Support grows for free speech in songs

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Puff Daddy, the Spice Girls and Hanson ruled the charts in 1997, the first year the First Amendment Center polled Americans about offensive lyrics in songs.

The results were right down the middle, with 51% supporting the free-speech rights of musicians, and 47% saying songs should not be allowed to be performed if they might offend someone.

Fourteen years later, the lyrics of the nation’s biggest hits have been a lot racier than “MMMBop.” Recently three songs in the Top 10 featured the most potent piece of profanity in the English-speaking world, all in their titles.

You would think this envelope-pushing would prompt calls for censorship, but that’s not the case, according to the First Amendment Center’s 2011 State of the First Amendment survey.

More than two of out three — 67% — of those polled say performers have the right to sing lyrics that others may find offensive. Thirty percent disagree.

Why would Americans be more tolerant of lyrics while songs grow more profane and provocative?

Some possibilities:

  • The fragmentation of the music industry means that fewer songs get the widespread attention and airplay they once did. The outrage about music usually comes from people who stumble across something provocative and then rally the troops. “Like A Virgin” was pervasive in a way that today’s hits rarely are.
  • Speaking of Madonna, 30-year-old parents today would have grown up with her often-suggestive videos. Songs like George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” were part of their childhood soundtrack; this generation is not easily shocked.
  • Parents never stop worrying about their kids, but violent video games and Internet porn probably concern them more than music. In an HD world, songs don’t seem very threatening.

Whatever the cause, Americans increasingly understand that song lyrics are free speech with a beat, and worth of protection. That’s good news for Cee-Lo — and the First Amendment.

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