Music censorship: the beating goes on

Friday, May 4, 2001

NEW YORK — The music industry’s self-regulation of lyrics through parental warning labels is drawing a not-so-fine line between black and white, an expert on music censorship says.

Most of today’s CDs that carry the Parental Advisory label are from African-American rap and hip-hop artists, author Eric Nuzum said during a lecture on music censorship at the First Amendment Center on May 2.

“In the ’90s, a Florida circuit judge said that rap music could not be defined as music, because it wasn’t melodic,” Nuzum said, shaking his head in disbelief.

And just two week ago, he noted, a Federal Trade Commission report attacking the music industry used a list of CDs as examples of music considered “bad” for children.

“Of the 35 artists on that list, 30 of them were black, and only three of those acts contained exclusively white members,” Nuzum said.

Even in the 1950s, he added, music censors believed outrageous myths like the one that claimed, “‘Allowing white children to listen to black music will lead to the mongrelization of America.’ “

And while the statement is outlandish, Nuzum said, it has actually been used “to justify suppressing music.”

“But what may seem like violent lyrics to some can also be seen as songs of protest,” he noted.

Nuzum, author of Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America, pointed out that attacks on music are not new.

From the banning of Elvis’s pelvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the 1950s to the banning of rapper C-BO’s (SeanThomas) album “Till My Casket Drops” in the 1990s, there has long been a huge push to censor music in the United States, he said.

Nuzum recalled that today’s warning labels — used to alert buyers (aka. parents) to lyrics containing references to violence, sex or drugs — evolved from a single incident in the mid-1980s.

Tipper Gore, the wife of then-Sen. Al Gore, bought Prince’s smash-hit album “Purple Rain,” which contained a song called “Darling Nicky.”

After hearing the song’s allusions to masturbation, sex and one-night stands, Tipper Gore gathered a group of Washington wives and formed the Parents Music Resource Group, Nuzum said.

“The PMRC met with the Senate in summer 1985 with a list of many demands, one of them being the parental advisory sticker,” Nuzum added, “and by 1990 the sticker graced albums [such as] Twisted Sister and 2 Live Crew.”

“There were incidents [in which] that sticker (was used) as a de facto obscenity standard,” he said.

Typical was an occurrence shortly after the advisory stickers got slapped onto albums. It involved 2 Live Crew in 1990 in Hollywood, Fla. Their album “As Nasty as We Want to Be” contained a song called ‘Me so Horny,’ which was deemed particularly offensive, Nuzum said.

“It didn’t matter that the section of the song saying ‘Me so Horny’ was lifted from a line in “Full Metal Jacket,” a film nominated for an Academy Award,” he noted.

And the issue of race and music censorship also evolved in the ’90s “with the appearance of gangsta rap,” he said. “Groups like NWA received letters from the FBI after releasing a CD that had a song on it, ‘F[---] the Police.” The FBI asked them never to play the song in concert.”

Later, Nuzum added, “[rapper] C-BO was arrested by his parole officer who thought his music broke [his] parole agreement.”

What the authorities are not hearing, Nuzum said, is the reason for the music.

“The interesting thing is, once you get past the violent overtones and the language you are basically dealing with political protest songs,” he added. “They are speaking out against your society and what [people] want to see changed.”

Though most of the censorship appears aimed at African-American artists, Nuzum said the attacks have in fact been broader than that. He used controversial singer Marily Manson as example.

Two years ago when the Columbine High School massacre occurred, Nuzum said, people in the media and government attacked Manson’s music as encouraging violence among Goth youths.

“Sixteen U.S. senators threatened Manson on this issue; and it turned out later that neither one of these kids [the two who shot 13 students and a teacher before killing themselves at Columbine] owned a Marilyn Manson CD.”

But the bigger point, Nuzum emphasized, is this: “It’s never been proven that music causes people to do bad things.”

“Outside of people who already had problems to begin with, there are no examples of a cause-and-effect
relationship,” he said.

The First Amendment Center recently published a report, Violence and the Media.

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