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While the censorship of art is not a new phenomenon, recent years have witnessed renewed and intensified attempts to control popular culture. In particular, rap and rock music have come under increasing attack from various sides representing the entire left and right political spectrum, purportedly for their explicit sexual and violent lyrical contents. In this paper is investigated which moral codes underlie these claims against popular music, how social movements mobilize actions around these claims, and the way in which they are manifested in mechanisms of control targeted at rap and rock music. Moreover, I explore how the performers and fans of these musical styles have in turn articulated counter-claims, and how they have mobilized social forces in defense of the free expression of their art-form. The issue is addressed through an historical examination of the actions undertaken to censor and control rap and rock music since the founding of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in 1985.


Concerns over rock ?n? roll music have lead to public debate, political and legal actions, and law enforcement activities ever since its “invention” in 1955 (Jones 1991:75-76; McDonald 1988a:294-302). However, since the formation of the PMRC in 1985, a new, more organized and systematic attack to control popular music has been launched.

1. The Invasion of the “Washington Wives”

The Parents Music Resource Center was founded in 1985 as the result of the unusually combined efforts of a few concerned parents (Coletti 1987:421-426; Gray 1989a:151-153, 1989b:6-8; Kaufman 1986:228-231; McDonald 1988a:302-106; Roldan 1987:222-231). Tipper Gore, wife of current Vice-President and then Senator of Tennessee Albert Gore, bought the album “Purple Rain” by Prince for her then 11-year old daughter. She was shocked to find out that one of the songs on the album, “Darling Nikki”, contained a reference to female masturbation. The same Prince song was also listened to by the daughter of free-lance journalist Kandy Stroud, who was shocked to discover that her daughter was exposed to “unabashedly sexual lyrics” (Stroud 1985:14). Around the same time, Susan Baker, wife of former Treasury Secretary and White House Chief of Staff James Baker, overheard her 7-year old child sing along to “Like a Virgin” by Madonna, which lead her to realize “what?s going on in pop music” (quoted in Roldan 1987:223). Also around the same time, Pam Howar, wife of a wealthy construction executive, noticed the lyrical contents of the songs she was dancing to during her aerobics classes, and discovered that her daughter was listening to the same kind of music over breakfast. In April of 1985 the concerned parents, together with Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington D.C. council chairman John Nevius, and Ethelynn Stuckley, wife of former Congressman Williamson Stuckley, joined forces: on May 13, 1985, they formed the non-profit, tax-exempt organization Parents Music Resource Center. Under the Presidency of Pamela Howar, the PMRC compiled a mailing list to appeal to similarly concerned parents and to raise money.

Soon after its formation, affiliates of the PMRC included several U.S. Congressmen and Representatives. On the same day of the PMRC?s formation, Edward Fritts, President of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), wrote over 800 letters to radio and TV stations warning against pornographic record lyrics, and requesting that record companies affix lyric sheets to all recordings sent to broadcasters (U.S. Senate 1985:133; see Kaufman 1986:236). The main goals of the PMRC were to inform parents about the music their youngsters were exposed to through radio broadcasts, in record stores, or at concerts, and to request the record industry for voluntary restraint with regard to explicit and obscene music. The PMRC specifically proposed a rating system, similar to the movie ratings system used by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and requested that specific warning labels be placed on album covers (Coletti 1987:424-425). The PMRC also suggested that song lyrics be printed on the album covers, records with obscene covers be placed under the counters of record stores, record companies should reconsider their contracts with performers who displayed sex or violence during shows or on records, radio stations be furnished with lyric sheets, backward masking be banned from all songs, and music videos be rated according to both lyrics and performances.

To gain exposure, the PMRC started the publication of a monthly newsletter and sent letters to sixty music companies, to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), and, most importantly, to the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA). The RIAA, which represents record companies responsible for 85% of the total sales of records in the U.S., initially responded fiercely against any of the PMRC?s demands, invoking First Amendment rights for the free exercise of speech and music (Goodchild 1986:161). On August 5, President Gortikov of the RIAA sent a letter to PMRC President Pam Howar in which he stated that the RIAA agreed to have a warning label put on all future albums which contained songs with explicit lyrical content (U.S. Senate 1985:98). The label would read: “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics”. To all other PMRC demands, the RIAA refused to give in. In a letter of August 7, 1985, Pamela Howar, President of the PMRC, expressed the PMRC?s discontent with Gortikov?s proposal. The PMRC was not satisfied because the label did not have a diversified, specific rating decided upon by a panel. In response, on August 13, 1985, the RIAA sent a letter to the PMRC stating: “Explicit is explicit… There are just no ?right/wrong? characterizations, and the music industry refuses to take the first step toward a censorship mode to create a master bank of ?good/bad? words or phrases or thoughts or concepts” (cited in U.S. Senate 1985:103; cf. Kaufman 1986:230).

In response to the RIAA?s refusal to further discuss the issue, the PMRC made it clear that it was not advocating censorship in any way, but only sought to find ways to inform parents and children about the products the record industry made available, stressing that their actions were a consumer issue. However, the RIAA?s response provoked opposition from record companies, radio and TV representatives, and musicians, who felt that the RIAA?s label amounted to censorship and an abridgement of First Amendment rights. The dispute finally shifted to Capitol Hill, where a hearing was held before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on what by then had come to be known as the issue of “porn rock”.

2. The Senate Hearing on Record Labeling

The Senate Hearing on record labeling, held on September 19, 1985, was arguably the best attended and media-covered hearing ever held before any Senate Committee (Gray 1989a:153-155, 1989b:8-10; Kaufman 1986:231-233; Roldan 1987:231-240; Scheidemantel 1985-1986:467-470; see U.S. Senate 1985 for a transcript of the hearing). There appears to be little certainty on who decided to hold the Senate Hearing, but the fact that many PMRC affiliates were wives of important Washington politicians or businessmen, and that the wives of the Committee members Albert Gore, John Danforth, and Ernest Hollings were affiliated with the PMRC, is probably not coincidental. The purpose of the hearing, according to Committee Chairman John Danforth, was to discuss rock music that dealt explicitly with sexual topics and the glorification of violence. Senator Danforth stressed that “the reason for this hearing is not to promote any legislation… But simply to provide a forum for airing the issue itself, for ventilating the issue, for bringing it out in the public domain… so that the whole issue can be brought to the attention of the American people” (U.S. Senate 1985:1). The Chairman then opened the Hearing, being careful to mention that people could raise their concerns yet asked them to not “needlessly use expressions that may be in bad taste” (p.2).

The first witnesses were the U.S. Senators, Hollings, Trible, Gore, and Hawkins (not a Committee member). All raised concerns over the influence of recent forms of rock music for the children of America. A few issues raised deserve attention: Senator Hollings indicated that he would seek a way, if possible, to do away with the “outrageous filth” of “music interspersed with pornography” (pp.4,5), and he was joined by Senator Exon who also advocated legislation or some form of regulation (p.52). Senator Trible referred to the subtle damages to children by songs dealing with rape, incest, sexual violence and perversion. Senator Gore asked for self-restraint on the part of the record industry, and invited Senator Hawkins referred to teenage suicide and overt expressions and descriptions of “violent sexual acts, drug taking, and flirtations with the occult” (p.6).

Then Susan Baker, Pamela Howar, Sally Nevius, Tipper Gore, and Jeff Ling took the witness stand as representatives of the PMRC. They alluded to the relevance of rock music for many U.S. teenagers and the enormous amounts of records that are sold. The cause for their concern was related to teen pregnancies, teenage suicide rates, and rape, at the same time pointing out songs by Prince, The Time, and various heavy metal bands. Tipper Gore testified that the PMRC was no longer interested in a rating system but asked record companies to voluntarily label their products on the basis of the recommendations of a one-time panel. Gore specified that “voluntary labeling is not censorship” and that the PMRC “is not advocating any Federal intervention or legislation whatsoever” (p.13). Gore reported on the suicide by Steve Boucher, committed while listening to AC/DC?s “Shoot to Thrill”, showed several pictures of heavy metal artists and album covers, and pointed out sexual and violent themes in various (mostly heavy metal) song lyrics (newspaper and magazine articles as well as lyrics of some rock songs are enclosed in the senate report). Senator Exon responded favorably to “you ladies for coming here and testifying on the concerns which you have” (p.49), but also wondered what the reason was for the hearings when there was no call for regulation: “can anyone answer that? I did not schedule these hearings.” (p.49). Unfortunately, no one said who did schedule the hearings, but Senator Exon later said that he would be interested “in some kind of legislation” (p.52). Susan Baker summarized the PMRC?s point of view indicating the PMRC?s call, not for legislation, but for responsibility and self-restraint in the form of voluntary labeling.

The standpoint of the PMRC was defended by Millie Waterman, Vice-president for legislative action (sic) of the National Parents and Teachers Association. Waterman raised concern over the well-being of America?s children and referred to the NPTA?s 1984 attempt to have the RIAA agree on voluntary restraint. Waterman said she was pleased with the RIAA?s label, but wanted a more detailed rating system introduced, so that the potential buyer knows what is precisely on a record.

The musicians? standpoint was represented by Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snider. After Frank Zappa had read out the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, he argued forcefully against the PMRC?s demands which he considered “equivalent to treating dandruff by decapitation,… whipped up like an instant pudding by “the Wives of Big brother” (pp.52-53). He argued that there was simply no reason at all to call the record industry to self-restraint. Zappa argued that the RIAA had given in to the record label merely because it sought to have the “Blank Tape Tax” passed. Zappa here referred to the Home Audio Recording Act, which would levy a 10-15% tax on home taping and give royalties to the recording industry for sales of tape recorders and blank tapes. The Home Audio Recording Act is the proposed bill H.R. 2911 and is sponsored by the RIAA (Gray 1989a:154). Zappa noticed that Senator Strom Thurmond ran the committee responsible for legislation, and that his wife was affiliated with the PMRC (Roldan 1987:231). Zappa also alluded to the fact that three Senators on the Committee had their wives in the PMRC, and therefore later in the hearings stated: “I don?t think this is private action” (quote from Frank Zappa?s song “Porn Wars”, which includes several samples of the Senate Hearing testimony; not in transcripts). Finally, Zappa indicated the danger of the stigmatization effects for the musicians that might result from the label system, and the fact that voluntary labeling could lead to “opening the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on things certain Christians do not like” (p.54).

The next musicians? witness was John Denver. Somewhat more moderate than Zappa, Denver stated that he had unfortunately been the victim of censorship following the release of his song “Rocky Mountain High” which, Denver stated, “was banned from many radio stations as a drug-related song. This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains” (p.65). Denver acknowledged the concerns raised by the PMRC, but attacked the attempts to suppress ideas and the spoken word in a democratic society, drawing a comparison with Nazi Germany.

The last musicians? testimony was provided by Dee Snider, lead singer of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister. Snider referred to his Christian beliefs and that fact that all his songs were written in that spirit. He specified that all of Twisted Sisters? songs the PMRC had condemned as containing references to sadomasochism, bondage, and rape, were all misquoted or misinterpreted. Snider also insisted that it is the parents? job alone to take full responsibility over their children?s upbringing.

RIAA President Gortikov also testified at the Hearing. He indicated that by the time of the Hearing already 24 of the RIAA?s member companies had agreed on the voluntary labeling of records containing explicit lyrics. Any other, more specified form of labeling or rating he denounced as impractical (indicating the RIAA?s companies release some 25,000 new records every year). The printing of lyrics on album sleeves is equally unfeasible since the record companies do not own the rights to the song lyrics, and, finally, the RIAA does not have any authority over the retailers of records so that it cannot control the actual selling of records. Gortikov went on to add five issues the PMRC had ignored: the number of offensive records is minute compared to the total mass of recordings released; most lyrics are positive; rock music is unfairly singled out; music reflects rather than introduces social values; and protective measures designed for children would inevitably also affect adults.

Finally, some interesting testimony at the Hearing was delivered by expert witnesses, including a university professor and a psychiatrist. Joe Stuessy, University of Texas at San Antonio, gave an exposition on the psychology of music, and concluded that heavy metal music contains subliminal and backward messages as well as explicit references to “extreme violence, extreme rebellion, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and perversion and Satanism” (p.117). Paul King, child and adolescent psychiatrist, pointed out heavy metal?s associations with drug abuse, sex, violence, and the power of evil. Dr. King also recounted that a person who had killed 8 people in New York City was a Black Sabbath fan, and that Ricky Kasso, the teenager in Long Island who stabbed his friend to death and took out his eyes, after which he hung himself, followed Black Sabbath and Judas Priest (p.130). After some shorter additional testimonies, the Committee was adjourned after five hours of debate.

3. After the Hearings: Quiet Before the Storm

Following the Hearing, on November 1 of 1985, the PMRC, and its ally the National Parents and Teachers Association, reached an agreement with the RIAA on the voluntary record label (Joint News Release, November 1, 1985; Coletti 1987:424; see Goodchild 1986:164-165; Gray 1989a:154-155; Kaufman 1986:233-237; Roldan 1987:240-242). The agreement stipulated that the printing of lyrics remained optional and, because of space limitations, cassettes were exempted, bearing only the imprint “see LP for lyrics”. Since then, different record companies designed their own label containing the words “Parental Guidance – Explicit Lyrics” or some variation thereof. Frank Zappa designed his own label and first put it on his album “Frnk Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention”, an allusion to the name of his former band The Mothers of Invention and his recent confrontations with the “Washington Wives”.

After the agreement, the PMRC, generally applauding the cooperation of the RIAA, agreed to attack only those products that did not comply to the RIAA?s voluntary label. All three organizations decided to monitor and evaluate the policy for one year. On December 10, 1986, the PMRC held a press conference and denounced the RIAA for failing to comply with the joint agreement. The PMRC, by that time claiming to rely on 100,000 supporters, again sent letters of complaint to different record companies, stating that the labels were too small and that it would increase its efforts to control the release of records with explicit lyrics (Goodchild 1986:165).

The activities of the PMRC and the record industry?s response on the issue since then are not very clear. Some, usually smaller, companies have continued to refuse putting labels on records, and generally the response on the part of the musicians was not favorable, feeling that the RIAA had sold out. Danny Goldberg, leader of the meanwhile formed anti-censorship group the Musical Majority, said “It?s like compromising with terrorists” (in Roldan 1987:242). The sales of records, however, do not seem to have been affected.

The most recent event concerning labels is the RIAA?s decision to introduce a uniform label (see insert), to which the PMRC has responded favorably (Jones 1991:78). The new RIAA decision not only specifies the label?s text (”Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics”), but also its size and color, as well as that its appearance on the lower right hand corner of all albums, cassettes, and compact discs containing explicit lyrics. In a press release, the new RIAA President, Jay Berman, announced the new logo and referred to the results of an independent national survey conducted in April, 1990, which demonstrated that more than half of the respondents were in favor of voluntary labeling (RIAA News Release, May 9, 1990). Whatever the label does to customers, it has already lead to some scientific research on the issue, debating whether a warning label increases or decreases the likelihood that a person will want to buy the labeled product (see, e.g., Christenson 1992; Davis and Dominick 1991). From personal experience, I discovered that, while originally I found it interesting to look for labeled records, this has become by all standards a time-wasting activity. So many records are labeled, without any coherent standard, that one may rightly wonder what the label is all about anyway. In any case, although the PMRC?s actions have not managed to directly lead to legislation or a more strict rating system, it is clear that since the Senate Hearing the issue of the nexus between popular music, sex, violence and declining moral standards has been brought to the foreground of public discussion and has generated an enormous amount of media attention. In addition, some communities and states have recently proposed ordinances to identify and monitor offensive music, and several state and Federal instances of legislation have dealt with the control of music in some form or another. In any event, it can be observed that following the PMRC?s actions and the Senate Hearing, which was after all a direct result of the PMRC?s activities, the stage was set for a climate of law enforcement, legislation, and further social mobilization targeted against and for popular music. Paradoxically, the PMRC has always been careful to avoid bringing in the First Amendment and stressed that it did not seek any legislation. But the world of music must fit the word of law.


I limit this analysis of court rulings on popular music to three often discussed, and from a legal point of view most important, cases. It should be noted, however, that next to these cases other legal interventions in popular music did occur after, as well a before, the PMRC?s activities. In 1986, for instance, criminal charges were filed against Jello Biafra, lead singer of the Dead Kennedys for having inserted a poster inside of the band?s album Frankenchrist. The poster, painted by H.R. Giger, is called “Landscape # 20: Where Are We Coming From?” (also referred to as “Penis Landscape”) and depicts nine sex acts (Wishnia 1987:444). Strikingly, in a public statement, the PMRC expressed its support for the prosecution of Biafra. The case was brought to court by a concerned mother, but the religious right is reported to have already condemned the Dead Kennedys since their 1981 album “In God We Trust”, which features the lyrics “Blow it out your ass, Jerry Falwell; God must be dead if you?re alive” (Wishnia 1987:445). On August 27, 1987, Los Angeles Judge, Susan Isacoff, denied the prosecution?s motion for a retrial after a jury voted 7 to 5 to acquit Jello Biafra on charges of distributing harmful material to minors.

Other forms of legislation on popular music have since spread throughout the States: a San Antonio City ordinance was enacted to prohibit children under 14 to attend musical, stage, or theatrical presentations that include obscene performances; the Maryland Senate rejected a bill that would have made it a crime to sell obscene records to minors (Gray 1989b:11); several rock and rap performances have been cancelled or interrupted; in 1989, Missouri State Representative Jean Dixon introduced mandatory record labeling proposals, and similar bills were drafted and introduced in 22 states (Soocher 1990:27). On July 6, 1990, a mandatory record labeling bill was passed by the Louisiana legislature. The bill was introduced by State Rep. Ted Haik to have a label stating “Harmful to Minors”, but it was vetoed by Governor Buddy Roemer on July 25 (O?Gallagher and Gaertner 1991:108-109).

1. Music and Loudness: Rock Against Racism

By 1989, the Supreme Court had not yet explicitly included music and lyrics among the classes of protected speech. Only lower courts had recognized the protection of songs (Goodchild 1986:134, 142-145). However, The case Ward v. Rock Against Racism (1989), involving the use of guidelines to control the volume of music, brought the issue within the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court (see Irwin 1989).

The association Rock Against Racism had for several years been organizing musical events to promote its anti-racist ideas at the Naumberg Bandshell in New York City?s Central Park. Just beyond the park are the apartments of Central Park West and its residents had regularly complained to city officials about the noise caused by various rock performances. On March 21, 1986, the City of New York promulgated Use Guidelines on noise-amplification. The guidelines specified that any concerts held at the Naumberg Bandshell would have to be held using amplification equipment and a sound technician provided by the city of New York. Rock Against Racism filed a motion against the enforcement of these guidelines. The New York sound guidelines? validity was initially upheld in court, but the ruling was reversed by the United States Court of Appeals. The case was then brought before the United States Supreme Court (argued February 27, 1989, decided June 22, 1989).

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