Americans who depend on the Internet are worried about censorship lately, and with good reason – SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) in the House and Protect IP in the Senate will likely be serious threats to freedom of speech on the Internet if they pass. But these threats are nothing new.
Right now, the boogeyman the folks in charge and the companies that lobby them use to try to restrict the free flow of information is Internet piracy – It’s a real problem with real consequences, but the proposed solution is akin to curing the disease by killing the patient.
In the past, the boogeyman was obscenity. America has always had a tug of war between cultural conservatives and people who like to push boundaries through art and music.
In the 1960s, all it took was a few bad words to get you in trouble. Censorship wrecked the career of stand-up comedian/spoken word artist Lenny Bruce, who was arrested a number of times on obscenity charges. Most of the charges were defeated in court, but fighting them ruined him financially. TV and radio were heavily censored and musicians had to be careful to disguise themes such as sex and drugs in metaphor. There were others who paid a price as well.
After a period in the ‘70s when the culture lightened up about topics like sexuality and drugs, there was another crackdown in the ’80s as evangelical Christians and clergy suddenly found themselves with some serious political power and decided to throw their weight around. Tipper Gore and the PMRC went after heavy metal, punk rock and rap. In 1985, representatives of the PMRC, musicians Frank Zappa, John Denver and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and Senators Paula Hawkins and Al Gore testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on the subject of record labeling and obscenity. (Check out the Wikipedia page. It’s a pretty good read.) Snider in particular shocked a lot of people by not being the dummy they expected and putting the moralizers on the defensive.
The push to censor and control the sale of music with explicit lyrics continued into the ’90s. Store clerks got arrested for selling the rap record “As Nasty As They Wanna Be.” A record store owner in Florida was put on trial and convicted (overturned on appeal) and the rappers themselves were put on trial for obscenity (acquitted). I bought a copy of 2 Live Crew’s album after I heard about the arrests – I wasn’t even into rap at the time, but I couldn’t abide that kind of censorship and I wanted to know what the fuss was about. Turned out to be nasty as you would expect and also damn funny.
It’s hard to even remember what the mindset was back then. Check out this excerpt from the TV show Quincy (which incidentally featured a performance from bona fide punk group Mayhem). It’s funny today, but it was dead serious at the time.
America has changed since then. Rap has become mainstream. Formerly scary rappers Ice Cube and Ice T have acting careers (Ice Cube has been in a kids’ movie and Ice T played a cop on TV). The country lost its fear of heavy metal, thanks in part to the parody “This is Spinal Tap.” Punk rockers grew up and went mainstream. Henry Rollins of Black Flag is working on a show for National Geographic. How mainstream is that? History tells us that sooner or later we’ll get another moral crusade, however.
Check out Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys taking on Tipper Gore on the Oprah Winfrey show in the ’80s. I think the PMRC folks thought they were getting a punk rock moron like Sid Vicious when they took on Jello, but he turned out to be anything but. He gives Tipper a pretty good shellacking in this clip.
Fear is a powerful tool, one that politicians can’t resist. Whenever anything new pops up in the culture that they find threatening (the Occupy Movement for example), the folks in power will appeal to our moral sensibilities to try and stop it. And it might actually work, for a while… But sooner or later change will come, whether they like it or not. Americans are very adaptable and I think the country will evolve into something better than what we have now — but that doesn’t mean the process will be painless.
I am just wrapping up a post about goth pop artist Jonathan Scott of the Doleful Lions, who was personally affected by the PMRC and is working on a fascinating musical project to remind people of that era.