A (Brief) History of Music Censorship in America

Music Features Censorship
A (Brief) History of Music Censorship in America

As Americans, we are a country of prudes, and our approach to music is no exception. Whether it’s sex, violence, or politics that worms its way into our music (and let’s be honest, it’s usually sex), we squirm like the old fogies we swore we’d never become. The following is an abbreviated timeline of just some of the most egregious instances of censorship against music in the United States.

1952: The Weavers are blacklisted after Pete Seeger and Lee Hays are reported to be members of the Communist Party.

The Weavers, the quartet who laid the groundwork for the folk music movement of the 1950s and ’60s, were blacklisted after paid informant (and future founder of the International Society for the Abolition of Data Processing Machines) Harvey Matusow testified to the House Committee on Un-American Activities that members Pete Seeger and Lee Hays were Communists. The group’s record contract was terminated, and all four members of The Weavers were placed under FBI surveillance; their music was banned from television and radio. Matusow later wrote a book recanting his accusations, effectively perjuring himself to earn a three-year stint in prison.

1956: Nat King Cole is attacked by white supremacists while performing in Birmingham, Ala.

During the first of two scheduled shows in Birmingham (an early performance for the city’s white population, and a later one for a black audience), Nat King Cole was attacked onstage by six Klan-affiliated men while performing “Little Girl.” Cole was unhurt, but his response to the attack—“I can’t understand it. I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?” said Cole—elicited outrage from leaders of the Civil Rights movement like Thurgood Marshall, who called Cole an Uncle Tom.

1957: Elvis is filmed from the waist up only on The Ed Sullivan Show.

CBS famously censored Elvis—and his shriek-inducing, gyrating pelvis—during his third appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show by only shooting the King from the waist up (to the chagrin of teenage girls everywhere). The decision cemented Presley’s bad boy reputation, despite Sullivan calling the then 21-year-old Elvis a “real decent, fine boy” at the end of the show.

1964: Cleveland mayor bans rock concerts.

Immediately following a performance by The Rolling Stones, Cleveland mayor Ralph S. Locher banned The Beatles (“another group of shaggy-haired English singers”) from performing at the city’s Public Hall, stating that “Such groups do not add to the community’s culture or entertainment.” (In 2018, a study found that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame generated $199 million dollars for the city and its surrounding county.)

1966: Crowds burn Beatles records after John Lennon quips that “The Beatles are more popular than Jesus.”

The Beatles, particularly in their early years, gave notoriously cheeky interviews, but John Lennon evoked the ire of Christian America with an offhand comment during an interview with Maureen Cleave when he stated that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Though the line was taken out of context—Lennon was commenting on dwindling church attendance in England—22 Southern radio stations banned Beatles’ music, and some churches hosted “Beatles Bonfires” to burn the group’s LPs or threatened to excommunicate members who attended concerts. (Even the Pope got involved.) On what would become their last ever tour, The Beatles were greeted in Memphis, Tenn. by Klansmen and protesters alike.

1967: The Rolling Stones censor themselves to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show.

When The Rolling Stones were invited to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show for the fifth time, the band had already received backlash for their music when radio stations refused to play the controversial “(I Can’t Get) No Satisfaction; citing its suggestive lyrics. Prior to their performance of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” Sullivan demanded that they change the lyrics of the song to a more docile “Let’s spend some time together,” as well as that the band get their hair washed backstage. “Either the song goes, or you go,” Sullivan reportedly said, and despite the heavy-handed eye-rolling from the band onstage, Mick Jagger complied.

1967: The Doors are banned from The Ed Sullivan Show.

The Doors were also invited to perform “Light My Fire” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, under the condition that Jim Morrison change “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” to a more TV-friendly “Girl, we couldn’t get much better.” Morrison agreed, but unlike The Rolling Stones, preceded to sing the original lyrics on live television anyway; the band was never invited back.

1969: CBS cancels The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, following a season of controversial musical performances.

For three, short-lived seasons, Tom and Dick Smothers hosted The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the left-leaning satirical and commercial smash that (in violation of their contract) CBS abruptly cancelled. The brothers hosted hip acts like The Who, Cream and Joan Baez (who ruffled feathers during her performance on the show when she dedicated a song to her draft-dodging husband). CBS edited out the dedication, and pulled the plug entirely on Harry Belafonte’s season opener performance of “Don’t Stop the Carnival” against violent backdrop footage from the 1968 Democratic National Convention. (The network replaced the segment with a five-minute campaign ad for Richard Nixon—ouch.)

1975: Country music stations refuse to play Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill.”

Loretta Lynn had four of her six children before she turned 20; when the pill came out in 1960, needless to say, Lynn was one of its biggest advocates. Shortly after she released “The Pill,” the singer’s ode to birth control, Lynn told People “If I’d had the pill back when I was havin’ babies I’d have taken ’em like popcorn. The pill is good for people. I wouldn’t trade my kids for anyone’s. But I wouldn’t necessarily have had six and I sure would have spaced ’em better.” Radio stations refused to play it, and one Kentucky preacher even condemned Lynn from his pulpit.

1981: Two Utah radio stations ban Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” from their rotation.

Listeners were banned (spared?) from hearing Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” when two Utah radio stations pulled the hit single from the airwaves.”Once the words sank in, it caused an uncomfortableness among listeners,” said KFMY Program Director Jim Sumpter.

1984: Queen’s music video for “I Want to Break Free” is banned from MTV.

For the music video for “I Want to Break Free,” Queen spoofed the British soap Opera Coronation Street, dressing in drag as disgruntled housewives. While UK audiences were in on the joke, MTV banned the video in America, and, consequently, the song only rose to #45 on American charts.

1985: The Parents Music Resource Center releases “The Filthy Fifteen,” a list of the most objectionable songs in America.

Helmed by future Second Lady Tipper Gore, four Washington wives founded the PMRC to provide parents with more control over their children’s music, particularly songs with sexual or drug-related themes. The committee would grow to 22 members and is most famous for its ranking of the most explicit songs in America, better known as “The Filthy Fifteen,” with Prince’s “Darling Nikki; in the top spot (read the full list here). Eventually, the PMRC convinced the Record Industry Association of America to attach “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” to explicit albums (Walmart ceased selling albums with the sticker), a decision that moved Frank Zappa, John Denver and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider to speak out at the Senate’s Committee on Commerce.

1989: The FBI sends a letter to Priority Records, condemning N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police.”

N.W.A. made national waves with their protest anthem “Fuck tha Police” off 1988’s Straight Outta Compton. The song was denounced by the LAPD and politicians—Minnesota’s attorney general tried to prosecute record stores for selling it—and it was banned by radio stations, retail chains and even libraries, eventually garnering the attention of Milt Ahlerich, then the assistant director of public affairs at the FBI. Ahlerich (who claimed his views reflected “the opinion of the entire law enforcement community”) wrote to N.W.A.’s record label, citing that “Fuck tha Police” is “both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers.” The FBI later clarified they did not intend to suppress N.W.A.’s right to free expression.

1990: The members of rap group 2 Live Crew are charged with obscenity for performing songs from their album As Nasty as They Wanna Be.

After a Florida federal judge ruled their album As Nasty as They Wanna Be obscene (and therefore illegal—a local retailer was arrested for selling the album to an undercover cop), three members of 2 Live Crew were arrested when the performed tracks like “Me So Horny” in a Hollywood, Florida nightclub. The obscenity charges were later overturned, but the group still put out a censored version of the album titled As Clean as They Wanna Be. Unsurprisingly, it sold significantly fewer records and actually landed the group in front of the Supreme Court for an unlicensed parody of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman; The Supreme Court backed 2 Live Crew’s right to parody the song with unanimous support.

2001: Media conglomerate Clear Channel distributes a list of songs that are “lyrically questionable” following the 9/11 attacks.

In reaction to 9/11, media corporation Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) sent its 1,172 affiliated radio stations a list of 158 songs Rage Against the Machine’s entire discography—that they should avoid playing in the aftermath of the attacks. Though some of the suggestions would have been rightfully insensitive given the national mood (like The Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb on Me; or Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”), others made less sense (like Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” or The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”). Needless to say, many radio stations ignored the memo.

2003: The Dixie Chicks are blacklisted after criticizing George W. Bush.

Nine days before the invasion of Iraq, Dixie Chicks’ lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” The trio’s music was pulled from radio station rotations, and one Kansas City radio station even hosted a “chicken toss” for critics to throw away their Dixie Chicks albums.

2010: YouTube obscures M.I.A.’s music video for “Born Free.”

Though it sounds like a joke, the music video for M.I.A.’s “Born Free” so graphically depicted a genocide against redheads that YouTube buried the video, making it almost impossible to find without a URL since the company “prohibits content like pornography or gratuitous violence.” Eventually, YouTube made the video visible if users clicked through an age block pop-up.

2017: Texas radio station pulls Madonna’s music from the air after Women’s March speech.

During a speech at the Women’s March on Washington, Madonna voiced her disgust over the newly inaugurated president, stating “Yes, I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House. But I know this won’t change anything. We cannot fall into despair.” Her comments sparked outrage with one Texas radio station manager, who pulled the singer’s music from the station’s rotation as “a matter of patriotism.” Newt Gingrich compared Madonna to window-breaking fascists (all of whom, in his words, “should be given the maximum sentence”).

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