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Lyric Censorship: Language Is Power

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Lyric Censorship: Language is Power

Words create powerful emotions in all of us. They are used to express our feelings, thoughts and ideas, as well as communicate with one another. There are countless examples in history where we see language equating power. Within those examples we see people in the position of power, using this power of language to degrade their enemies and those they consider beneath them, and shape language in their favor. Music ties into language completely. The words of song lyrics convey powerful messages. As language is power, those in control seek to repress the power of this language in music, attempting to keep the power in their favor. But this attempt at censorship only gives those words even more influence and any attempt to infringe our right to free speech should be fought for to prevent its loss.

The censorship of lyrics has occurred globally and can be dated back as far as music and poetry can be traced. Let’s take Asia as an example. Under the ruling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, music became a crime (Korpe, 2004). Instruments were burned, and people were severely punished for singing or creating any kind of music that was not deemed acceptable by the government. In Kabal, President Rabbani went as far as to create an Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was used to regulate the lyric of song in the favor of the government, and punish those who spoke ill towards those in power. In Pakistan, musicians had to hold a license which specified the kind of songs they could perform, namely songs that praised the mujahidin and songs with texts drawn from the mystical Sufi poetry of the region. But musicians always had the last laugh. They secretly rebelled against this oppression, and this can be seen with the example of Wairaz, a radio singer that stayed in Kabul under the Taliban rule. He sang for them: “Remember the poor are protected by God, one day he will answer their cries, and the oppressor will be punished” (Korpe, 2005, p. 23). Those in power allowed him to sing this for them, but apparently they did not realize the deeper meaning behind the words; words that are a beacon of hope for the people and a direct defiance of the power of the government who are oppressing them.

Another strong example of the power struggle for lyric censorship occurs in the country of Zimbabwe. On December 1, 1967, Zimbabwe invoked the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act, which is enforced by a council comprised of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the local police force (Muza, 2005). This act has survived from 1967 all the way until present day. A popular musician from Zimbabwe, Oliver Mtukudzi, could not have said it better: “As a musician, I have been appalled that the government has used its monopoly of the airwaves to restrict airplay of artists who they see as non-supportive of its policies. People who do not promote government’s image are often seen as being enemies of the government and attempts are made to silence them or undermine their careers. This is a gross abuse of human rights, so many of which have been violated in order to secure government’s grasp on power” (Muza, 2005, p.1). Mtukudzi has never openly spoken ill against the government of his country, but there is speculation that some of his songs imply metaphors that speak against the oppression in his country. His reasoning probably had something to do with the numerous cases of police brutality and detainment of those artists who did directly speak out against the government. One such example of this was the case of a performance of a revolutionary song called Madzangara Dzimu which was performed at a music festival by the band Green Arrows. That night, the band was arrested, beaten and imprisoned for two nights. And because of this, Madzangara Dzimu is one of the most recognized songs in the country and has one of the most popular songs that is smuggled into the country. But as Andy Morgan, a journalist in the region said: “Even if the censor could gather up all the CDs and cassettes and burn them, the songs would still be in people’s heads - which makes it so much more powerful” (Muza, 2005, p.2). The government of Zimbabwe can attempt to control the people by censoring music, but the people will always remember, and through that remembrance is a power greater than they will ever hold.

Censorship of music lyrics is not just something that affects the various places of the world, it also hits home. There are countless examples of this censorship involving Canada and the USA, which may come as surprising considering we are supposed to have some of the strongest rights and freedoms of free speech in the world. Though direct government intervention in North America is rare, the first real documented case of government interference occurred because of the 1963 Kingsmen song Louie Louie (Blecha, 2004). A song whose extremely mumbled lyrics were about a lonesome sailor pining for his girl, were misconstrued by parents who heard the song and as such, numerous complaints rang in to the US Attorney General of the time, Robert F. Kennedy, saying that the material of the song was vulgar and had gone too far. A two year investigation ensued and during that time, a radio and live performance ban was issued in 1964 of the song. But all of this negative publicity generated a frenzy of revenue to the band’s label of people wanting copies of the bands’ album. Their attempt to denigrate this song only caused it to be sought after by the youth of the day.

There are several songs that have been banned or altered because of pressure by the government, parents, and those in positions of power. But in all cases, this attempt to destroy the message of the song has backfired and has given more power to the lyrics. Red Ragtop, by artist Tim McGraw, was discriminated against because the song implied abortion (ACLU, 2005). The song spear headed the campaign for a woman’s right to choose. The Doors’ single “Unknown Soldier” was banned from airplay at many radio stations because of its anti-war theme during the Vietnam War, but ended up as a top 40 song on the Billboard Top 100 (ACLU, 2005). And in the 1950s many black artists in North America were not recorded unless their songs had a message which could cross over to a white audience. A popular Ku Klux Klan poster that was circulated about the black artists attempting to break into the popular music scene, which is now an example of classic bigot literature said; “Help save the youth of America: Don’t buy Negro records. The screaming, idiotic words and savage music of these records are undermining the morals of our white youth in America” (Peck, 1978, p. 19). Wouldn’t they be pleased to know how popular rap, rhythm and blues, and soul music have become and the predominance of the black artists in the popular music scene of today?

One thing can be certain about the music scene of today, the attempts to censor music lyrics has left a mark. The largest mark was the introduction of the parental advisory label on music with lyrics that were labeled as possible to interpret as obscene. As such, depending on the label, the stores would be unable to sell these albums to young people. This was meant to be a hindrance to buy this seemingly offensive material but as we are all well aware, there has always been this “forbidden fruit” concept when parents, or those in authority, have told us we can’t do something or, in this case, can’t listen to something. As representatives from Peaches, Spec’s and Q Records chains said: “…if there’s a choice involved between a stickered and a sanitized version of the same album, kids almost always choose the “street version” because it indicates provocative --- read “hip” (Murphy, 1989, p. 10). People, not only young adults, love to rebel against authority and do what is not considered the social norm in order to appear cool or hip. Listening to lyrics deemed possibly offensive or obscene provides a perfect and safe out for that rebellious action we all want to feel. Attempting to censor music lyrics in the US and Canada has proven to backfire on those in authority to give the power to the lyrics themselves.

The words of song lyrics convey powerful messages. As language is power, those in control seek to repress the power of this language in music, attempting to keep the power in their favor. But this attempt at censorship only gives those words even more influence and any attempt to infringe our right to free speech should be fought for to prevent its loss. People in history and around the world have certainly proven that they will rebel against those in authority who attempt to control the language of music. Whether it be to repress those speaking out against the government, or to silence words and songs considered offensive, the people will always find ways around the barriers to access these songs. The Internet itself has caused a network of sharing and it would be next to impossible to silence the spread of supposed offensive lyrics in today’s age. But silencing those lyrics is not really the answer. Fighting prejudice and hate requires more speech, not enforced silence, and forcing anything on people has never gone over well in a free society. If you find a song on the radio offensive, there is always an “off” button or you can change the station. And everyone in this world have different thoughts and opinions; what one finds offensive, another finds enlightening. There will never be one common opinion as long as language continues to move forward and change. Language gives each person the power to change the world; why should artists who choose to write lyrics as their legacy be faced with possible censorship. References
American Civil Liberties Union. (2005). Brief timeline of censored music. Retrieved
February 5, 2010, from http://www.aclu.org/free-speech/brief-timeline-censored-music
Banton, B. (2009). Censorship the wrong way to fight hatred. Retrieved February 7,
2010, from http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/letters/story/1287093.html
Blecha, P. (2004). Taboo tunes: A history of banned & censored songs. San Franciso,
CA: Backbeat.
Chastagner, P.C. (n.d.). The parent’s music resource center: From information to censorship. Retrieved February 5, 2010, from http://www.philagora.org/about- the-world/pmrc1.htm Dunn, S. (Director). (2006). Metal: A headbanger’s journey [Motion Picture]. USA: Universal Studios.
Garofalo, R. (2008). Rockin’ out: Popular music in the USA. Upper Sadie River, NJ:
Pearson.
Jones, S. (1991). Ban(ned) in the USA: Popular music and censorship. Retrieved
February 5, 2010, from http://stevejones.me/pubs/1991/BannedUSA.pdf
Korpe, M. (2004). Shoot the singer!: Music censorship today. London: Zed.
Murphy, R. (1989, September 6). Warning labels send records up the charts. Cincinnati
Enquirer, p. 10.
Muza, O. (2005). Zimbabwe: A case of music censorship before and after independence.
Retrieved March 22, 2010, from http://www.freemuse.org/sw9326.asp
Nuzum, E. (2001). Parental advisory: Music censorship in America. New York:
Perrenial.
Peck, A. (1978, November 16). Stones lyric protest. Rolling Stone, p. 19.

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