Music Resource Group asked the record industry for “self-restraint” (Haring 1990). And an editorial in The New Republic defines freedom through contradiction: “…it really is wise restraints that make us genuinely free…” (Norwood 1989). Shaw rejected these views as hopelessly relative and bias:

…what he means by toleration is toleration of doctrines that he considers enlightened, and, by liberty, liberty to do what he considers right…

The First Amendment to our Constitution allows us freedom of speech and press provided we do not violate any other laws in the process. As we shall see, there are no laws providing for music censorship.

Music Censorship

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 ills. Every unusual advancement has met with disputes, whether it be Johann Sebastian Bach?s complex counterpoint or heavy metal?s distorted guitars. In this century, jazz, bebop, swing, rock n’ roll, and rap have all had detractors. Such attacks have traditionally been initiated by adults ready to attribute juvenile delinquency on a musical form that appeals almost exclusively to young people and which “few of its detractors comprehend” (Epstein 1990). There is definitely a factor of time at work here chiseling away at society?s standards of morality. When once Elvis? pelvic gyration would not be televised, it is now an accepted entertainment technique. Bach?s adventuresome textures that threatened his employment can sound boring now. 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 gap, in a new and, perhaps, more striking form. Iron Maiden may strike today?s adults as alien to their culture, but the author suspects that a similar reaction occurred when adults first heard the lyrics to “Good Golly, Miss Molly” (Gross 1990).

At one time these attacks were even racially motivated: In the 50s, petitions were circulated which said, “Don?t allow your children to buy Negro records.” The petitions referred to the “raw unbridled passion” of screaming people with dark skin who were going to drive our children wild. Some things never go out of fashion in certain ideological camps. They are like tenets of the faith (Zappa 1988).

There are claims that contemporary efforts to censor music are racist, and this author has encountered more incidents involving black-oriented rap music than white-oriented hard rock music, where the second greatest number of attacks have been aimed. But when trying to ascertain such a prejudice, there is a difficulty in separating the number of attacks on each style of music from the overall content of each style. Rap music may be cited more often because it contains a greater amount of offensive material overall. A claim in either direction would require an independent study.

None of these music-related claims have been popularly accepted, largely due to the difficulty in providing tangible proof. Instances of Satanism have been attributed to drug abuse rather than music (Epstein 1990). Congressional subcommittee hearings of 1955 trying to associate rock music with juvenile delinquency were unsuccessful, as were the 1973 “Buckley report” on rock music and drug abuse and the 1985 senate hearings on obscenity in popular music (Epstein 1990). The 1970 Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (C.O.P.) report asserted that “it is obviously not possible, and never could be possible, to state that never on any occasion, under any conditions, did any erotic material ever contribute in any way to the likelihood of any individual committing a sex crime. Indeed, no such statement could be made about any kind of nonerotic material (Oboler 1974). An extensive study encompassing psychology, physiology, behavioral studies, sociology, and music would have to be done to prove a form of music is capable of causing harm. The researchers would have to be trained not only in research methods but in all these fields and the music involved. A willing, impartial musicologist proficient in the music of subcultures might be a rare find. Given these reasons it is clear why, to my knowledge, such a study has not been performed. The effects of music are still debatable.


Where music is subject to vague interpretations and may alienate people according to subculture, lyrics are a more concrete form of expression. Lyrics are words that are sung or spoken with musical accompaniment, or sung without accompaniment. Lyrics embody the sentiment the writer is trying to convey in a ridged manner, with less free interpretation and more definitive meaning than in music alone. Only knowledge of the language is needed to understand the words, if not the ideas also, and therefore to construct a sensible, believable dialog on their value or non-value. In 1986, the Meese Commission on Pornography “recommended that spoken words not be challenged for obscenity” (Holland 1989), and the C.O.P. report recommended, “the repeal of existing federal legislation which prohibits or interferes with consensual distribution of ‘obscene’ materials to adults” (Oboler 1974), but challenges on music lyrics continue through 1991. Because of this conflict, lyrical content is the subject that this author will address.


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 report. It has been said that,

The difference – and it?s an important difference – 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 United States 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 – language – they hope to censor the reality of sex. The logic is that without knowledge, there will be no corresponding action. But this logic is backwards, for it is the action that comes first, which is then symbolized through language. Regarding the censorship of the symbols, this author agrees with Goethe’s view:

It would be a bad state of affairs if reading had a more immoral effect than life itself, which daily develops scandalous scenes in abundance, if not before our eyes than before our ears. Even with children we need not by any means be too anxious about the effects of a book or a play. As I have said, daily life is more effective than the most effective book (Goethe 1832).

Sex, violence, and substance abuse are certainly real factors of society. If a musician cannot relate explicit information on these topics without being censored, then he or she may feel the need to hold something back. The next logical conclusion is that by withholding explicit information the musician would be sacrificing accuracy. An inaccurate piece of art may still have aesthetic value, but may not contain the message that the musician wanted to express and that the listener may have needed to hear. It is a popular opinion within the artistic sphere that “[Musicians] should be able to sing about drugs and the gang culture and teenage sexuality and a whole list of issues that need to be sung about (Holland 1989). How can we learn from our history if we do not know the whole story and the lessons learned from it? We need to know what issues face us now and suggestions for dealing with them. We need to foresee issues of the future that must be addressed in the present. A dialogue on our societal issues in poetic but inaccurate terms will do us no good when trying to cope in the real world. Gorky summed up the association of art and reality:

Myth is invention. To invent means to extract from the sum of a given reality its cardinal idea and embody it in imagery – that is how we got realism. But if to the idea extracted from the given reality we add – completing the idea, by the logic of hypothesis – desired, the possible, and thus supplement the image, we obtain that romanticism which is at the basis of myth and is highly beneficial in that it tends to provoke a revolutionary attitude to reality, an attitude that changes the world in a practical way (Gorky 1934).

The same reasons for censoring views on sex, violence and substance abuse are the same reasons these views should be heard: because they are controversial. John Stuart Mill asserted that the truth is most likely to emerge from a conflict of opinions. A censored opinion, whether true or false, sidesteps conflict and secures our distance in the truth. In a court case involving censorship of the band Dead Kennedys, Barry Lynn, the Legislative counsel to the national American Civil Liberties Union, revealed the symbiotic relationship of controversy and censorship:

…Dead Kennedy material and visual art in general lampoons the conformism of American society. That is preeminently political speech. We know it works because it annoyed the authorities enough to try to intimidate their critics into submission by calling them obscene (Kennedy 1990).

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