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In music, censorship can be defined as ‘the suppression or prohibition’, of any parts of music ‘that are considered obscene or politically unacceptable’ (Oxford University Press, 2019). This includes the editing of musical and lyrical content, cover artwork and music videos to meet certain guidelines, laws and social expectations. Censorship can range from the voluntary elimination of sensitive material by the artist to hard, legally enforced, governmental restrictions on musical works or the creators. Frequently censored content includes sexually explicit words or images; profane lyrics and discriminatory messages. The debate on whether or not the censorship of popular music can be justified is a common and long running conversation throughout history. The main justifications for censorship, specifically in music, are: Political and Moral, with Economics also playing a role in decisions. Through these topics, this essay aims to discuss both the setbacks and negative implications of censorship – including the prevention of freedom of speech, as well as the possible positive effects it can have by, for example, not exposing young children to potentially harmful ideas. Levels of censorship are highly dependent on geographical location and, as this essay will be discussing, the rationales for censoring musical content vary greatly – determined by where you are in the world. What is considered ‘censor worthy’ in one country, might be considered completely acceptable in another. For example, several countries in South East Asia, most notably North Korea, have extremely high rates of censorship in music and most other forms of media, ranking last in the World Press Freedom Index (RSF, 2019). In comparison, western parts of the world have much lower rates of censorship – for example, America rank 45th out of 180 on the Freedom Index (RSF, 2019) – translating to much higher levels of freedom and therefore, lower levels of censorship. This essay will be focusing predominantly on a cases in Russia, the US and North Korea.
Arguably, the most common justification for censorship globally is politics. Many artists use music as a outlet to express their opinions on society and politics, with some using it as a form of activism. Most notably is the extreme case of the Russian feminist girl group ‘Pussy Riot’. They gained global attention in the February of 2012 after performing a highly political, ‘obscenity-laced song called Punk Prayer’ at Moscow’s Cathedral of The Lord Saviour, which ‘attacked the orthodox Church’s support for Vladimir Putin’ (BBC News, 2013). The performance was hastily intercepted by the church’s officials and a few weeks later, two out of three of the band members were arrested and charged for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” (BBC News, 2013). They were subsequently sentenced to 2 years in prison for their actions. The news of their imprisonment sparked an international outcry, with much of the support specifically coming from other highly successful musicians, with everyone from Adele to Sir Paul Mccartney publicly calling for their release. In an interview with the Communications Manager for Art for Amnesty – Lucy Macnamara, she described how a number of musicians had told her that “if you can’t sing a protest song without the fear of arrest then something is badly wrong” (Amnesty.org, 2013). With this statement comes the question of where to draw the line between ‘protesting’ and ‘hooliganism’. To protest is to ‘show publicly that you object to something’ (Collins Dictionary, 2019), whilst hooliganism can be defined as the ‘lawless behaviour’ by ‘tough and aggressive or violent youth’. Pussy Riot purposely used a provocative and controversial performance to raise awareness of issues that they felt strongly about and though they were passionate and persistent with it, they did not display any violent behaviour reminiscent of so called ‘hooligans’. On the one hand, it is understandable why their protest performance was viewed by some as disrespectful, due to the fact that it took place in a Church – an important and sacred place of worship for many people. This could be interpreted as an attack on their religion but instead it was intended to be a demonstration against the political ideas of the church. The acts of Pussy Riot on this day were not a good enough justification for the lengthy jail time they were sentenced to. They did not deserve to be censored so heavily when all they were doing was displaying their freedom of expression through a musical performance.
To continue, the freedom of expression shown by Pussy Riot is a freedom they are given by law. Russia is one of the 47 member states on the council of Europe (States and Europe, 2018) and therefore must comply with the European Convention on Human Rights (from now on to be referred to as the ECHR). Article 10 of the ECHR is dedicated to the ‘Freedom of Expression’ and states that everyone has the “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontier” (ECHR, 1950). Therefore, it was Pussy Riots legal right to voice and present their ideas the way they did. By censoring this type of political art and music, people can become angered which can, in turn, make people seek out other more provocative forms of activism to get their voices heard. This could include more violent protests which would become a highly negative impact of censorship. On the other hand, by censoring Pussy Riot, the government inadvertently helped to raise this issue of unjustified censorship of music to a global level as well as the main subject of Pussy Riot’s protest. An even more extreme example is that of North Korea – a country controlled by a strict totalitarian regime.
The North Korean government use their political power to prohibit nearly all consumption of any media forms that aren’t created in their country. This includes preventing their citizens from listening to any ‘Western’ music that is not legally approved by the government. If a citizen chooses to listen to a song that is not approved by the government, it is considered to be a punishable crime. They do this as a way to control their country and believe it prevents them from forming westernised views on politics. By suppressing the nation to this great extent, society is much less likely to fight back. M In modern America, the first official documentation of music censorship was based on the justification of politics and occured after the civil war, with ‘Pro-southern songs’ being banned as the country was being reconstructed because the US government thought that these songs would stir up feelings. Understandably, they were trying to prevent the wider public from further possible problems. However, like the ECHR, America has a similar law regarding freedom of speech that has been a part of the US Constitution since 1791: The 1st Amendment. The first amendment of the US Constitutional Law “guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly and the right to petition” (LII / Legal Information Institute, n.d.). Technically, ‘Pro- Southern songs should not have been banned as it is the artists right and freedom of speech to communicate their thoughts through their songs without being restricted by the government. Music is a form of expression, and therefore should not be censored in any way unless the subjects are not in line with obscenity laws. Speech that comes under the category of ‘obscenity’ is not protected by the First Amendment. According to the Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute, laws regarding obscenity are “concerned with prohibiting lewd, filthy, or disgusting words or pictures” (LII / Legal Information Institute, 2017). When it comes to artistic expressions containing so called ‘indecent materials’, restrictions may be used “in terms of time, place and manner but are still protected by the first amendment” (LII / Legal Information Institute, 2017). This leads on to the second justification of censorship that this essay with discuss – morals and decency.
The argument for censorship occurring for ‘moral reasons’ is usually as an aim to protect children and adolescents from coming into contact with profanity and explicit content that is not seen to be beneficial to them at such a crucial time period in their development. Whilst there are no specific age ratings put on music, the concept and justification is similar to that of age restrictions put on films. This type of censorship is also used to prevent the wider public, regardless of their age, from being exposed to damaging or disturbing content. Furthermore, censoring sensitive content in music can make it more marketable and therefore profitable, making economic gain another incentive for moral censorship. In contemporary history, one of the most notable instances where the censorship of music became a nation wide subject was when Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1958 and was filmed from the waist above. This was done because, at the time, Presley’s hip movements and dance moves were considered overly suggestive and therefore inappropriate for a nationwide broadcast. In one sense it can be understood why they would feel the need to censor this performance; it occurred at a time where sexual liberalism was still not a widely accepted idea and post-war America was still relatively sexually conservative (Meyerowitz, 2019). However, in today’s social climate, Presley’s movements would be completely acceptable and hardly considered to be overly sexual. As a more recent example – the music video for blurred lines is a famous case of censorship, called upon by the public. In more recent year, subject matters in popular music have become progressively more explicit and less child friendly. Topics surrounding substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and violence are among those that are becoming increasingly common lyrical matters. Several genres including rap, rock and heavy metal are the most frequent culprits of this type of explicit content. Countless studies have even shown that exposure to musical content with mature themes can in fact have a negative influence on the behaviours of young people, with those who listen to heavy metal and rap having an increased tendency to partake in reckless behaviours. In 1999, a survey was conducted on group of public school mothers (with a sample size of 345). The results of this survey revealed that “47% of the mothers believed that violent messages in rap contributes to school violence” (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009). In another study performed by psychologists Peter Fischer and Tobias Greitemeyer, it was found that adolescent boys “who listened to misogynistic lyrics showed increased aggressive responses towards women as well as a more negative perception of them”.
It could be argued that censoring music to protect children and adolescents is unnecessary and by sheltering them from these topics whilst they are young, we are allowing them to grow up unprepared for the harsh realities of the real world. However, the evidence and countless studies showing the effects uncensored music can have on young people should be enough to justify the censorship of certain pieces of music. Most pieces of popular music nowadays are censored when it comes to being played on the radio, with either words ‘bleeped’ or muted out of the song or certain lyrics being changed completely to create an alternative, ‘clean’ version. ‘Radio Edit’ is now also a common signpost as so many songs have to be altered to feature on national radio stations. One notable example of a popular song being censored to appeal to a wider audience is the song ‘Forget You’ by released in 2010 by Cee-lo Green, also known as ‘Fuck You’ for the original, uncensored version. Whilst most of the lyrics are clean, the repeated phrase of ‘Fuck You’ that appears in all choruses throughout the original song, was simply changed to ‘Forget You’ and the word ‘shit’ altered simply to ‘shhh’ to create a radio friendly, clean version. These small adjustments made the song appropriate to be played to both children and adults. It could be argued that the censored version of this song is even more successful than the original ‘explicit’ version as it was much more frequently played on radio stations around the globe. Had a clean version not been created, the song may not have reached as big of a success as it did – selling over 6 million copies in the US alone by 2013. This was a circumstance where the censorship of pop music had a positive impact and was well justified. With the rise of streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music and Youtube, it is quickly becoming much harder for parents to control what their children are listening to and watching. A survey conducted by the GSMA in 2014 on children’s use of mobile phones in 8 different countries (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Romania, the United Kingdom and Japan), concluded that “On average 69% of children surveyed across the eight countries” used a mobile phone. These children were aged between 9 and 16. Songs and albums can be branded with ‘Parental Advisory’- a warning label put on songs that are potentially unsuitable for younger audiences. Whilst this may prevent parents from buying physical albums, it is much harder to stop their children from accessing and listening to this content online, especially when children have additional access to headphones so that their parents can’t even hear what they are consuming. Some would use this to support the argument that there is no point in censoring content when children are going to find a way to listen to it anyway however, I would argue that stricter enforcement should be put in place by streaming companies to make it harder for children to come across explicit content. Whilst this would be a lot of work and never fully solve the issue, music should be approached the same way films and some music videos are. Companies such as Spotify and Apple music should follow in the footsteps of YouTube and Netflix by not allowing you to listen to certain songs if you are under a certain age.
Ultimately, there are many different justifications for musical censorship from political ideologies and control to protecting children from unsuitable musical materials. In answer to the title question of this essay ‘In what circumstances, if any, is the censorship of popular music justified?’, the censorship of popular music on the radio in the form of ‘radio edits’ or ‘clean versions’ is justified. Several studies have shown the negative correlation between the behavioural patterns of children and music laden with violent themes and profanity such as the one conducted by Fischer and Greitemeyer. Though some parents may not be overly concerned with their children being exposed to such mature topics and language, others are. Therefore, censoring popular music on the radio is a valid measure that enables wider audiences of both children and adults to listen to the radio without the concern of inappropriate material being heard. In contrast, this essay has come to the conclusion that the censorship of pop music by governments for political reasons should not be justified. For countries who have legislation on the freedom of speech in place, of which most do, music should not be censored. Music is a form of self expression and unless it interferes with other laws, for example those concerning obscenity or discrimination, the censorship of it can not be justified. The circumstances in which a piece of music or musical performance is censored vary greatly on both time period and geographical location. Even in the same country, the social climate can drastically change over relatively small timespans. In 1950s America, a fully clothed man performing slightly suggestive dance moves was enough justification to be censored from national TV. Contrastingly, in America’s current social climate, both men and women commonly appear on live television wearing much less and doing much more suggestive movements to accompany their musical performance and it is considered perfectly acceptable.
Overall, there is no clear cut right from wrong when it comes to censorship: there are some circumstances where the censorship of music is fully justified – such as the moral justifications discussed in this essay. There are other times where the censorship of pop music cannot be justified, such as the political cases also mentioned throughout this essay.
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