Music censorship

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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 in order to remove content that may be objectionable to some listeners or viewers, such as sexual references or profanities, usually to comply with a particular broadcaster's guidelines for content, or to make the song more marketable to a mainstream audience. Songs edited for content in this manner by are often known as a "clean version" or a "radio edit".[1] Some radio stations may, alternatively, relegate tracks containing objectionable content to time periods deemed appropriate, such as during late-night hours.[1]

Common editing techniques include distorting vocals to obscure offending words (through muting, bleeping, backmasking), or replacing them with alternate lyrics.[2] For example, multiple edits of CeeLo Green's song "Fuck You" exist, including one which changed the titular lyric to "Forget You", one which muted "fuck" without replacing it, and a topical parody Green performed on The Colbert Report, where he changed the lyric to "Fox News".[3][4][5] 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.[6][7] When performing his song "Power" on Saturday Night Live, Kanye West similarly replaced a verse containing profanities as well as lyrics directly criticising the program (such as "Fuck SNL and the whole cast") with an entirely new version [8]

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"; Spears' label issued a radio edit of the song that changed the word "seek" to "see" in order to remove the wordplay.[9][10] 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".[10]

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.[11][12]


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, program directors of the U.S. radio conglomerate Clear Channel compiled an internal memo containing a list of songs that it recommended its stations to not play, which included all Rage Against the Machine songs, as well as various songs with themes related to destruction, war, flight, or referencing New York City. Slate noted several unusual choices on the list, including "Walk Like an Egyptian", two Cat Stevens songs (he had converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam), and "John Lennon's explicitly pacifist anthem 'Imagine'".[13][14]

Mark Wills' "19 Somethin'" was temporarily pulled by some radio stations following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, as the song itself contains a lyric referencing the Challenger disaster.[15]

In 2006, after Garry 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)[16] 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.[17][18]

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.[19][20] In December 2013, after the band's lead singer Ian Watkins was charged with thirteen sexual offences against children, British record store chain HMV removed the entire catalogue of Lostprophets from its stores.[21]

Legal issues[edit]

Songs and albums may, in some cases, also be subject to censorship 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.[22] The Notorious B.I.G.'s album Ready to Die was similarly pulled following a lawsuit by Bridgeport Music over the use of unauthorized samples from songs owned by the company.[23][24]

By country[edit]


China has historically condemned or banned any musical act 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, resulting in the country's Ministry of Culture threatening to "further tighten controls" on Western artists performing in the country. Culture minister Zhou Heping later denied such a crackdown, considering Björk's case to be an isolated incident, and stating that it "[would not] affect our invitation of artists from all over the world to come to China and perform, particularly during the Olympic Games". However, he did note that the song, which was not cleared by Chinese authorities, had caused "dissatisfaction among the broader Chinese audience".[25] 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 a meeting with the Dalai Lama prior to a conference in Indianapolis.[26][27]

Since August 2016, music and other South Korean entertainment products have been subject to censure within China, as a result of disputes over South Korea's stationing of a THAAD missile defence system near the country to protect against attacks by North Korea. Some 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.[28][29][30][31]

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."[32]


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,[33][34] while "Despacito" was pulled by Malaysia's state-owned radio stations following listener concerns over its "un-Islamic" lyrics.[35][36]

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,[37] Muslim citizens were initially banned from attending a Black Eyed Peas concert in 2009 because it was being sponsored by Guinness (alcohol is banned under Sharia law, but the ban was lifted after Guinness agreed to not sell its products at the concert or advertise its involvement on promotional material),[38] and Adam Lambert agreed to make changes to a 2010 concert due to concerns that he would promote "gay culture".[39]

North Korea[edit]

Music of North Korea is typically limited to state-sanctioned performers and ensembles, whose propaganda music promotes the regime's ideologies and positions, and the cult of personality. Foreign music, and older North Korean music that do not meet the government's standards, is generally banned.[40] 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.[41][42] 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.[43][44]

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).[43][45]

United States[edit]

The RIAA's Parental Advisory label, which is placed on songs and albums that may contain explicit content.

While music can be classified as a protected form of expression under the First Amendment,[46] there have still been instances of voluntary censorship within the music industry, particularly in regards to protecting children from being exposed to potentially-offensive songs, and by radio and television stations to remain in compliance with the regulations of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

In 1985, a group known as the Parents Music Resource Center, founded by Tipper Gore, issued a list of songs it deemed the "Filthy Fifteen", singled out for their references to sex, violence, or "occult" activities.[47] The group pushed for the adoption of a ratings system similar to that of films, and for lyrics to be printed on the back covers of albums so they could be previewed by parents. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) opposed these proposals. During a Senate hearing on the matter in September, musicians such as John Denver and Frank Zappa criticized the proposal, arguing that it 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 show."[47]

Following the hearings, the record industry introduced its standard Parental Advisory label, which took its current form (reading "Parental Advisory — Explicit Content") in 1994 following subsequent hearings. The label is applied to the cover art of songs or albums which may contain explicit content; the RIAA officially recommends that the label be affixed to albums or singles 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 scheme by not stocking albums carrying the label.[48][47]

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.[49][50][51][52] Several Madonna videos had also been banned or censored by the channel, including the sexually-explicit "Justify My Love" and "Erotica". Due to its violent content, "What It Feels Like for a Girl" premiered on MTV and sister channel VH1 in a late-night screening, but was never played in regular rotation. Oxygen subsequently announced that it would provide airplay for the video.[53][54]

On February 1, 2004 during the MTV-produced Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, Janet Jackson's breast was exposed by Justin Timberlake at the conclusion of the show, in an apparent "wardrobe malfunction".[55] In response to the show, as well as other recent incidents surrounding "fleeting expletives" in live television programming, 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,[56] while MTV moved several videos with sexually suggestive imagery to late-night hours.[57] Viacom, which owned MTV, CBS, and the radio station group Infinity Broadcasting at the time, also blacklisted Jackson and her music from its properties (including her scheduled appearance at the CBS-broadcast Grammy Awards, one week after the Super Bowl), The blacklisting caused Janet Jackson's album Damita Jo, which was released the following month, to underperform due to the suppression.[55]

United Kingdom[edit]

The British Phonographic Industry (BPI), an organization representing the United Kingdom's record industry, has adopted the RIAA's Parental Advisory label programme in the region. In July 2011, the BPI published guidance for use of the logo on digital music streaming platforms.[58] The regulator Ofcom has the ability to reprimand broadcasters for playing songs and music videos that breach its guidelines on harmful or offensive content pre-watershed.[59][60]

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.[61] The Kinks' "Lola" was briefly banned due to the BBC's anti-product placement rules, as it references the brand name Coca-Cola. In the midst of a U.S. tour, the band's lead singer Ray Davies flew back to London to re-record the offending lyric as "cherry cola".[62][63]

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. The song was banned by the BBC and all independent 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 had been changed that week to not count 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.[64][65][66]

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.[67] In January 1984, the BBC restricted "Relax" to evening airplay, following an incident on 11 January where Radio 1 DJ Mike Read protested the "obscene" lyrics on-air and personally banned the song from his show. 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 track, causing it to become the number-one song in Britain only two weeks later.[68][1][67]

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. 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."[69][70]

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)".[71][72] For the same reasons, Ofcom deemed the song's music video to be unfit for broadcast pre-watershed.[60]

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)[73] 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.[74][75]

"Liar Liar GE2017", a song critical of prime minister Theresa May, was suppressed by all British radio stations in order to comply with broadcasting regulations in force during electoral campaigns—specifically the 2017 general election.[76]


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