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Music, censorship and the industry

Dean Cahill, Special to The Quad

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Music—we all love it, in various forms and degrees. Some just enjoy a casual radio buzz in the background, while others need to listen to albums in their entirety to get any pleasure. This broad spectrum has led to a wide variety of music, from introspective concept albums to simple, catchy, so-called “radio tunes,” crafted to set an upbeat mood and stick in one’s head.

It’s very easy for these paths to cross. I mean, radio’s second purpose is to introduce the listener to new, interesting songs and bands that the station thinks they will enjoy, as fans of the station’s repertoire.

So it’s natural that you find, every so often, an unconventional piece of music garnering radio time. No one would say that this is a problem; radio is good for the artist, good for potential fans and good for the already present fans, glad to see their favorite band getting the recognition that they deserve.

The problem, I feel, is when the song is viewed as “unpalatable” by either the FCC, the radio station or even the record label. With the rise of rap in popular culture—a genre founded on the plight of the disenfranchised—as well as a push for artistic integrity and free speech, vulgar language is at its peak in music.

However, radio still finds the need to censor this music. This censorship ranges from the changing of lyrics (Cee Lo Green’s claim to fame, “Forget You,” comes to mind) to the outright removal of words deemed inappropriate (as in the chorus of “Starboy,” by The Weeknd). This is done for one reason: to sell the song to radio, and to people who feel that foul language is a legitimate sign of immorality.

Those who deem vulgarity to be a negative aspect of music do it for a multitude of reasons, but the two most common appear to be:

  1. Children will be negatively influenced by foul language.
  2. Foul language is a sign of a base, classless attitude, and it is not proper or sophisticated to use this kind of language in one’s artistic expression.

While both of these points come from a place of real worry, I do not feel that they are effective arguments for the censorship of music. Let’s address each point individually, and then answer the question of censorship as a whole.

Children are the pride of American culture. We view children as fragile tokens of youth and innocence, unable to understand the nuance of humanity’s interactions with itself. Thus, we must shelter them from anything that could corrupt that innocence.

In protecting from that corruption, we do things like censor media. However, in the digital age, this censorship does not work as we want it to. Most children have access to the internet, and the idea that they will be able to avoid the uncensored media is laughable.

Censoring radio merely piques the interest of these children, who will then search for the “naughty words,” sidestepping their parents’ attempt at protecting them and avoiding any positive dialogue on the use of adult language.

The second issue is a more complex one. Class issues throughout the centuries have led to a demonization of “bad” language, and is why we as a culture do not feel that it is a proper thing to do.

The problem with this stance, especially in media, is that media defies culture. Rock, punk and rap—these movements started as counterculture, before evolving into fully fleshed out genres that became adopted by the mainstream.

These movements were born out of cultural defiance, taboo behavior and the freedom of expression. Censorship kills this freedom of expression, as well as defanging any relevant criticism that the movement has against the mainstream.

“But then, keep the vulgarity out of the mainstream and separate the counterculture from the popular movements,” you say. The issue with this is twofold:

  1. Separating the movement from the contenders who reach mainstream is impossible because there is no way of pre-empting the mainstream.
  2. Censoring or hiding bands and creators that use censorship stifles the progression of the genre, as someone with genuine innovation in the art form will be kept away from any hopes of influence due to a “naughty word.”

There is nothing to gain from separating the subversive elements of a musical movement from its appealing ones, and any attempt to do so should be viewed exclusively as a controlling form of censorship.

Music has become a product. Art for art’s sake, while existent, is hard to come by in the mainstream these days. The industry, in fear of losses, allows for the perverted censorship of an art form to be maintained.

Filler does not exist in art. Artists pick lyrics with purpose, to convey emotion, make a point or satirize an establishment. The censorship of these artists takes the power that they have over their own creation away, and reduces them to nothing more than a vessel for public appeal, the antithesis of art as a whole.

Dean Cahill is a first-year student majoring in English literature. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The Student News Service of West Chester University
Music, censorship and the industry