Sunday, August 1, 2010

Censoring music

People get worked up when music albums have warning labels to indicate their suitability for children (Tipper Gore's crusade), but music gets censored regularly on the radio without comment.  It's not so much whole songs that get left out, but individual verses, or offending lyrics are subtly altered.  I have noticed the following in country music:
  • Garth Brooks, "The Thunder Rolls" -- this song about a woman who shoots her cheating husband is usually only played through two verses, when she finds out about the infidelity but before she shoots him.  I didn't even know there was a third verse for years.  The fact that I have heard the full song on the radio makes me curious about the source of censorship:  do radio stations voluntarily refrain from playing the third verse?  It also interests me because there is no shortage of country songs about killing unfaithful spouses, e.g. "The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia," "Independence Day," and Garth Brooks's own "Papa's In the Pen."  The only difference I can see with "The Thunder Rolls" is that it is more vivid and powerful than the other ones.
  • Taylor Swife, "Picture to Burn" -- This song contains the lines

    So go ahead, tell your friends
    I'm obsessive and crazy
    That's fine
    I'll tell mine
    That you're gay 
    First of all, this isn't even particularly insulting to gays – it's just intended as a tactic to keep the guy from getting dates with members of the opposite sex, which is the kind he wants. Second, pop in the latest Eminem cd and tell me if he doesn't insult a lot of groups of people explicitly, yet some of his songs – even ones with foul lyrics – get on the radio. There really is a special class of protected people (actually, several: women, blacks, Muslims, gays) that gets preferential treatment.
  • Zac Brown Band, "Toes" -- This song begins, "I've got my toes in the water, ass in the sand..."  Unlike the other songs I've listed here, I'm just as glad for this one to be censored.  Not because it is evil, but just because I don't care to hear the word "ass" in the first 5 seconds of a song.  If you're going to use that word, at least bury it somewhere in the middle where it is possible to overlook it.  It also seems completely arbitrary to use such a word as opposed to one that, say, I wouldn't mind my kids hearing.  I find it curious that when he recorded a new version, he didn't choose an innocuous synonym like "tail" to fill in, but instead repeated "toes":  "toes in the water, toes in the sand."  Obviously this is not a matter of FCC censorship, because obscene words get played all the time on the radio; presumably radio stations are just reacting to complaints from their audience.
  • Toby Keith, "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue" -- this song made quite a splash when it came out because ABC first invited, then disinvited Keith from performing it on a show about 9/11.  When I recently attended the Independence Day celebration sponsored by the Air Force Reserve in Warner Robins, Georgia, this was one of the songs that they played during the fireworks -- but without the second verse than ends, "'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American Way."  No doubt they were thinking the same thing that Peter Jennings did:  they didn't want to stir up too much anger.  The use of "ass" is not the key point here, although I will point out that it is entirely within the context of the song.  I'm still not thrilled about my kids' hearing it, but at least there is a good reason for him to use such a word, and it is far enough along in the song that I could turn it off if I wanted to.
I wish I knew more about the stories of these cases of censorship (probably mostly self-censorship).  In two cases, "Picture to Burn" and "Toes," the singers seem to have recorded new versions of the songs, although it's hard to tell if that was under pressure or voluntarily in response to listeners' concerns.  I know that Charlie Daniels recorded a new version of his song, "Long-haired country boy," removing references to getting high and toking because he didn't want to promote drug use.  I also wonder if rock music ever gets censored like this, because there is never any news about this quiet censorship.

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