Music and Censorship

Victor Lombardi
December 1991
Second Reader: Alan Stuart
Instructor: Richard Hixon


Our society today largely views censorship as a method that has disappeared from liberal cultures since the enlightenment with the exception of restrictions in time of war. The enlightenment served to cripple the intolerance of incisive religious and government leaders, but did not obliterate censorship altogether. Instead, the job of expurgating unacceptable ideas has simply fallen into new hands using new tactics. Censors now assume the guise of capitalist retailers and distributors, special-interest groups, and less influential but still passionate religious and government authorities. Their new techniques are market-censorship (dominating the marketplace), constituitive censorship (the control of language), power-knowledge (restricting knowledge), as well as the traditional regulative censorship (law). These new forces can be as equally effective as the forces of remote history. We notice the effect of post-enlightenment civilization as early as the nineteenth-century in the great Russian humanist Aleksandr Herzin. Herzin left his native country in protest of Czarist censorship only to feel "profound disillusionment with the extremely narrow limits of permission imposed on freedom of expression by market censorship in the West" (Jansen 1991).

This author will explore how these forces are affecting the free expression of musicians and lyricists of popular music in the United States, show how censorship has failed to work as planned, and provide a solution to the problem.

Music as Literature and Art

Music lyrics are essentially composed as poems, ballads, monologues, and the like, and set to music. They may take the form of actual spoken or sung sounds or of written words, as literature does. Any form of literature can be sung with musical accompaniment and become lyrics. Remove the music and we are left with literature. Lyrics are therefore a form literature. All the concepts that apply to literature can therefore apply to lyrics. This author shall employ such concepts, including laws regarding public speech and public press, in my analysis of music censorship. Censors throughout history are familiar with this association of music and the press, attacking each in similar fashion. Jeremy Collier, a seventeenth-century Englishman, thought that music was "almost as dangerous as gunpowder" and might require "looking after no less than the press" (Rodnitzky 1972).

Lyrics also constitute an art form. Musicians are artists who create something new using a certain amount of creativity. The result displays an aesthetic quality, though it may also have other emotional and analytical attributes. Lyrics can then be considered art and concepts concerning art may be applied to them, as this author chooses to do.

The Importance of Art

Before this author can discuss how and why music is being censored, it is vital to explain the significance of art in our lives. Picasso said, "All art is a lie that helps us to see the truth better." All art is a lie in that it attempts to imitate truth or to reveal something about reality outside the piece of art. Art can be a window, a passage way for our minds to perceive the external world. Art can also be a mirror, a way of looking out and perceiving ourselves. It is important for the images in the mirror to keep changing so they may accurately reflect ourselves. Peter Michelson said:

The responsibility of society, if it accepts poetry as a mode of knowledge, is to remain open to what poets of all genres, including the pornographic, have to say. Otherwise all mirrors will soon reflect the same imbecilic smile (Michelson 1971).
Someone once said, "Fish will be the last animal to discover water, simply because they are always immersed in it." Sometimes truth can be hard to examine because we have difficulty in recognizing it. We have difficulty in recognizing truth because we are constantly subjected to it and gradually become numb to it. Art, whether it be literature, theatre, visual arts, or music, by way of its difference from reality, gives us a mental pinch so that we may awake and perceive the truth with new eyes.

Art can communicate in ways that other media cannot. By manipulating the environment, art can link directly to the emotions. Sue Curry Jansen explained:

...it is also frequently the ragged cutting edge of emancipatory communication, for even in the most permissive times the artful evocations and contra-factuality of