Censorship of music refers to the practice of editing of musical works for various reasons, stemming from a wide variety of motivations, including moral, political, or religious reasons. Censorship can range from the complete government-enforced legal prohibition of a musical work, to private, voluntary removal of content when a musical work appears in a certain context.
Songs are commonly edited for broadcast on radio and television to remove content that may be considered objectionable to an outlet's target audience--such as profanity, or references to subjects such as sex and drug usage. This is typically done to comply with any relevant broadcast law or codes of conduct, and to make the songs more marketable to a mainstream audience. Songs edited for content in this manner by are often referred to as a "clean version" or a "radio edit". Common editing techniques include distorting vocals to obscure offending words (including muting, bleeping, and backmasking), or replacing them with alternative lyrics.
The amount of censorship required may vary between broadcasters, depending on standards and practices and their target audience; for example, Radio Disney imposes stricter content guidelines than conventional U.S. radio stations, as it primarily targets a youth audience and family listening. By contrast, some radio stations may relegate unedited versions of tracks containing objectionable content to airplay during time periods deemed appropriate, such as late-night hours. Joel Mullis, an Atlanta sound engineer who became well-known in the industry for his work on radio edits, noted that his job was often complicated by differing standards between broadcasters (such as BET and MTV), requiring different edits to meet their individual needs. Mullis' edit of the Ying Yang Twins' "Wait (The Whisper Song)" was constructed by splicing in vocals from other Ying Yang Twins songs, but Mullis eventually had to bring the group back to his studio after facing demands for additional edits.
Some listeners have expressed dissatisfaction over the editing of songs for radio airplay, as they may compromise the artistic integrity of the original song, and encourage listeners to seek out alternative platforms that are not subject to such censorship, such as digital streaming. At the same time, edits are considered a necessary concession to receive the radio airplay that can influence a song's overall performance.
In some cases, a record label may choose to withhold a release entirely if they believe that its subject matter would be too controversial; Ice-T and Paris both had gangsta rap albums withheld or indefinitely delayed by Warner Bros. Records over content concerns, with Ice-T's Home Invasion delayed due to the 1992 Los Angeles riots and controversy over "Cop Killer"--a song by Ice-T's metal band Body Count, and Paris's Sleeping with the Enemy over its songs "Bush Killa" and "Coffee, Doughnuts, & Death". Insane Clown Posse faced similar issues after they signed to Disney-owned Hollywood Records; despite compliance with the label's demands to censor specific songs and lyrics, The Great Milenko was recalled almost immediately after its release (but not before selling 18,000 copies out of 100,000 shipped). All three acts moved to different labels (including Priority Records and Island Records), which released their respective albums without objections.
Multiple edits of CeeLo Green's song "Fuck You" exist, including one which changed the titular lyric to "Forget You", and one which muted "fuck" without replacing it. Green also performed a parody of the song about Fox News in an appearance on The Colbert Report.The Black Eyed Peas re-wrote "Let's Get Retarded"--a song from their album Elephunk, as "Let's Get It Started" to serve as a promotional song for television coverage of the 2004 NBA Playoffs. "Let's Get It Started" was subsequently released as a standalone single. When performing his song "Power" on Saturday Night Live, Kanye West similarly replaced an entire verse, which contained profanities as well as lyrics directly criticising the program (such as "Fuck SNL and the whole cast") with newly-written lyrics.
Songs containing potentially objectionable double entendres or mondegreens have also been subject to censorship. For example, the title and chorus of Britney Spears' single "If U Seek Amy" was intended to be misheard as "F-U-C-K me"; her label issued a radio edit which changed the word "seek" to "see", in order to remove the wordplay. Similar concerns were raised by radio stations over The Black Eyed Peas' "Don't Phunk With My Heart" upon its release, as the word "phunk" could be misinterpreted by listeners as sounding like the word "fuck".Meghan Trainor re-recorded her debut single "All About That Bass" for Radio Disney and conservative adult contemporary stations, mainly to remove the song's suggestive metaphors.
Censorship of music is not limited to lyrical content; MTV edited the M.I.A. song "Paper Planes" to replace sounds of gunfire in its chorus with alternative sound effects, and remove a reference to cannabis. Similar sound edits occurred when M.I.A. performed the same song on Late Show with David Letterman. M.I.A. subsequently criticized both MTV and Late Show for censoring her song.
Some songs may be pulled or downplayed by broadcasters if they are considered to be inappropriate to play in the aftermath of specific events. Following the September 11 attacks, many broadcasters altered their music programming for these reasons, such as Clear Channel, whose program directors compiled an internal list of "lyrically questionable" songs. The list included all Rage Against the Machine songs, as well as various songs with themes related to destruction, war, flight, or references to New York City. Slate noted several unusual choices on the list, including "Walk Like an Egyptian", two Cat Stevens songs (Stevens had converted to the Islamic faith and changed his name to Yusuf Islam), and "John Lennon's explicitly pacifist anthem 'Imagine'".
Following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in February 2003, Mark Wills' "19 Somethin'" was temporarily pulled by some radio stations as it contains a lyric referencing the Challenger disaster. Also that month, Madonna's then-upcoming music video for "American Life" generated controversy due to its politicized and "unpatriotic" imagery (such as a fashion show featuring women dressed in military equipment, and a scene where the singer throws a grenade-shaped lighter to a George W. Bush lookalike to light his cigar), which were considered to be especially sensitive in the wake of the Iraq war. Due to the negative response, Madonna pulled the video prior to its planned premiere, as she did not want to "risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video".
In 2006, after Gary Glitter was convicted of child sexual abuse in Vietnam, the National Football League banned the original recording of his song "Rock and Roll" (which was popularly played at U.S. sporting events) from being played at its games. While the NFL still allowed a cover version of the song to be played, in 2012 the league instructed its teams to "avoid" playing the song entirely, following negative reception from British media over its continued use by the New England Patriots, and the possibility it could be played during Super Bowl XLVI.
Following Chris Brown's alleged physical altercation with his then-girlfriend Rihanna, various radio stations began to voluntarily pull Brown's music from their playlists as a condemnation of his actions. In December 2013, HMV removed the entire catalogue of Lostprophets from its stores after the band's lead singer Ian Watkins was charged with thirteen sexual offences against children.
Songs and albums may, in some cases, be censored due to copyright problems (particularly related to sampling) or other legal issues. The JAMs album 1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?) was withdrawn from distribution following complaints by ABBA, whose music was sampled on the album without permission.The Notorious B.I.G.'s album Ready to Die was similarly pulled following a lawsuit by Bridgeport Music over unauthorized samples.
The Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) and the Australian Music Retailers Association (AMRA) maintain a self-regulatory system known as the "Recorded Music Labelling Code of Practice", which utilizes a three-tier ratings system for objectionable content in music recordings. "Level 1" applies to content of a "moderate impact" (including "infrequent aggressive or strong coarse language; or moderate-impact references to drug use, violence, sexual activity or themes"), "Level 2" for "strong impact" ("frequent aggressive or strong coarse language", or strong references to drug use, violence, sexual activity or themes), and "Level 3" for "high impact" content (graphic and high-impact references to drug use, violence, sexual activity or themes). The Level 3 classification was introduced in March 2003, and requires purchasers to be over the age of 18. ARIA and AMRA members are banned from distributing and selling any recording with material that exceeds Level 3 classification, which includes content "which promote, incite, instruct or exploitatively or gratuitously depict drug abuse, cruelty, suicide, criminal or sexual violence, child abuse, incest, bestiality or any other revolting or abhorrent activity in a way that causes outrage or extreme disgust."
In May 1990, Nick Franklin, acting news director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's radio station Triple J, was suspended by the ABC's management after having played a portion of N.W.A.'s song "Fuck tha Police". The song had received airplay on the station for several months, but ABC Radio head Malcom Long requested that the song be given a "rest"; in the offending segment, Long exhibited the song's vulgar lyrics and subject matter. In protest of the suspension, Triple J staff went on strike, and the station stunted by playing another N.W.A. song, "Express Yourself", on a loop. The stunt ended after the ABC resolved the dispute and reinstated Long. The song was ultimately played 82 times in a row.
Australian law bans the import of any product that "describe[s], depict[s], express[es] or otherwise deal[s] with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults". In 2003, copies of an album by grindcore band Intense Hammer Rage were seized by the Australian Customs Service, and the three band members were each fined AUD$500 each for violating customs law. The violations centred upon the abhorrent subject matter of the album's artwork and printed lyrics; the albums had been manufactured in the United States by their record label, and imported into Australia for their distribution. The band criticized the seizure as being a dilution of freedom of speech.
In Canada, content broadcast by radio and television is self-regulated under the code of ethics of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters by a group known as the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), which acts upon complaints submitted by the general public. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) can intervene in more substantial cases.
In 2011, the Atlantic panel of the CBSC, in response to a complaint against CHOZ-FM, ruled that the original version of Dire Straits' 1985 single, "Money for Nothing" violated the ethics code, because of its use of the word "faggot"--a homophobic slur. However, the CRTC called upon the CBSC to review the decision with a national panel, as it "elicited a strong public reaction and created uncertainty for private radio stations across the country." In particular, the CRTC asked the CBSC to consider the overall context of the slur in relation to the rest of the song, as well as how the word was used at the time of the song's release. The CBSC overturned the ruling; while panellists agreed that the slur was inappropriate, it was considered to be satirical and non-hateful in context. It was also noted that lead singer Mark Knopfler had substituted the word himself with alternatives (such as "queenie") during live performances, which was considered an admission that his original choice in words was in bad taste. The CBSC stated that it was up to individual stations whether or not they would play the unedited version.
The ruling and controversy were ridiculed by critics; veteran Canadian radio personality Alan Cross commented that the controversy made Canada look "silly", remarking that "I talked to people from the U.S. and the U.K. and they were like, 'What's wrong with you people? Don't you get it? It's a joke. It's a satire. You didn't understand the context?" National Post columnist Chris Selley described the CBSC's new ruling as a "comedy classic" and "colossal waste of time", explaining that "it's one thing for a censor to decide whether something is legitimately artistic; it's another for it to declare whether or not it enjoys the art, as if it somehow mattered."
During the rule of Mao Zedong, "Yellow Music" became subject to criticism and censure, since the Communist Party of China saw Shanghai shidaiqu pop music as indecent, and critics saw the sentiments of love songs as appealing only to the petite bourgeoisie. The genre was also criticized over its connections to American jazz music, due to Anti-American sentiment from the Korean War. This resulted in many artists associated with the genre, including Li Jinhui (who had been credited as a leading figure in the genre) and Chen Gexin, being branded as "rightists" and persecuted. Shanghai pop was displaced by revolutionary music that promoted Maoism and other ideologies of the Communist Party. In 1966, Tian Han--writer of the Chinese national anthem "March of the Volunteers"--was imprisoned over his allegorical play Xie Yaohuan (which was critical of Mao's regime) in one of the opening salvos of the Cultural Revolution. His works were banned, leading to "The East is Red"--a song which glorified Mao's cult of personality, being used as the de facto national anthem at this time.
In contemporary times, musical works criticizing the Chinese government have also been subject to censure. Guns N' Roses' album Chinese Democracy was banned in the country, as its title track criticizes the Chinese government and contains references to the Falun Gong. The song "Legacy" on Pet Shop Boys' 2009 album Yes was changed to an instrumental for its Chinese release, as it contains the lyric "governments fall". In July 2017, it was reported that Justin Bieber had been banned from performing in the country, citing "a series of bad behaviours, both in his social life and during a previous performance in China, which caused discontent among the public."
China has historically condemned or banned any musician who publicly supports Tibetan independence or otherwise interacts with the Dalai Lama; in 2008, Björk chanted "Tibet, Tibet" to the audience whilst performing "Declare Independence" during a concert in Shanghai. Zhou Heping stated that the song, which was not cleared by Chinese authorities, had caused "dissatisfaction among the broader Chinese audience". He described Björk's case as an isolated incident, and denied that the Ministry of Culture was wanting to further restrict performances by Western acts in the country in response to the incident, since China wanted international musicians to perform there for the Summer Olympics. In 2013, German electronic music band Kraftwerk were denied entry visas over their intent to perform at a 1999 Free Tibet concert in Washington, D.C., which was cancelled due to inclement weather.Maroon 5 had concerts cancelled in the country after bandmember Jesse Carmichael posted a Twitter message for the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday, and Oasis concerts in China were cancelled after lead singer Noel Gallagher performed at a Free Tibet concert in New York City. In 2016, the Publicity Department banned Lady Gaga after she posted a video of her meeting with the Dalai Lama prior to a conference in Indianapolis.
In July 2016, South Korean music and entertainment products became subject to a voluntary boycott in China, in retaliation for its stationing of a THAAD missile defence system to protect against attacks by North Korea (which has diplomatic ties with China).K-pop groups, as well as soprano Sumi Jo, had performances cancelled in the country due to the sentiment. Share prices of S.M. Entertainment and YG Entertainment also fell, as South Korean entertainment companies had increasingly invested in China to take advantage of the Korean Wave. In November 2017, following the settlement of the THAAD dispute, Chinese media outlets began to ease their censure of Korean content, and it was reported that Mamamoo had filmed an appearance for a television program.
In Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, local law prohibits radio stations from playing songs that are "offensive to public feeling" or "violate good taste and decency". References to LGBT topics were censored from Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" by local radio stations because homosexual acts are illegal in the country, while "Despacito" was pulled by Malaysia's state-owned radio stations following listener concerns over its "un-Islamic" lyrics.
Concerts in Malaysia have also been subject to censorship to comply with the country's moral values; Avril Lavigne was instructed to not wear revealing clothing, jump, shout, or include any "negative elements" in a 2008 concert in Kuala Lumpur, Muslim citizens were initially banned from attending a Black Eyed Peas concert in 2009 due to its Guinness sponsorship (as alcohol is banned under Sharia law; the ban was lifted after Guinness agreed to not sell its products at the concert or advertise its involvement), and Adam Lambert agreed to make changes to a 2010 concert due to concerns that he would promote "gay culture".
Music of North Korea is typically limited to state-sanctioned performers and ensembles, whose propaganda music promotes the regime's ideologies and the cult of personality. Foreign music, and older North Korean music that do not meet the government's standards, is generally banned. Despite this, the inaugural concert of the Moranbong Band in July 2012 featured selections from the soundtrack of the film Rocky and the song "My Way". These songs, and other elements of the ensemble and concert, led media outlets to suggest that Kim Jong-un's regime was selectively becoming more open to having some Western influence over its culture. In July 2015, it was announced that Slovenian band Laibach would perform in Pyongyang as part of celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the end of Japanese rule. It was the first ever rock music concert in the country; the band stated that they planned to perform covers of traditional songs and selections from The Sound of Music.
Also in July 2015, it was reported that a directive had been issued by Kim-jong Un, calling for inspectors to destroy music CDs and cassettes containing prohibited content, as well as adding additional songs to the blacklist (such as the entire soundtrack of the historical drama Im Kkeok Jeong).
The telecommunications regulator Ofcom has the power to reprimand broadcasters for playing songs and music videos that breach its guidelines on harmful or offensive content pre-watershed. The British Phonographic Industry (BPI) adopted the RIAA's Parental Advisory label program; in July 2011, the BPI published guidance for use of the logo on digital streaming platforms.
The BBC was historically known for censoring various songs from being played on its radio and television stations; from the 1930s through 1960s, the BBC had banned songs such as "Hold My Hand" for its religious references, pop arrangements of classical tunes (though barring "Sabre Dance" because it was "not a well-loved classic whose perversion we would be encouraging"), and during World War II, songs that were "slushy in sentiment", such as "I'll Be Home for Christmas", due to concerns that it would affect the morale of soldiers. "Mack the Knife" was also banned from airplay outside of The Threepenny Opera, as the BBC felt it would be offensive outside of the context of the play.The Kinks' "Lola" was briefly banned under the BBC's anti-product placement rules, as its lyrics contain references to the brand name Coca-Cola. In the midst of an American tour, lead singer Ray Davies flew back to London to re-record the offending lyric as "cherry cola".
The Sex Pistols' 1977 single "God Save the Queen" was controversial upon its release, as it was critical of the British government and monarchy (among other things, referring to the United Kingdom as a "fascist regime"), and was released during the year of Queen Elizabeth II's silver jubilee. "God Save the Queen" was banned by the BBC and all independent local radio stations, but still peaked at #2 on the UK Singles Chart during the week of the official Jubilee celebration. It was alleged that the chart's rules were changed for that week only to exclude sales from record shops that sold their own records (in this case, Virgin), in a deliberate effort to prevent the controversial song from reaching the number-one spot and causing wider offence.
The Frankie Goes to Hollywood song "Relax" generated controversy due to its suggestive lyrics; the chorus contained double entendres such as "when you want to suck to it" and "when you want to come", which were interpreted as being oblique references to oral sex and ejaculation respectively. On 11 January 1984, Radio 1 morning DJ Mike Read stopped the song on-air during a chart rundown to point out its "obscene" lyrics, and announced that he would no longer play the song during his show. The BBC subsequently restricted the song to evening airplay. When the band made statements in a Daily Express interview confirming the possibility of sexual connotations in the lyrics, the BBC banned "Relax" entirely. The ban only increased interest in the single, causing it to become the number-one song in Britain only two weeks later.
In December 2007, BBC Radio 1 began to play a version of The Pogues' popular Christmas song "Fairytale of New York" that censored the words "faggot" and "slut" from one of its verses, citing concerns over the homophobic slur. However, the BBC reversed the censorship after it was criticized by listeners, the band itself, and the mother of the song's featured vocalist Kirsty MacColl, especially given that song had been played uncensored up until then. Radio 1 controller Andy Parfitt argued that "While we would never condone prejudice of any kind, we know our audiences are smart enough to distinguish between maliciousness and creative freedom. In the context of this song, I do not feel that there is any negative intent behind the use of the words, hence the reversal of the decision."
As the song's subject matter was deemed too inappropriate for airplay pre-watershed, BBC Radio 1 played an edited version of Rihanna's song "S&M" during the daytime hours, and referred to the song using the alternate title "Come On". As Rihanna objected to the censorship of the song's title, the BBC later compromised by referring to the song as "S&M (Come On)". For the same reasons, Ofcom deemed the song's music video to be unfit for broadcast pre-watershed.
After the 2013 death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" from the film The Wizard of Oz reached #2 on the UK Singles Chart, as the result of a social media campaign celebrating the death of the controversial PM. BBC Radio 1 did not play the full song during The Official Chart programme, and instead played a short snippet accompanied by a Newsbeat report about the campaign. The action led to complaints that the BBC were deliberately censoring the song due to its negativity in this context, noting that "I'm in Love with Margaret Thatcher" (which also charted, albeit lower, as part of a campaign to counter the aforementioned "Witch" campaign) was played in full earlier in the show. The BBC Trust's Editorial Standards Committee upheld its decision not to play the song, due to its context as a celebration of Thatcher's death.
"Liar Liar GE2017", a song released during the run-up to the 2017 general election that is critical of prime minister Theresa May, was not played by British radio stations due to broadcasting regulations in force during electoral campaigns, which forbid political advertising and require impartial coverage. Despite the suppression, the song still managed to reach #4 on the UK Singles Chart.
While music can be classified as a protected form of expression under the First Amendment, there have still been instances of voluntary censorship within the music industry, particularly in regards to protecting children from being exposed to age-inappropriate subject matter, corporate objections to an artist's work, and by radio and television stations to remain in compliance with the regulations of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
In 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), founded by Tipper Gore, published the "Filthy Fifteen"--a list of fifteen songs it deemed to be the most objectionable due to their references to drugs and alcohol, sexual acts, violence, or "occult" activities. The group pushed for the adoption of a ratings system, and for lyrics to be printed on the back covers of albums so they could be previewed by parents. The RIAA opposed these proposals; during a Senate hearing on the matter in September, musicians such as John Denver and Frank Zappa argued that such guidelines would inhibit free expression. Zappa, in particular, argued that the PMRC's proposal for a method to "assist baffled parents in the determination of the 'suitability' of records listened to by 'very young children'" would reduce American music to "the intellectual level of a Saturday morning cartoon".
Following the hearings, the RIAA introduced a standard Parental Advisory label (which took its current form, reading "Parental Advisory -- Explicit Content", in 1994 following subsequent hearings), which is designed to be applied to the cover art of songs and albums which may contain objectionable content; the RIAA recommends that it be used on releases containing "strong language or depictions of violence, sex, or substance abuse to such an extent as to merit parental notification." The Parental Advisory label is a voluntary scheme; some retailers--particularly Walmart--adopted policies to enforce the label program by not stocking music releases which carried it.
The emergence of gangsta rap led to various censorship controversies, due to the often-provocative subject matter of songs within the genre (such as N.W.A.'s 1988 single "Fuck tha Police", which criticized police brutality and racial profiling, and became controversial due to its lyrics having condoned violence against police). Floridan political activist Jack Thompson targeted the Miami-based 2 Live Crew and their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be (which featured songs such as "Me So Horny"), over allegations that its songs were obscene. In March 1990, the group filed a lawsuit in a U.S. district court to overturn a Broward County ruling that declared the album obscene, but it was upheld by Judge Jose Alejandro Gonzalez Jr. In 1992, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the Gonzalez ruling, as the case presented insufficient evidence that the album met the definition of obscenity set by the U.S. Supreme Court (which includes, among other tests, that an obscene work must lack artistic merit).
Civil rights activist C. Delores Tucker was notable for her opposition to gangsta rap; she was known for distributing flyers outside record stores, and buying stock in media companies so she could protest at shareholders' meetings. Tucker was subsequently dissed in songs by hip-hop musicians over her criticism of the genre.
The television channel MTV was also known for censoring objectionable content from music videos, and restricting some particularly-controversial videos to late-night airplay--such as The Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" due to its violent imagery and misogynistic lyrics, and Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" for its suggestive subject matter. Several Madonna videos have also been banned by the channel, including the sexually-explicit "Justify My Love" and "Erotica". Due to its violent content, MTV and sister channel VH1 only played "What It Feels Like for a Girl" once in late-night hours for its world premiere, and subsequently refused to add it to their regular rotation. The women's cable network Oxygen subsequently provided airplay for the video.
On February 1, 2004 during the MTV-produced Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, which was televised by its corporate sister CBS, Janet Jackson's breast was exposed by Justin Timberlake at the conclusion of the show, in an apparent "wardrobe malfunction". In response to the show, as well as other recent incidents surrounding unexpected use of profanities by those appearing on live television programs (referred to as a "fleeting expletive"), the FCC launched a major crackdown against "indecent" material broadcast on terrestrial radio and television stations. Rolling Stone observed that some rock radio stations had begun to remove or censor certain songs so they would not run afoul of the stricter enforcement, while MTV moved several videos with sexually suggestive imagery to late-night hours.Viacom, which owned MTV, CBS, and the radio station group Infinity Broadcasting at the time, also blacklisted Jackson and her music from its properties, and cancelled her appearance at the CBS-televised Grammy Awards the week after the game (where she was scheduled to perform a tribute to Luther Vandross). The blacklisting caused Janet Jackson's album Damita Jo, which was released the following month, to underperform due to reduced promotion and single airplay.