Somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 percent of the people reading this think music censorship is stupid. But it's not going anywhere -- music is a business, and if advertisers or retailers think a song about boners or racism is bad for business, they'll push to get that shit shut down. We can only take solace in the fact that at some point, censorship often descends into hilarious self-parody. For instance ...
For whatever reason, the wives of public figures in the 1980s were expected to be sanctimonious moral crusaders, and Tipper Gore was the most crusadingest of all.
That's her dancing to (presumably) 2 Live Crew.
In 1985, Gore co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), an advocacy group that sought to restrict the youth's access to such dangerous and prurient songs as Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" (which is currently terrorizing civilization as an Extended Stay America commercial). During an August 1985 Senate hearing on the PMRC's proposals to censor undesirable music, noted Satanic perverts Frank Zappa, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, and, uh, John Denver eloquently spoke out against the PMRC's efforts (and failed to subsequently form the world's most evil supergroup).
Zappa in particular spoke maybe a smidge too eloquently for his own good. In explaining to Congress how it is parents' responsibility to pay attention to what their children are listening to, Zappa compared the PMRC's agenda to a "sinister kind of 'toilet training program' to house-break all composers," and their mission to "treating dandruff by decapitation." Here's part of his testimony. And as for Zappa's explanation as to how the PMRC scored a Senate inquiry, it went a little something like "a couple of blow jobs here and there and bingo, you get a hearing!"
So when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began slapping "Parental Advisory" stickers on albums at the PMRC's behest, it wasn't entirely surprising that Zappa's next album, the 1986 Grammy winner Jazz from Hell, carried one of these labels. No, what was surprising was that Jazz from Hell was entirely instrumental, leaving the sonic naughtiness up to the listener's imagination.
It's unclear whether the RIAA took umbrage with the album's title, a single electronic track dubbed "G-Spot Tornado" (above), or the fact that, during the 1985 Senate hearings, Zappa accused the Washington wives of being a cult "intent on running the Constitution of the United States through the family paper shredder," but we wouldn't be surprised if it was the latter.
In 1987, the Beastie Boys were just three snotty white kids from New York who were making music that was scientifically engineered to piss off as many people as possible. Their early stage shows involved 20-foot inflatable dongs, cage dancers, and asking female concertgoers to ventilate their bosoms (here's video evidence that, prior to discovering Buddhism, the rap trio used to be like the Little Rascals, but drunk).
"What do you guys need the whipped cream for? Are we having pie?"
So when the band's tour came to Columbus, Georgia, lawmakers were so offended by the pneumatic penises and lyrics about the unsafe usage of whiffle ball equipment that they passed an anti-lewdness ordinance three weeks later.
And that meant that throughout the early 1990s, unless you wanted to go to jail, you only played Columbus if you were Pat Boone. Ice-T, upon being told that he'd be arrested if he used the word "fuck" -- which is like threatening to toss Usher in the slammer for using the word "girl" -- famously canceled his show and then expressed his displeasure using the power of song ("Columbus, Georgia, you can suck my dick! You ain't nothin' but a piece of fuckin' shit on the damn map!")
"Watch NBC, motherfuckers."
But enforcement of this ordinance was swift and merciless. In the ensuing years, performers like Bobby Brown, Too Short, LL Cool J, and Gene Simmons were arrested by Columbus law enforcement during concerts. Granted, they didn't actually get prison time, and in fact getting charged for the minor infraction amounted to little more than free publicity for the musicians (and a reminder to the rest of the country to never move to Columbus). For instance, after posting his $652 bail at the Columbus police station, Brown returned onstage to finish his set. His crime? Pumping his hips too much.
The BBC has a long history of banning songs from the airwaves for weird reasons -- for example, "Monster Mash" was initially verboten because it was "too morbid."
Even though we clearly would have accepted "really dumb and kind of annoying" as an excuse.
But those dark years during the first Gulf War were clearly a time to further protect the public's fragile sensibilities from songs they had been hearing for years. So, in deference to the conflict in Iraq, the Beeb's long list of forbidden music was expanded to include songs with titles that tangentially referenced death and other distressing topics. Mostly this list demanded that the listener perform some tortuous mental gymnastics. OK, a BBC-banned song like "Killing an Arab" by the Cure sort of made sense (if you had zero clue it was a reference to the Albert Camus novel The Stranger). But "(I Just) Died in Your Arms Tonight"? Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire"? Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"? If a member of the public is thrust into a dark cloud of post-traumatic stress by the sound of Tears for Fears, it's probably better to just take away their radio. They are just as likely to be reminded of the horrors of war by an ad for arthritis cream.
"Sowing the seeeeeds of loooooove -- seeeeds of- OH, GOD, THEY'RE RIOTING!"
But before any Americans in the readership roll their eyes at how weird the British get about this sort of thing, keep in mind that the same thing happened in the USA a decade later. In the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, American super-mega-ultra-conglomerate Clear Channel issued a memorandum listing songs that they strongly suggested their stations (see: pretty much all U.S. radio stations) avoid playing. On Clear Channel's list, tracks like the Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" were selected alongside a ton of completely head-scratching singles like the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride," the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," and the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian."
"Walk (kill) like (your) an Egyptian (parents)."
Also, every single Rage Against the Machine song was notably poo-pooed by Clear Channel, as the Founding Fathers absolutely hated guitars that sound like turntables. Ditto goes for "I'm on Fire" (again), because nobody understands that the song was just Bruce Springsteen surreptitiously confessing that he's the Human Torch from the Fantastic Four.