Stop the Bleepby Amy Searll / Illustration by Colwyn Thomas / 18.03.2013
It’s 3AM. The city of New York twinkles, waiting for the sunrise. Somewhere in a hotel room overlooking the lights, a band is writing a song. There are glasses of whisky and empty pizza boxes everywhere. They have travelled really far, emotionally and physically to arrive at the point of making this new album. This song they’re writing now is an expression of that journey.
But before the song can be played on public airwaves it goes to a standards board who will edit any references to violence, sex, drugs, and blasphemy or anything related to a subject they may deem offensive.
But here’s the thing about censorship; it disregards context entirely. It’s like a robot programmed to edit out ‘bad words’, scanning lines of copy until it finds one, without taking into account why the word is there. In an article for New York Magazine, writer Karyn Schultz says, “writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock… We use them because sometimes the four letter word is the better word – indeed, the best one.”
Often, making a ‘radio edit’ of a song can completely change the meaning. The chorus of Cee–Lo Green’s ‘Fuck you’ was changed to “Forget you”. The song is about a guy going about town with Cee–Lo’s girlfriend. I doubt, very much, that anyone’s response to that would be ‘forget you’.
Another example is D12’s ode to pretty drugs, ‘Purple Pills’. The entire chorus of the song was changed to make the song radio friendly.
The Original: I take a couple uppers
I down a couple downers
But nothing compares
To these blue and yellow purple pills
The Radio Edit: I been so many places
I’ve seen so many faces
But nothing compares
To these blue and yellow purple hills.
So after the song had undergone self-censorship, the meaning, and the artist’s original intention changed completely.
You might not think this is harmful, but it is, and the most extreme cases center around the ultimate muzzling of free speech, political censorship.
In Jadakiss’s song ‘Why’ the word “Bush” was taken out of the line “why did Bush knock down the towers?” In a similar vein, Eminem’s ‘Mosh’ Was censored, taking “Bush” and “AK-47” out of the line “strap Bush with an AK–47, let him go fight his own war.” Again, changing the meaning and the intention, completely.
More extreme examples include the mass shunning of country band the Dixie Chicks. After lead singer Natalie Maines made her political views public, many American radio stations banned the band’s songs. In an article for the Seattle Times Diane Glass writes: “After she voiced her disdain for President Bush in front of a British audience… I no longer heard my favourite songs on the way to work.”
A recent story is the one of Pussy Riot, jailed for their Putin Protest concert. A BBC News article by Tom Esslement states that the ruling judge declared that the women had “offended the feelings of orthodox believers and showed a complete lack of respect.”
Two very different countries with different laws on freedom of speech and yet their reactions were scarily similar.
And so desperate are censorship boards to protect the innocent public from scary musicians that even words misheard as expletives are censored. In 50 Cents song ‘Window Shopper’ the word “dealership” is mistaken for “dealer, shit” and is censored. Same with Black Eyed Peas ‘Don’t Phunk With My Heart’. The word “phunk” was replaced with “mess”.
You wouldn’t put underwear on Michelangelo’s David. You wouldn’t black the swearwords out of James Lee Burke’s latest book, and you wouldn’t edit the violence out of a Tarantino movie. Why? Because those things are what make those pieces of art what they are. Without them, it’s just not the same.
In South Africa we live in a democratic society where people make their own choices. If there’s going to be violence or nudity in a movie you’ll be warned, if a CD contains explicit content, there will be a warning label so you can make the choice not to watch, or listen. But how many local bands avoid taking on political issues due to the sensitivity of the state broadcaster and their near monopoly on the radio waves? I mean none of the SABC’s stations even playlisted Trenton and Free Radical’s catchy pop salute to the father of the nation, ‘Mr Mandela’, an almost entirely innocuous song, deemed too political for radio play.
Maybe we need a warning before an explicit song is played on radio so people can make their own choices about it. Personally, I’d always choose to listen to music the way the artist, and I don’t use the word lightly, intended, because it’s an expression of real, uncensored, politically incorrect life. That’s the beauty of great music, and it shouldn’t be tampered with. And in a society that promotes free speech and freedom of choice, I find the blasé attitude towards censorship on radio scary, frankly.
*Illustration © Colwyn Thomas.