April 10, 2011

Censorship: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

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Censorship of music takes various forms, the most common being the “radio edit.” The songs you hear on the radio are usually different from album versions in terms of length, but most importantly they sanitize them for public consumption, with “inappropriate” words bleeped or dropped out completely. This can be especially annoying with songs containing multiple expletives, like many rap songs, which end up butchered. It is also frustrating when tame lyrics that somehow get soccer moms up in a bunch can be edited and unrightfully tarnish an otherwise great song.

Often, censorship actually brings even more attention to the inappropriate word. In a way, the silence or bleeping becomes more noticeable than the vulgarity of the word itself. Children will notice, and they will use their imaginations to fill in the blanks, look it up on the Internet, or hear it from their friends. Now, the word becomes more taboo and children are more interested or even feel rebellious saying it. I remember the censoring of “Hollaback Girl” in seventh-grade — having “this my –“ on a radio edit repeated a billion times draws more attention that the missing word is “shit.” Of course, it also became a chant among my peers, which may not have happened otherwise. A change in the lyrics, not a bleep, would be more productive.

It’s even more frustrating to a listener when misheard words can be censored. In Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down,” apparently “pimp ship” sounds like “pimp shit” so, thanks to the dirty minds of certain alarmist listeners, the “ship” is bleeped out on the radio edit. The missing word is now terribly obvious, and any interested child can fill in the blanks. If the word went unchanged, probably not as many people would have noticed. If you tell someone to look for something in a song, they will hear it. Listening to “Stairway to Heaven” backwards you can hear the satanic lyrics if you have prior knowledge, but otherwise its simply gibberish. Censoring misheard words draws more attention than it’s worth and is ultimately counterproductive.

Sometimes there are actual hidden messages in songs meant to get past the censors. The best example of this is Britney Spears’ “If U Seek Amy.” However, in the context of the song, the meaning is not terribly obvious unless you listen specifically for it. The track itself is pretty nonsensical even without the “If You See Amy” edit. If anything, the forced nature of the new phrase brings more attention to the intended verse. The whole media hooplah caused by the censoring of the track brought even more attention to the hidden meaning such that any child would have heard about it. Of course, in most other nations the track went uncensored. Once again, censoring was counterproductive.

The case for censorship would be stronger if decency standards set by government agencies that control the radio were more standardized. The guidelines are obviously weak since the same words are censored in some songs rather than others. “Pissed” is not censored when it usually means angry, like in Papa Roach’s “Scars.” However, if taken literally, it is censored, like in Nicki Minaj’s single “Did It On Em.” What this accomplishes for parents who don’t want their kids corrupted, I have no idea. I’d expect parents would want their kids finding another way to express their angry feelings rather than saying “I’m pissed,” but apparently that’s okay on the radio while the other meaning is not.  There needs to be a standard system of words that cannot be used, which should disregard the context of the word completely.

I’m not advocating a completely clean radio policy, however.  There are some songs that need to be censored. Case in point being Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You.” It is legitimate to argue for the maintenance of many words that are censored, but “Fuck” isn’t going to win you many supporters. Honestly, I don’t have that much of a problem hearing the “Forget You” version on the radio, although I really don’t see why “F.U.” isn’t a viable alternative. In the age of the internet and YouTube, kids will have access to the uncensored versions — we’ve all been there. Parents should educate their children on the appropriateness of words instead of the radio doing all the talking through silence.

Still, the censorship of “Forget You” is the perfect example of a successful radio edit. Lyrical changes like this should be the norm. Silence and bleeping, on the other hand, only draw more attention to expletives. Although slightly changing lyrics repeatedly in one song may prove cumbersome to artists, they have a general idea of what words will not be allowed on the radio when recording it. With the addition of a standardized system, the censorship process will be easier on artists and listeners alike.

Original Author: Matt Samet