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A Pocket Guide to Depressing Moments in Music Censorship [NSFW]

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist,” opined Salman Rushdie in 1990, and he’d know, considering he’s spent most of the two decades since doing his best not to get blown up by the religious lunatics who were offended by The Satanic Verses. You’d hope that in 2011 we might have moved beyond tedious moralizing and hand-wringing about what our artists do or don’t say. But no. This week such bastions of public taste as Sarah Palin (remember her?) and Karl Rove (remember him?) took the time to focus on the big issues and lambaste President Obama for… inviting Common to perform at the White House. Setting aside the fact that we’d bet our goolies that neither Palin nor Rove have ever actually listened to Common -– we also notice that they’re not exactly racing to condemn Ted “Suck on my machine gun” Nugent -– it’s the latest in a long and depressing litany of unwelcome moralizing about music. Here’s a quick roundup for those who came in late.

Judas Priest’s “subliminal messages”

Ever since the whispers started in the 1960s and ’70s about bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin secreting messages in their records that could be uncovered by playing them backwards, conservative types have been keen on the idea that music can carry subliminal messages. The hysteria reached a peak in the 1980s, when the parents of two Nevada men who attempted suicide brought a civil suit against Judas Priest, alleging that a subliminal message (“Do it!”) was embedded in the song “Better By You, Better Than Me,” which had catalyzed the suicide attempt. The suit was eventually dismissed. We can of course understand why the family of a suicide victim would be looking for answers, but seriously, if subliminal messages worked, wouldn’t bands be influencing fans to buy the rest of their back catalog instead of shooting themselves? And wouldn’t the RIAA be embedding “Do not upload this to Rapidshare” in every single album ever?

Clear Channel’s post-9/11 no-play list

No-one will ever argue that 9/11 was a tragedy. Plenty of people, however, might argue that the appropriate response to such a tragedy does not include a moratorium on radio airplay for 166 songs, including Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (the latter might warrant a permanent ban on the grounds of general awfulness, but that’s another argument). The Clear Channel memorandum –- issued to some 1,200 radio stations in the wake of the attacks -– has become something of an urban legend, with the company first admitting to distributing the list, then claiming that the songs were not banned outright, just encouraged not to be played.

The state of Florida vs. 2 Live Crew

It’s hard to believe that a record store employee could be prosecuted for selling a record to a customer. But two such clerks were prosecuted for selling copies of The 2 Live Crew’s 1986 debut album The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are, and when their second album As Nasty as They Wanna Be was released in 1990, the state of Florida took one look at it and decided enough was enough. At the prompting of something called the American Family Association and a county sheriff, a US district court ruled the release obscene, thus making it illegal to sell. The predictable merry-go-round of appeals and counter-suits followed, ensuring reams of free publicity for the band and two million sales once the obscenity ruling was predictably overturned. Nice going, Florida.

The state of California vs. Dead Kennedys

Speaking of obscenity prosecutions, we alluded to this one a few days back in our post about bands whose names reference real people. With a name like Dead Kennedys, the card of Jello Biafra et al. was marked from the start, and their gleefully anti-establishment lyrics didn’t exactly endear them further to those in charge of the Sunshine State. Of course, we’d never suggest there was any element of payback in the fact that the band were hauled up before a court in 1985 and charged with distributing obscene material to minors because of the inclusion of a poster inside their Frankenchrist album containing a reproduction of HR Giger’s painting “Penis Landscape” (see above). Again, the trial backfired -– while it nearly drove the band’s label into bankruptcy, it also gave them huge amounts of free publicity, setting them up in many adolescents’ eyes as champions of free speech and general brattishness, a position they consolidated through their ongoing battles with the PMRC. Speaking of whom…

The PMRC, or Tipper Gore vs. masturbation

It’s awfully confusing for those on the left that Al Gore has reinvented himself as a latter-day eco-warrior, because for most of the 1980s he was known as the ineffectual gimp hanging off the arm of Tipper Gore, über-soccer mom and self-righteous, self-appointed champion of the moral sanctity of American youth. Tipper Gore founded the PMRC, who are now best remembered as being responsible for those “Parental Advisory” stickers on the front of CDs. Back in 1985, Mrs. Gore pontificated, anachronistically, that “I see the family as a haven of moral stability, while popular music –- e.g. rock music –- is a poisonous source infecting the youth of the world with messages they cannot handle.” She equated the rise of such evil music to the decline of good ol’-fashioned family values: “This change in popular culture co-existed with the breakdown of the nuclear family. Since children today lack the stable family structure of past generations, they are more vulnerable to role models and authority figures outside established patriarchal institutions.” (We’re not making this up -– she really said it.)

So, kids buy rock ‘n’ roll records, and the nuclear family breaks down. If you ever needed an example of failing to comprehend that correlation doesn’t equal causation, look no further. Hilariously, their genesis lay in the fact that Tipper was outraged by a line in, of all things, a Prince song (specifically, “Darling Nikki”: “I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine). Because, y’know, girls who come from stable, American nuclear families don’t masturbate. No sirree, Bob.

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