# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Miscellaneous - Censorship

  by Jon Rogers

published: 21 / 2 / 2011

Miscellaneous - Censorship


Jon Rogers examines the slippery issue of censorship and finds that those rock stars who claim to be serious musicians rather than just pop stars have a very different set of limits

The whole issue of censorship and music is really a minefield of problems and a very murky business. Either extreme of complete liberty to sing anything you want or the other end of the spectrum of a clampdown on anything even mildly suggestive isn’t a good thing. Until I became an uncle I had taken a pretty libertarian attitude, largely (but not entirely) on the side of the artist being able to convey his or her art in any way they seemed fit with the only form of censorship allowable being self-censorship. When it came to making some compilation CDs for my nephew in an attempt to appreciate some decent music and give him a brief outline of the development of popular music since the blues, I found myself imposing my own values and deliberately avoiding particular songs simply because of their content. While the odd bit of old Anglo-Saxon may have got through I certainly made sure there wasn’t anything too excessive. Similarly, I took the same sort of stance over sexual content and references to drugs. Perhaps oddly I took the greatest care over making sure there wasn’t any hint of sexism. I didn’t want to be giving my possibly impressionable nephew that it was alright to see women as either second-class citizens or mere sexual objects. And this was a particular problem as at the moment my nephew seems to rather like heavy rock/heavy metal – not a musical genre known for its egalitarian views on women. And I don’t want any nephew of mine growing up to be an Andy Gray or Richard Keys style character. Most people would probably agree that allowing children or young teenagers to listen to the likes of NWA’s ‘She Swallowed It’ or The Anti-Nowhere League’s ‘So What’ isn’t really a good thing. Would you really think it was okay for any child of yours to listen to someone going on about shagging sheep and goats? And really I’m not sure I’d want any youngsters going around listening to the likes of N-Dubz’s ‘Took it All Away’... Although come to think of it, personally, I wouldn’t want anyone to have to listen to N-Dubz. Not for any moral reason, just that they truly display an appalling lack of talent. Censorship though is a very slippery slope once you start down that road if you’re not careful. One minute you’re restricting access to something like the Sex Pistols’ ‘Belsen was a Gas’ or Peter and the Test Tube Babies’ ‘Vicars Wank Too’, the next you’re finding a glimpse of stocking rather shocking and suddenly society is under a cloak of puritanical zeal akin to the likes of Mary Woodhouse and the so-called ‘Moral Majority’ where two people holding hands is deemed to be outrageous. Context is everything though albeit with the use of euphemisms or if the artist is deemed to be that rather vague notion of a ‘role model’. And there’s an awful lot of hypocrisy too. US pop singer Britney Spears got a lot of flak over her 2009 single ‘If You Seek Amy’ causing the BBC and other media outlets to censor it. I wonder if those media outlets would be quite so willing to have censorship over the line ‘If You See Kay’ in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’? Or what about Memphis Slim’s song ‘If You See Kay’ from his album ‘Beer Drinkin’ Woman'? Part of the problem for Spears – rightly or wrongly – is that she is deemed to appeal directly to young (and supposedly) impressionable girls and is therefore a ‘role model’ who should be setting an example to others. Clearly we can’t have our pop stars singing about sex now, can we? And in such base terms either. That would never do. But it’s okay, those young people can go and read ‘Ulysses’ instead and everything’s fine. So naughty teen pop sensation Spears can’t say such things, but it is perfectly fine for the high literary priest of modernism to do it. Admittedly, it’s not quite that simple but the principle holds that context is everything. And if you aren’t seen as a role model to young people then you can avoid the moral outrage easier. Spears gets into hot water for singing about sex. The likes of Slayer and lots of death metal acts sing (or grunt) about things like raping nuns, genocide, murder and generally the nastier side of life and no one bats and eyelid. Years ago, American industrial act Swans wrote a song called ‘Raping a Slave’ and no one bothered to get hot under the collar about that. And yet Alanis Morisette can get into trouble with her song ‘Everything’ for using the word “asshole”. Some people really do need to get out more. And the line ‘If You See Kay’ also raises the question of euphemisms in music. Here, those great blues and rock ‘n’ roll artists come into their own. Whatever can Bessie Smith be going on about urging someone to “Put some sugar in my bowl”? Or Chuck Berry singing about “My dingaling”? Even Robert Johnson, who had a reputation as a lady’s man urged one subject of his songs to “squeeze my lemon, ‘til the juice runs down my leg.” However you want to interpret the phrase “back door man” he certainly wasn’t popping round to do a bit of DIY. So where do the censors stand on those songs? After all, Ms Smith only wants some sugar after all. But sometimes the references can be so obscure the majority of people fail to make the connection. The Stranglers scored a #2 hit in 1982 with ‘Golden Brown’, its pleasant waltz-time melody helped to disguise the song was about using heroin. Similarly, Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ – widely regarded to be about smack – is so lyrically obscure it’s easy to miss the interpretation. So much so that the BBC once used the song in a promotional video for its charity campaign ‘Children in Need’ in 1997. Causing large amounts of sniggering at the back from those in the know. And don’t think that singing in a foreign language will save you. The (in)famous case of French auteur Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin duetting on ‘Je T’Aime... Moi Non Plus’ springs to mind. If a song about the sexual act, complete with groaning and heavy breathing, wasn’t bad enough the lyrical implication involving the kidneys being that the couple were indulging in anal sex at that. Oh la la. The authorities certainly didn’t like that. So really the best ways of avoiding any kind of censorship: 1/Avoid being a ‘pop’ star and be a ‘serious’ musician instead, that way no one will see you as a role model to young people. 2/Avoid actually writing a song. Write it all in a book and no one will notice. 3/Avoid writing about sex, in particular the physical aspect of love making. That’s a big no-no. Genocide, violence, pain, torture, raping and pillaging... all fine. Just stay away from sex. 4/Make your song, particularly if it’s about illegal drugs, so lyrically obscure no one actually knows what you’re on about. A bit like R.E.M’s songs, only with talent. 5/If you must write about sex, think up some euphemism that won’t offend anyone, but everyone knows what you’re on about. After all, we all know that Miss Molly sure does like to ball.

Post A Comment

your name
ie London, UK
Check box to submit

Pennyblackmusic Regular Contributors