Students sound discord over music censorship

Thursday, April 23, 1998

A roundtable discussion Wednesday found that college students, like government officials, business leaders and others, disagree about whether government can and should regulate music.

Tremecca Doss of Tennessee State University said it’s the government’s job to protect people from obscene, inappropriate music. But while it shouldn’t necessarily ban a song, “it should make sure people are aware what the lyrics are. I think the government should have a responsibility toward their constituency of what they are exposed to.”

But Lance Frizzell of Middle Tennessee State University said government shouldn’t be concerned with protecting Americans from music.

“Americans don’t have the right to not be offended,” Frizzell said. They do, he said, have the right to turn off the radio.

The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and WTVF/Channel 5 assembled 14 Nashville-area college students at the FAC forum on the Vanderbilt campus for a panel: “Music Censorship: Look What They’ve Done to My Song.” Channel 5 anchor Chris Clark and FAC Executive Director Ken Paulson moderated the panel.

A kick-off question about whether music holds messages brought no disagreement, but the students took vastly different positions on what messages are acceptable.

Doss said the message can be a political one only if it’s positive and appeals to a general consensus. She offered the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” as an example of an appropriate political song.

Clark asked her if the fact that many during the 1960s considered the song subversive was grounds to censor it.

No, said Doss, because “it didn’t advocate violence or murder” unlike many other politically motivated songs.

When posed with a scenario of government officials making the decisions of which songs are proper, Seth Hetherington of Belmont University said he didn’t think they could find a way to fairly regulate songs. Sonal Saraswat of Vanderbilt agreed.

“Even when you try to regulate only the gray areas, the gray areas only get more blurry,” Saraswat said.

Justin McGregor of Middle Tennessee State said he had a particular problem with proposed concert ratings. He said the purpose of a concert is to allow a performer to present their material in a fresh and new way. A rating system, he said, would force musicians to restrict their music so that they play the exact some concert every night.

“Why not put on the CD instead, and we’ll just have a collective listen,” he said.

The student panel disagreed, too, on music’s influence on people and whether a Marilyn Manson song could make someone commit suicide or a reggae tune could spark violence.

Kathy Taylor of Trevecca Nazarene University said: “If it can influence you in a positive way, it can influence you in a negative way.”

Sullavin McKenzie of American Baptist College said messages can be construed two ways: what the artist intended and what the song actually conveys. He said the reggae musician who recorded “I Am Dangerous” might not have intended the song to spark fights and violence in Caribbean countries, but it has.

Jason Adkins of Trevecca suggested that the real issue isn’t the music but society itself. He and others said that instead of focusing on the music itself, parents and government officials should look at society to see what is making kids commit undesirable actions.

“As long as the message makes sense to the kids, they probably will still buy them,” Adkins said.