Documentary explores music’s ties to sex, society, censorship
NEW YORK — Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips, Nancy Sinatra’s go-go boots and Britney Spears’ bare midriff all exist in the crowded place where sex and music collide — often to the shock of the establishment. From the 1950s through today, these near-icons have continued to inspire spirited debate about whether censorship can ever be a good thing.
They surfaced again last night at the First Amendment Center’s discussion and preview screening of VH1′s upcoming documentary series, “From the Waist Down: Men, Women and Music.”
First Amendment Center Executive Director Ken Paulson spoke before a near-capacity crowd with Fenton Bailey, managing director of World of Wonder Productions, and Lauren Zalaznick of VH1, two of the documentary’s executive producers.
The five-hour, five-part series, which airs at 10 p.m. ET and PT, Aug. 6-10, focuses on the critical role that popular music has played in American culture and sexuality — and the numerous times when establishment figures have tried to curb the music’s influence.
The tension between music and sexuality, Bailey said, exists in the sometimes-discordant place between youth and the establishment, which ranges from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who disliked Chubby Checker’s dance, “The Twist,” to Tipper Gore, who fought to put warning labels on albums.
“Popular music is always criticized by the establishment as being some kind of corrosive, negative force,” Bailey said. “And yet for us, as kids, it’s incredibly informative and exciting.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is always sort of dismissed as popular music, as if that is somehow a negative thing, that somehow it’s disposable. And I suspect that originally people thought rock ‘n’ roll would be disposable. But I think, to everyone’s great surprise, people have grown up with it and carried it with them. They haven’t grown out of it.”
Bailey said he still vividly remembers the first album he ever bought, by the glam band T-Rex, and how the lyrics shocked his mother. At first he was embarrassed, but soon he began to appreciate the distance between himself and his mother on the subject of T-Rex.
“I had found something that I could call my own,” Bailey said, “and I suppose I knew I could call it my own because it displeased my parents.”
Displeasure among adults has more than once led to music or dance censorship. The title of Bailey’s documentary pays homage to one indelible act of American censorship.
That was CBS’s decision to show the gyrating Elvis Presley only “from the waist up.”
As discussed in the documentary, CBS decided to show Presley only from hip-level and higher after filming “the whole package,” as Bailey said, the first two times the singer went on national TV. Presley’s swiveling hips, which Bailey said were “beamed into 46 million homes,” had proved to be a scandal that CBS vowed not to repeat.
“If you were to pinpoint one moment, I think that’s the tipping point,” Bailey said, adding that was a time when music and censorship collided and the public knew about it.
Paulson added, “At that time, all these young people understood what censorship was. They didn’t know what was going on below the waist, but they knew that it was dangerous, and definitely wanted to see it.”
The series explores fears among adults of many generations not only about sex, but about race relations, about continuing homophobia in the music industry, and about changing social mores, Bailey said.
Yet it’s also about a core paradox regarding popular music, he said: Although music can often be seen by youths as subversive, it’s nonetheless produced and distributed by adults looking to make a buck.
“By the time we get to the end of the series, there’s this realization that direct confrontation with the establishment is one way to discuss ideas, but it’s also a great way to sell records,” Bailey said. “Even though it can be very subversive, (music) is really part of consumerist, capitalist society.”
One irony about putting “From the Waist Down” at the center of a debate about First Amendment freedoms, executive producer Zalaznick noted, is that VH1 took a hand in censoring parts of the documentary.
For example, videos considered too risqué two decades ago, by bands such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Duran Duran, still riled the network censors, who demanded changes, Zalaznick said.
In the Duran Duran video, “Girls on Film,” shown at last night’s preview screening, key body parts are blurred. Likewise, spoken and printed curse words were deleted or blurred in the documentary, Zalaznick said.
Such censorship is OK, she added, because the public wants it. For example, she said, there are certain words — seven certain words — that Americans have said they do not want to see or hear on basic cable television.
“As a First Amendment discussion, it is polarizing,” she noted, because “this is a censored program,” even though it is about censorship.
Yet Zalaznick, the VH1 representative in the discussion, added that the program is not only, or even primarily, about censorship.
She said, “It is, at the end of the day, about the joy and celebration of pop music.”