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Censorship of music

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Censorship of music

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Censorship of music, the practice of censoring music from the public, may take the form of partial or total censorship with the latter banning the music entirely. The music in question may be a song, or part thereof, a collection of songs (such as a particular album) or a genre of music.

While songs and albums have been banned in the past it has become less common in western countries. However, the censorship of particular words deemed as profanity is still commonplace.


Censorship of pop music

Airplay Censorship

An early example of censorship of music on the radio is from the 1940s. George Formby's "When I'm Cleaning Windows" was banned from BBC radio due to the "smutty lyrics", though his wife Beryl managed to change their minds [1]. The offending lyrics were:

"The blushing bride she looks divine,
The bridegroom he is doing fine,
I'd rather have his job than mine,
When I'm cleaning windows."

A classic example of partial censorship in the UK is the single "God Save the Queen", by the Sex Pistols, released by Virgin Records on 27 May 1977. The sale of this single, that coincided with the Queen's silver jubilee celebrations, was not banned. However, the track was barred for airplay on BBC's Radio 1, then the most popular radio channel in the UK. This public service broadcaster censored this single, that reached number two in the charts, because of its lyrics. It is rumoured that the single actually reached number one, but that this was suppressed in a further act of censorship. The band was harassed by police while performing the song on a boat on the Thames. See the entry for Sid Vicious and god save the queen, on the Sex pistols page.

"God save the Queen, this is a fascist regime."

Another song famously banned by Radio 1 was "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood in 1983 because the lyrics "when you're gonna come" were seen to refer to the climax of the sexual act. In a famous incident Radio 1 disc jockey Mike Read took the record off the turntable and broke it in two. After this, but without consulting Read, Radio 1 decided to ban the record. As a result the record went straight to number one, where it stayed for five weeks.

1981, the International Year of Disabled People, saw the BBC ban Ian Dury's "Spasticus Autisticus" until after dark. Drury, who himself had suffered from polio, had written the song as a positive message for people with disabilities. The chorus' refrain, "I'm spasticus, autisticus", was inspired by the response of the rebelling gladiators of Rome who (at least in the version of the story as portrayed in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus), all answered to the name of their leader, "I am Spartacus", to protect him.

The Beastie Boys received mass publicity when they arrived in the UK in 1987. Headline stories of their activities in bars and hotel rooms, along with a tour containing dancers in cages and a large inflatable penis, led to massive sales of their "Fight for your Right to Party". The video, showing the three members of the band invade and trash a party, was subsequently banned by Top of the Pops due to its portrayal of "loutish behaviour".

Word censorship

In order to allow songs to be played wherever possible it is common to censor particular words, particularly profanity. Some labels produce censored versions themselves, sometimes with alternative lyrics, to comply with the rules set by various radio and television programmes. Some channels decide to censor them themselves using one of six methods:

  • Blanking; when the volume is set to zero for all or part of the word
  • Bleeping; playing a noise, usually a "beep", over all or part of the word
  • Resampling; using a like-sounding portion of vocals and music to override the offending word
  • Resinging; removing the word or part of the word and keep the instrumental part of the song
  • Backmasking; simply taking the offending word and reversing the audio. Sometimes the whole audio is reversed, most times only the vocal track is reversed.
  • Skipping; Just deleting the word from the song without a time delay

The censorship of some of the less common swear words or obvious innuendo may differ between channels. The word ho in Gwen Stefani's "What You Waiting For" was censored by some channels (for example MTV) while not by others (such as BBC Radio 1). Also, Stefani's song Hollaback Girl, where the word shit is repeated over 30 times, got heavily censored on English-speaking countries, and surprisingly, also on the Brazilian radios (as an ironic way to criticise the censorship on English-speaking world. On most radio staions it was ok to remove the "it" part of the word and leave the "sh" part in. Likewise some channels censored the line "keep her coming every night" in Maroon 5's "This Love" because of the inference of the word cuming, a term for sexual climax.

The Anarcho-punk band, Crass, hit controversy when a record pressing plant refused to press the song, "Asylum", accusing them of blasphemy. Instead, they had a blank space with silence, which the band humourously dubbed "The sound of Free Speech" in protest. Their protest song against the Falklands war, Sheep Farming in The Falkland Islands, faced calls from a Conservative MP to be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications act 1959. The Times rock Critic said that it was "The most revolting and unnecessary record ever made", the irony being that the MP and critic were cousins.

Some words are censored not through their sexual or offensive nature but for other reasons. The 2001 release Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus had the word gun censored by some channels – it was felt that the line "He brings a gun to school" was inappropriate. Some channels also censored 2003's Gay Bar by Electric Six, removing the word war from the sentence "Let's start a war; start a nuclear war".

Rapper Kanye West's song Gold Digger repeatedly says niggasin the line "But she ain't messin with no broke niggas" and has been censored to say "But she ain't messin wit no broke broke" repeating the word before it.


Some artists or record labels choose to censor themselves in order to avoid negative publicity. This is sometimes due to the timing of events outside of their control, such as how the September 11, 2001 attacks affected audiovisual entertainment. The release and subsequent advertising of Michael Jackson's greatest hits album was delayed until after his 2005 trial – it is not known if a guilty verdict would have further changed the timing of the release.

Censorship in classical music

For many years Wagner and even Beethoven were never played in Israel, though they were not formally banned, because of their association with the Nazi era (even though both died long before the Nazis came to power), and Beethoven at least could not conceivably be considered to have held fascist or anti-semitic leanings. The conductor Sir Simon Rattle provoked controversy by performing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Israel. Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim has also done a great deal to make German classical music acceptable in Israel, but caused controversy on July 7th 2001 by conducting Wagner in Jerusalem. Unlike Beethoven, Wagner was an anti-semite. After protests by holocaust survivors and pressure from the Israeli government the original programme was changed in an act of self-censorship. Barenboim agreed not to play Wagner's Die Walküre, replacing it with pieces by Robert Schumann and Igor Stravinsky. At the end of the concert Barenboim announced his intention to play Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde as an encore, and that those who did not want to hear it should leave first. This statement was greeted with loud applause by the majority, and the disapproval of a minority. Barenboim was denounced as a fascist in the press, though some would argue that fascism was actually to be found in the act of censorship. Barenboim wanted to play the music because of the great quality of the music in itself.


The total censorship of a song is often reported in the mass media and often has the effect of drawing more attention to the song that it would have received had it not been banned. Equally, the censorship of a word can highlight it in to such a degree that it makes it more obvious what the singer has said.


  • Banned In The UK, Channel 4, 7 March 2005 – 10 March 2005

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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