From Elvis to Kinky, First Amendment protects music designed to shock

Sunday, November 15, 1998

Cole Porter understood how swiftly society can change:


“In olden days, a glimpse of stocking/Was looked on as something shocking/But now, God knows/Anything goes.”


Every generation explores new forms of personal expression. Elvis shook one generation. Alice Cooper shocked another.


Today Elvis is on a U.S. stamp and Alice is a celebrity golfer. Times change.


The idea that what was once provocative is now passé was apparent at a recent “First Amendment in Concert” program, one of a series of discussions at the First Amendment Center on free speech in music.


Kinky Friedman, a mystery writer and frequent guest on the Don Imus radio show, talked about his music, which elicited howls of outrage in the early 1970s. His “Get
Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed” earned him the Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year Award from the National Organization for Women. His “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” prompted accusations of anti-Semitism despite its message opposing bigotry.


With rare exceptions, Kinky’s songs didn’t get played on commercial radio. Instead of a love song, Kinky would subject listeners to a narrative such as, “The Ballad of Charles Whitman,” a song detailing the sniper shooting at the University of Texas in 1966:


“He was sitting up there with his 36 Magnum/Laughing wildly as he bagged ‘em/Who are we to say the boy’s insane?”


At the First Amendment Center, Kinky played some of these controversial tunes. Most in the audience found him funny and provocative. A handful found him off-color and off-putting.


Then there was the young woman who was just 6 years old when Kinky released his first provocative LP. She paused after the show to say, “I thought he was pretty tame.”


Tame? Is it possible that one of the most offensive balladeers of one generation would seem quaint to the next?


Of course. Outrage has a limited shelf life. It is important to keep that generational shift in mind when tempted to try to ban a certain kind of music or a certain kind of movie. Times change. Standards change. Fortunately the First Amendment stays the same.