The 6 Most Hilarious Failures in Music Censorship History
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 ...
An Album With No Lyrics Earns a "Parental Advisory" Sticker
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.
Columbus, Georgia: The City Where Cursing in Concert Got You Sent to Jail
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 and Clear Channel: Guarding Your Ears During Wartime
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.
The BBC Bans Bing Crosby for Being Too Catchy
Before there were rock stars, there were crooners, and one of the most successful was Bing Crosby. Way before Elvis and the Beatles, Crosby was a radio and box office star who sold a shitload of records and whose dulcet tones made ladies everywhere feel splendiferous in their garter-quadrant.
For all she knows, he could be singing about the benefits of racism.
Anyway, Crosby's 1942 tune "Deep in the Heart of Texas" hit No. 3 on the U.S. Billboard chart and was also a big wartime hit in the United Kingdom. As we saw before, the BBC has historically been quick to step in and start a-censoring dubious tunes. But in the case of "Deep in the Heart of Texas," there were no innuendos or backward messages to the Prince of Darkness. No, the BBC banned it for being too fucking catchy. Listen to this earworm below:
The BBC restricted playing the song during working hours, as there were concerns that it would cause factory workers to bang their tools and clap along like idiots, presumably allowing their planes and bombs and crap to explode all over the assembly lines. This ban stayed in effect until the end of World War II. There's definitely an alternate reality out there where the Nazis won because Bing Crosby's love of the Lone Star State accidentally sabotaged the Allied war effort.
Then "White Christmas" takes on a whole new terrifying meaning.
MTV Pretends That Neil Young Sells Out
Neil Young has been called many things -- rock elder statesman, legendary asshole, Canadian -- but he's certainly never been shy about expressing his opinions. And throughout the '80s, he was all over the place musically, veering from ill-advised forays into new wave (1981's unfortunately named Re-act-or) and synth-pop (1982's Trans) to weird-ass rockabilly (1983's 25-minute-long Everybody's Rockin') to old-timey country (1985's Old Ways). In fact, the only thing Young did consistently during the decade was be totally inconsistent.
Nothing says "cyberpunk" quite like Neil Young.
In this regard, 1988's This Note's for You fits perfectly.
You see, Neil had a bit of an issue with musicians allowing their songs to be used in advertising. In particular, he was irked at Michael Jackson's infamous (and nearly deadly) endorsement of Pepsi, and ad campaigns by Michelob and Budweiser that used hits by the likes of Eric Clapton and Genesis. Young didn't mince words, opening the tune with "Ain't singin' for Pepsi / Ain't singin' for Coke / I don't sing for nobody / Makes me look like a joke." The lyrics also name-check Miller and Budweiser's spokesdog, Spuds MacKenzie, whose lookalike appears in the video alongside a burning Michael Jackson impersonator.
This is where the problems started. MTV -- which was keener on being in the Michael Jackson moneymaking business than in the Neil Young business -- pulled the video. Their reasoning? The channel had a policy against product placement, an explanation that completely disregards the fact that "This Note's for You" was plainly satirical. (In fact, the lyrics clearly state that Young is not endorsing any of the products he mentions.)
"Neil, we can't have you pushing your company, Sponsored by Nobody, in your videos."
Yup, MTV just sort of accidentally-on-purpose misinterpreted the song's entire meaning in order to avoid pissing off their cash cows. After fan outcry, "This Note's for You" was eventually placed back in rotation on MTV -- and even won the channel's 1989 Best Video Award as a mea culpa of sorts -- but honestly, this is just more evidence that MTV was The Man years before they ever canceled Wonder Showzen.
MTV Censors Weird Al
Remember what we said about MTV being eternal squares? Well, a few years back, they censored a goddamn legend. Specifically this man, seen below having no idea what the heck is happening on a Japanese talk show.
In 2006, parody song godhead Weird Al Yankovic decided that he had something to say about the whole illegal downloading boom. Weird Al being Weird Al, he wrote a 100 percent unsmiling "We Are the World"-style ballad titled "Don't Download This Song." This single solemnly explained how illegally downloading music inexorably leads to crack addiction, sends evil children to prison, and prevents Weird Al from buying "another solid-gold Humvee."
Now, everybody knows that MTV barely plays videos anymore, but they specifically refused to play the video for "Don't Download This Song" unless Al censored the names of once-popular illegal downloading applications Morpheus, Grokster, Limewire, and Kazaa (because how else would downloaders ever learn the names of such software if not from a Weird Al song?). Said Weird Al of MTV's ultimatum, "Instead of subtly removing or obscuring the words in the track, I made the creative decision to bleep them out as obnoxiously as possible, so that there would be no mistake I was being censored."
This censorship didn't come to light until 2008, when the bleeped-out version of "Don't Download This Song" finally ran on MTV's music video website. By this time, Grokster and Morpheus had disappeared from the scene, Al had been offering the song for free download for years, and anyone with a third-grade education realized that "Don't Download This Song" was a gag by a noted goofball. Good job, MTV -- you're officially the evil television station from UHF.
Mike Floorwalker has a website that you have to hear to believe (and since you can't hear text, you won't believe it).
For more ridiculous moments in the music industry, check out 6 Classic Songs That Were Supposed to Be Jokes and The 7 Most Unforgivable Grammy Award Snubs of All Time.