A brief history of music censorship in the United States, from the present back to 1934.
- Long Island Officials Try to Cancel Roger Waters Concert Over His Criticism of Israel
Nassau County’s Howard J. Kopel launched an ill-informed and dangerous effort to bar Pink Floyd former frontman Roger Waters from performing at the Nassau Coliseum because of the musician’s support of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. Kopel is basing his demand on a bill that prohibits the county from doing business with companies that advocate for a boycott of Israel. His assumption is that the Nassau Coliseum, as a county-sponsored venue, should not host a performer who supports BDS. This is essentially an effort to blacklist artists for their political opinions.
- New York Youth Symphony cancels performance over piece quoting Nazi anthem
The New York Youth Symphony (NYYS) cancelled Jonas Tarm performance after learning that his piece quoted from the “Horst Wessel Lied,” a well-known Nazi anthem. When NYYS asked Tarm to explain the context and meaning of the piece, which would justify his use of this source, he refused. Tarm says the dedication in his program notes offers enough explanation. (“Dedicated to the victims of hunger and fire”) and that he believed in Mahler’s adage that if a composer could say what he wanted in words, he wouldn’t bother writing the music.
- Death of Klinghoffer draws angry protesters at Metropolitan Opera
John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer on Monday, October 20th, was beset by a cordon of angry protesters crying “shame” and holding placards condemning the Metropolitan Opera of rather far-fetched things like “taking terrorist $$$” or “glorifying terrorism.” The few hecklers in the audience had their attempts at booing drowned in vigorous applause. The reviews that followed ranged from enthusiastic to mildly positive, but none of them came close to confirming the extraordinary claims of those who protested without having ever seen the work.
- Lyrics used in charge against rapper
California rapper, Tiny Doo’s album No Safety (released February 2014) landed him “criminal street gang conspiracy” charges after he rapped about violent crimes and gang life. Tiny Doo, whose real name is Brandon Duncan, could actually be facing a life sentence after the court drew connections between his lyrics and actual shootings dating back to April 2013. While Mr. Duncan ended up spending just eight months in jail, he still faced charges for his artistic expression.
- Rap lyrics cited for murder charge
Virginia rapper Antwain Steward, also known as Twain Gotti, was charged with two counts of murder in July 2013 after some of his lyrics were used as evidence against him. With virtually no other leads around this crime, authorities accused him of fatally shooting two young men on May 10th, 2007 after he was believed to reference the murders in one of his songs posted on YouTube. On July 14th, 2014 he was sentenced to 16 years in prison for unrelated crimes.
Mar 3, 2012
- Pussy Riot members arrested for performance
The famous Russian punk rock protest group, Pussy Riot is one of the world’s most extreme examples of ruthless censorship. Their music highlights topics such as feminism, LGBT rights and most controversially, their distain for Russian president Vladimir Putin. After performing at a Moscow cathedral on February 21st, 2012, the group members involved were pulled off stage, only to release a music video with the same anti-Putin sentiments that same evening. Two members were arrested on March 3rd and another on March 16th. They were denied bail, convicted of “hooliganism,” and sentenced to two years each. Two other members of the group fled Russia in fear of the same result. Criticism around the convictions arose mainly in the West from both fellow musicians and human rights groups. Putin finally ended this travesty on December 19th 2013, releasing the two members. The Pussy Riot trials and convictions will forever be known as one of the most abhorrent events around artistic censorship.
- MIA music video censored
British artist M.I.A.’s video, “Born Free” is banned from YouTube for graphic content. YouTube later allows the video to be posted behind an age block.
Mar 2, 2008
- Bjork banned in China
Bjork was permanently banned from performing in China in 2008 after yelling “Tibet” numerous times after her concert’s closing song, “Declare Independence.”
- NYC tries to exclude artists who use the word “nigger” from winning Grammys
The City Council of New York City requests the Recording Academy to exclude musicians from Grammy award eligibility if they use the word “nigger” in their lyrics. The Academy does not submit to this request.
- Band Slayer censored on Jimmy Kimmel
The metal group Slayer makes its network TV debut on the Jimmy Kimmel show. The network edits out around 40% of the lyrics form the band’s song “Jihad,” a song written from the perspective of a terrorist and containing the lyric “God will give victory to his faithful servants/When you reach ground zero you will have killed the enemy.”
- Rolling Stones censored live at Super Bowl
A live Rolling Stones performance at the Super Bowl is bleeped because the lyrics of two songs are deemed too sexually explicit. ABC, which broadcast the show, claims the decision was made by the show’s producers and the National Football League.
May 7, 2005
- Marching band’s rendition of Louie, Louie cancelled
Controversy over the song “Louie, Louie” resurfaced in Benton Harbor, Michigan in 2005 when a school superintendent prohibited the McCord Middle School marching band’s rendition of the song during a parade. Superintendent Paula Dawning said the lyrics were obscene, making the song inappropriate to play in public.
- Radio stations censor rapper Jadakiss after 9/11
Radio stations and MTV remove the lyric “Why did Bush knock down the towers?” in Rapper Jadakiss’s song “Why,” which alleges President Bush was involved in the 9/11 attacks.
- Dixie Chicks blacklisted after expressing political perspective on George W. Bush
Lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines, says she is embarrassed that President George W. Bush is from her home state of Texas. Radio stations throughout the country refuse to play the band’s music.
- FCC threatens fine for Sarah Jones’ “Your Revolution”
The FCC threatens a radio station with a $7,000 fine for playing Sarah Jones’ rap song “Your Revolution,” which criticizes hip-hop culture’s portrayal of women. Jones suit against the agency is dismissed in part because the FCC fails to issue a final opinion. In 2003 the FCC drops charges against the radio station, finding the song not indecent. During this period, no radio station dared play the song.
- Clear Channel recommends songs to ban post-9/11
After the September 11 attacks, Clear Channel distributes a list of “lyrically questionable” songs to all of its radio stations. While some of the songs include references to airplanes, burning, and death, John Lennon’s “Imagine” and all Rage Against the Machine songs are also included.
- Police confiscate albums from roller-rink
More than 60 CDs are seized from a New Iberia, LA roller-rink by police. Music on the confiscated albums included Britney Spears, “The Hokey Pokey,” and Christina Aguilera, which police allege incited a fight amongst the rink’s patrons.
- Police try to argue that lyrics can violate terms of parole
Rapper Shawn Thomas (C-Bo) is arrested. Police claim that the lyrics on a new CD violate the terms of his parole agreement, which mandate that he refrain from any behavior, which might encourage the gang lifestyle, criminal behavior or violence against law enforcement. The charges are subsequently dropped.
- New Jersey unsuccessfully tries to cancel Ozzfest
The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority announces that it will not host Ozzfest if Marilyn Manson will be performing. Ozzy Osbourne successfully sues and the Ozzfest is held as planned.
- MTV censorship numbers rise
The number of music videos that MTV censors rises from one out of every ten in 1984, to one out of every three. MTV returns clips to the record company to edit and demands that they will not be played on MTV unless the offending material is removed.
- First classical album with parental advisory warning released
“The Manson Family: An Opera,” by John Moran is the first classical recording to carry a parental advisory warning sticker.
- BBC bans 67 songs due to Gulf War
The BBC was at it again when they banned 67 pop songs from the radio in 1991 because of the Persian Gulf War. These songs were anticipated to offend and upset the public at this sensitive period in time. They included “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins, “Walk Like an Egyptian” by the Bangles, Cher’s “Bang, Bang,” Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff” and ironically “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine” by John Lennon. TV programs were also taken off the air or postponed, ever demonstrating the lengths the media will go to keep people happy, and more importantly, quiet.
- Prior restraint of 2 Live Crew concert ruled unconstitutional
In Westerly, Rhode Island, the city council adopts an ordinance to prevent a 2 Live Crew concert. The concert promoter is forced to appear in court to explain why his entertainment license should not be revoked. A federal court rules that censoring the concert constituted a prior restraint and was thus unconstitutional
- State legislatures attempt to limit record sales
At least 21 state legislatures introduce “explicit lyrics” bills, which seek to restrict the sale of labeled albums to minors. None of the bills passes.
- 2 Live Crew ruled “not obscene” by Supreme Court
A Florida judge holds that 2 Live Crew’s album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, is obscene, and a local retailer is arrested for selling a copy to an undercover police officer. This is followed by the arrest of three members of the group after a performance in Hollywood, Florida, but they are acquitted.. In 1992, appeals court overturns the obscenity ruling, and the case ends when the US Supreme Court denies further appeals. The album goes on to sell over two million copies.
- McCollum v. CBS
The parents of a nineteen-year-old bring suit against Ozzy Osbourne and CBS Records, claiming that the singer’s lyrics in his song “Suicide Solution” persuaded their son to commit suicide. The courts hold that the lyrics are Constitutionally protected speech.
- Tipper Gore pioneers “PARENTAL ADVISORY – EXPLICIT CONTENT”
Tipper Gore, wife of then Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, is offended by lyrics in a Prince album she has purchased for her daughter. She helps form the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) to oppose explicit content in music. The PMRC asks the Radio Industry Association of America (RIAA) to adopt a rating system. The RIAA and the PMRC agree that a voluntary warning sticker, stating “Parental Advisory- Explicit Lyrics,” will be affixed to certain albums. Each record label is given the discretion to devise its own rating standards.
- National PTA encourages record companies to acknowledge explicit content
The National Parent Teachers Organization (National PTA) adopts a resolution to encourage record companies to rate music according to the amount of violence, sex, profanity, or vulgarity it contains, and to include this rating on the covers of albums.
- Album burnings in Iowa
Church groups in Iowa organize record burnings of albums by The Beatles, Ravi Shankar, The Carpenters, Peter Frampton and John Denver, among others.
- FCC can restrict indecency
The Supreme Court rules that the FCC can restrict indecency, in case brought about by comedian George Carlin’s monologue about the “seven dirty words” you can’t say on the air.
- “The Pill” censored on radio
Radio stations refuse to give Loretta Lynn’s song “The Pill” airplay because of its content regarding birth control.
- Talking about illegal drugs isn’t illegal
Court ruling holds that the FCC’s action criminalizing discussion of illegal drugs violates the First Amendment. The court holds that while drugs may be illegal, the FCC cannot make it illegal to talk about drugs.
- Miller v. California
In Miller v. California, the US Supreme Court defines obscenity and holds that it is not protected by the First Amendment. The Miller test requires that the average person, using contemporary community standards, would find that the work in question appeals to the prurient interest; that the work contains sexual content that is patently offensive under state law; and that the work lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Theoretically, the Miller standard is applicable to music, though it is more commonly applied to images.
- Janis Joplin fined for obscenity
Janis Joplin is fined after a performance in Tampa, Florida because she has allegedly violated profanity and obscenity laws.
- Radio Act used to punish a station
The FCC fines a Pennsylvania radio station over an interview with Jerry Garcia that contained references to sex and excrement. This is the first time that the indecency provisions in the Radio Act of 1927 are used to punish a radio station.
- President Nixon censors songs about drug use
President Nixon and the governors of forty states request that radio stations censor songs that make references to drugs.
- Two Virgins seized by U.S. customs
John Lennon and Yoko Ono release their album, Two Virgins, with a naked picture of themselves on the cover. The New York City Police seize 30,000 copies of the record and the U.S. Customs service brings suit in an attempt to stop the album from being brought into the country.
Jan 4, 1969
- Jimi Hendrix performance gets him banned from BBC
On January 4th, 1969, Jimi Hendrix and his band were to appear on BBC’s Happening for Lulu show. The plan was for them to open with “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” followed by “Hey Joe,” where Lulu was to join him for a duet. However, Hendrix had other plans, and halfway through their second number he said, “We’d like to stop playing this rubbish and dedicate a song to the Cream.” The band then began playing a long, loud and feedback-filled instrumental version of “Sunshine of Your Love” by the band Cream, who had recently broken up. Eventually Hendrix said, “We’re being pulled of the air” and the performance was cut off. Hendrix and his band were banned from BBC, but his stunt went down in rock and roll history.
- Jim Morrison under scrutiny for obscenity
Police arrest Jim Morrison onstage during a concert in New Haven, CT for making obscene gestures and comments during a performance. Morrison is closely scrutinized during performances in other cities. Police bring blank warrants to Doors concerts in the event that they “need” to arrest Morrison.
- Radio stations catch on: Bob Dylan’s lyrics are indecipherable
A Texas radio station refuses to play any songs by Bob Dylan because they say the lyrics are indecipherable and fear that they contain messages of rebellion.
- The Doors blacklisted from Ed Sullivan
The producers of The Ed Sullivan Show request that Jim Morrison of the Doors change a line of the song “Light My Fire” from “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” to something that does not reference drugs. Morrison agrees, but during the live performance sings the original line. The band is not invited again.
- BBC places bans on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of their most beloved creations. However, it was not received well by the BBC who banned about half of the album’s tracks due to drug references. Songs like “A Day in the Life” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” were banned from British radio in 1967 due to lyrics featuring implications of illegal drug use. Meanwhile in the U.S., vice president Spiro Agnew publicly expressed discontent for the song “With a Little Help from My Friends” for the same reasons. An infamous hater of rock music, Agnew claimed that the “friends” referred to in the song were actually various drugs.
- The Beatles’ music banned in response to “more popular than Jesus” assertion
John Lennon tells an interviewer that the Beatles are “more popular than Jesus.” Death threats and demonstrations against the Beatles follow. Twenty-two Southern radio stations vow to stop playing The Beatles’ music. Some churches sponsor burnings of Beatles records and threaten to excommunicate anyone caught listening to Beatles music.
- James Brown gets too funk
Police intervene in the middle of a James Brown concert in Kansas City, claiming that Brown’s dancing is obscene and that the concert must stop.
- Cleveland bans rock concerts`
The mayor of Cleveland bans all rock concerts after the Rolling Stones perform in the city. The mayor states that “such groups do not add to the community’s culture or entertainment.”
- Radio stations refuse to play “I Can’t (Get No Satisfaction)”
Many radio stations refuse to play the Rolling Stones’ song “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” because it is considered sexually suggestive.
- FBI decides that “Louie Louie” isn’t obscene
The Kingsmen’s song “Louie Louie’ becomes the subject of a two-year FBI investigation because of its mumbled chorus. The FBI finally concludes that the lyrics are indecipherable, and are therefore unable to classify the record as obscene.
- Bob Dylan refuses to perform on Ed Sullivan
After producers for The Ed Sullivan Show tell Bob Dylan he cannot perform his song “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” he says he would rather not appear on the show. He is never invited back.
- Radio stations ban and burn inciting music
Radio stations refuse to play certain songs out of concern that they will lead to teen violence. Elvis Presley’s songs are among those banned and one radio deejay goes so far as to burn Elvis’ albums, while others denounce Elvis’ records and swear never to play them.
- Elvis on Ed Sullivan
Elvis Presley performs on The Ed Sullivan Show and is filmed only from the waist up.
- Cardinal bans pop music
Chicago’s Cardinal Stritch bans popular music from all Catholic schools due to concerns about the effects of the “hedonistic, tribal rhythms” of rock and roll music.
- Jukeboxes endanger citizens
The president of the North Alabama White Citizens Council demands that jukeboxes be destroyed to prevent “black music” from corrupting civilization.
- Nat King Cole assaulted
During a performance by Nat King Cole, members of the White Citizen’s Council of Birmingham, Alabama, jump on stage and assault Cole. The group claims that they are protecting young teen girls and that black musicians are part of a plot to “mongrelize” America by bringing out an animalism in people through the use of heavy beats in their music.
- BMI censors “objectionable” music
Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), which clears performance rights to music and collects and distributes license fees to songwriters, composers and music companies, denies clearance to over one hundred songs on the basis that they are “objectionable.”
- Police threaten Elvis
Police in Florida threaten to arrest Elvis Presley on obscenity charges if he does not stand still while performing his music.
- Radio station rejects R&B
An Alabama radio station announces that it will not play R&B; music.
- Boston Catholic Youth patrol local radio
The Boston Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), concerned that obscene songs might stir the hormones of Catholic youths at dances, monitors the music selections at dances and on the radio, and demands that radio stations refrain from playing any songs with obscene or sexually explicit lyrics.
- The Weavers blacklisted
The Weavers, a folk band, are blacklisted because of their leftist political beliefs. The group loses its recording contract and its popularity declines.
- Music censorship by police
Memphis police confiscate records from local stores and destroy the records that they consider obscene.
- Establishment of the FCC
Congress creates the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to monitor interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable.