Popular Music Censorship in the 1980s and early 90s

The following was written in 1990 and was accurate at the time of writing. The text has not been updated, though the hyperlinks have.


Popular music has always been considered controversial, from Elvis’ pelvis-swinging, the free love attitude of the late Sixties, to the outrageous onstage behaviour of the Sex Pistols in the early Eighties.

The last few years have been no exception.

For some, a new decade signified freedom and liberation as the Berlin Wall collapsed and small Eastern European countries claimed their independence, bringing about the fall of Communism. For others, the end of an old decade brought about the end of certain freedoms, and a new style of restrictive government dictated what films and TV programmes we could watch, what books we could read and what music we could (or couldn’t) listen to. It became known as censorship and is still one of the major issues in popular music today.

The introduction of censorship

Censorship began in America in the early Eighties, when a parent from Cincinnati was shocked by a verbal tease not included on the lyric sheet on Prince‘s 1983 album 1999. This parent, a member of the local school’s Parents and Teachers Association (the most powerful and conservative organisation in America at the time), complained to the Committee and as a result, president Ann Kahn began a letter-writing campaign to record companies to establish a ratings system for albums, based on lyrical content. The campaign took off when Tipper Gore, the wife of Senator Al Gore was offended by a reference to masturbation from another of Prince’s songs, Darling Nikki. She gathered a group of the wives of America’s most powerful men, who used their surnames to gain a promise from record companies that albums containing explicit lyrics would be stickered. In 1985 these women established the Parents Music Resource Centre, who, in the mid-Eighties concentrated on blacklisting such rock artists as Prince, heavy metal band W.A.S.P. and rock group The Dead Kennedys who were eventually charged with distributing pornography for their use of H.R Giger’s Landscape #20 displaying copulating genitals in decay, on the sleeve of their 1986 Frankenchrist album. The band was acquitted in 1987, but the two month trial cost in excess of $90,000, and the band split because their records wouldn’t sell.

Censorship of rap music

Jack Thompson was an American lawyer campaigning for the national banning of 2 Live Crew, a rap group from his hometown. Their album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be has been a victim of censorship since it’s first release, as has the group themselves. Thompson began a faxing campaign to police and prosecutors to ban the album, and in June a judge found the album to be obscene and it was banned. In 1987 a shop owner was arrested in Alabama or selling 2 Live Crew’s second album Move Somethin’ to a minor, and two days after the ruling on the Nasty… album, a record shop owner in Fort Lauderdale was arrested for selling the album. Two days after this, the group themselves were arrested after performing to an adult-only audience at a Broward Country Club. The group were acquitted of obscenity charges at Fort Lauderdale Court at their trial between the 8th and 20th of October 1990, and they released a cleaner version of their Nasty… album titled As Clean As They Wanna Be which carried the sticker “This album does not contain explicit lyrics”. Clean… sold 200,000 copies, ” Nasty … sold 1.2 million copies.

Other albums featuring the American “gangster rap’” style of conveying a street life of violence, drug abuse etc, have sold to gold and platinum standards since the Censorship scare, despite being stickered for obscene language. N.W.A. caused a controversy with their song Fuck The Police and did the same with a track called Just Don’t Bite It about a sexual experience, taken from their 100 Miles And Running E.P. Shop owners in Britain have refused to stock the E.P, compact disc and 12′” versions, causing a drop of 60% in sales.

Censorship of rock music

The Geffen Record Company refused to distribute the Geto Boys‘ album because of consistent swearing, graphic violence, racism and sexism, but said that they “Vehemently oppose any governmental censorship or restrictions.” Whether there is any politics or subtle racism in the banning of this black group’s album, no-one can tell, but controversial, white rock groups are still handled by Geffen. These include thrash metal groups such as Danzig and Slayer, both of whose albums have been stickered for obscenity, and chart successes Guns’n’Roses whose track One In a Million caused an uproar because of its offensive references to ethnic minorities and homosexuals. Guns’n’Roses’ Appetite for Destruction album sleeve also had to be changed for its depiction of a raped woman, despite which still managed to sell more than 7 million copies.

Another album sleeve that had to be changed was Jane’s Addiction‘s Rio De La Habitual, displaying lead singer Perry Farrel as a naked woman in bed with another man and a woman. Having learnt their lesson after the last album sleeve was criticised for showing busty Siamese twins with their heads on fire, record company Warner Bros. altered the sleeve to feature the First Amendment.

Early in 1990, New York Cathedral’s Cardinal John O’Connor condemned heavy metal music, saying it was responsible for the rise of Satanism in the city. The PMRC also believed that heavy metal acts incorporated back masking into their music, that is, lyrics that, played backwards, take on a new, evil meaning. Their booklet, Stairway to Hell: The Well-planned Destruction of Teens informs of how the line “It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen” from Led Zeppelin‘s Stairway to Heaven when played backwards allegedly reads “I live for Satan, he will give you 666.”

Backmasking was also mentioned in the trial of English heavy metal band Judas Priest in 1990, when they wore accused of hiding the mysterious message Do It! in one of the tracks off their Stained Class album, driving two teenage dropouts, Raymond Belknap and James Vance, to suicide. Other messages such as “Sing my evil spirit” and “Fuck the Lord” were alleged to have been included, but to show how ridiculous it was, lead singer Rob Halford brought into court a tape on the last day of the trial, and played backwards the line “They won’t take my love away” which became “Hey look Ma: My chair’s broken. The judge dismissed the case.

Freedom of speech

The First Amendment is clear about the Americans’ freedom to express themselves, and many believe that Censorship is an infringement of their rights. Censorship campaigner Tipper Gore said “We are strong advocates of the First Amendment and its protections of free speech and free expression. We do not, and have not … supported restrictions on those rights.” But Barry Lynn, a legislative counsellor of the American Civil Liberties Union believes that “Slapping on labels … that imply that records have “bad things” on them is a violation of the First Amendment.” A New York journalist wrote that slapping a warning sticker on an album “Because somebody… might complain” causes it to be “categorised by its nastiest moment, no discussion necessary”.

Censorship is now being opposed in America, primarily by “Music in Action” in Brooklyn, N.Y. and by “Rock and Roll Confidential” in Long Beach, California. In 1990, the Rock artists themselves joined the fight against Censorship in a campaign called “Rock the Vote”. But it still goes on. The same thing is now beginning to happen here in Britain, N.W.A’s new album Efil4zaggin (Niggaz4life) has been banned for its explicit lyrical content. We may not like the album, but we want the right to buy it.

Of more than 7500 albums released in America between January 1986 and August 1989, forty-nine displayed a warning sticker on the sleeve. The PMRC believe there should have been more. In 1989 record companies began the voluntary labelling of albums, and the first to appear was Prince’s Graffiti Bridge and was sold to adults only.

It is now easier to buy a .44 Magnum over the counter in America than it-is for a seventeen-year-old to buy a 2 Live Crew album in his local record shop, and the system is being introduced into this country.