By Gilbert Garcia
Congress mulls legislation to curb media indecency, radio conglomerates ban classic-rock warhorses, the Federal Communications Commission tries to muzzle Howard Stern, and self-appointed moral watchdogs can't stop barking about a blink-you-missed-it glimpse of Janet Jackson's exposed breast on Super Sunday. Don't you just love the smell of election years in America?
As we all know, Americans - particularly those in positions of authority - like the idea of free expression more than the reality of it. But what's particularly jolting about Taboo Tunes, Peter Blecha's compelling look at the history of censored music, is the way it reveals the absurd lack of reasoning that has often driven the suppression of popular songs.
Consider the case of "Mack the Knife." This pop adaptation of the Brecht-Weill classic from The Threepenny Opera had already been recorded without incident by the likes of Lawrence Welk and Frank Sinatra by the time Bobby Darin gave it a brassy treatment in 1959. But because Darin appealed to a teen audience, his record was deemed a threat to incite youth violence, and banned by New York City radio stations.
An even more bizarre case involves the Cole Porter song "I Get A Kick Out of You." Although the song's lyrics expressed a distaste for cocaine ("I'm sure that if I had even one sniff/ it would bore me terrifically too"), the very reference to an illicit drug made radio stations shun the song.
"It seems like the censorious impulse in some of these people is to the extent where they've determined the categories of topics that they don't want discussed in any way," Blecha says. "They don't want you to have a song that's pro-sex or anti-sex, or any kind of sex at all. Ultimately, the categories boil down to sex, blasphemy, intoxication, and rebellion, but they don't want any subtle variations of those things."
Over the course of our history, music has been censored for various reasons - either to chill dissent at a time of political crisis, to reassure frightened moral guardians, or to cynically make points with voters.
The latter rationale seems to be driving the current obsession with obscenity, a binge of pop-culture purging that has seen the FCC levy heavy fines against everyone from Stern to Bono, and Viacom/Infinity Broadcasting ban 25 longtime radio favorites for including the slightest hint of profanity (e.g., the "funky shit" reference in the Steve Miller Band's "Jet Airliner").
"In my estimation, we are seeing right now a very opportunistic thrust of censorship and it seems to tie into the presidential election cycle, more than anything else," Blecha says. "We had the exact same thing in the off-year elections of 1978, when the FCC went wild. I think it's a planned, conscious stirring-up of culture-war issues. In '88, we had Willie Horton brought up out of the blue. In '92, it was Ice-T and 'Cop Killer' from the Bush side, and from the Clinton side - trying to prove his moderate/conservative credentials - he went after Sistah Souljah.
"They're calling it the indecency debate and I'm just wondering when the debate part starts. It seems driven from the top down. I have not seen the Million Mom March against Steve Miller's 'Jet Airliner.' I haven't seen people marching on the Capitol with their pitchforks and torches demanding that Pink Floyd's 'Money' never be played again. I haven't seen any grassroots uprising on this. So I consider it an imposition at an opportunistic moment."
A Seattle-based music writer and longtime free-speech advocate, Blecha recalls first taking note of the censorship issue in elementary school, when the Portland, Oregon band the Kingsmen released a rollicking party anthem called "Louie Louie." Although its verses were - and remain to this day - virtually unintelligible, irate parents became convinced that the song contained raunchy depictions of fornication. After letters flooded the offices of the FCC and the Attorney General, the governor of Indiana banned the song in his state, saying he considered it so vile it made his "ears tingle."
"I just thought it was odd," Blecha recalls. "We couldn't hear a darned thing in that song. And then the 'Puff the Magic Dragon' scandal came out. That was interesting as well, because it supposedly had the coded drug-recruitment technique embedded in it. I couldn't hear that either. Still, to this day, I try to decipher it and it seems pretty much like hearsay regarding that song."
As Blecha astutely points out, odes to inebriation such as "Drink Chug-a-Lug" or the "Beer Barrel Polka" are deemed harmless family fare, while Spiro Agnew declared that the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends" was "threatening to destroy our national strength," because it included the phrase "I get high."
Blecha also argues that the recent consolidation of our airwaves has made this censorship impulse more potent, and therefore, more dangerous. In 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio," a barbed reaction to the Kent State massacre, could still scale the Top 20 of the national charts, despite the efforts of many stations to ban the song. There were still too many independent radio voices to keep such a tune from being stifled. These days, that's no longer the case.
"There's a history behind all these kinds of songs," Blecha says. "If we're talking drug songs, they go back centuries. If we talk about sly, sexual-innuendo songs, those go back to British folk songs of the Victorian era at least. But in each of those categories, there are traditions, and there have always been people who are offended. Ultimately, especially in a democracy, the argument must fade away, because we have a right to have those kinds of songs." •