1980s

USA, CANADA    Click to go to main page of Freemusepedia

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1980 – 1989

1985. USA.
The most prominent group in the history of music censorship in the US, the Parents Music Resource Group, PMRG, is formed in Washington DC by Tipper Gore, wife of then-senator Al Gore, and Susan Baker. The PRMG’s primary focus is to convince record companies to monitor and rate artists’ releases with a system similar to the MPAA system for movies. Their efforts spark a renewed interest by a variety of groups to censor music and lyrics – interest that runs high for longer than five years. The organisation’s name is later changed to the Parents Music Resource Center.

August 1987. USA. The Dead Kennedy’s
Jello Biafra, leader of the punk group The Dead Kennedy’s, is acquitted of distributing pornography. The case involves the artwork by H.R. Giger, featured on the band’s ‘Frankenchrist’ album. Biafra is prosecuted after an attorney’s daughter bought a copy of the record for her brother as a Christmas present. Copies of the album are seized and destroyed.

1989-1993. USA. 2 Live Crew and Too Much Joy
In one of the most famous American music censorship cases, police in Dade County, Florida, set up a sting to arrest three retailers who were selling copies of a record by 2 Live Crew to children under the age of 18. Objections to 2 Live Crew had started with the break-through of their hit ‘Me So Horny’. Similar prosecutions regarding 2 Live Crew record sales occurred in Alabama and Tennessee. No prosecutions resulted in standing convictions, though.
Members of 2 Live Crew were also prosecuted for performing the material live in concert. In 1990, the New York rock band Too Much Joy played a show in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, two months after 2 Live Crew had been arrested for performing “obscene material” in the same club. Too Much Joy played a set entirely of 2 Live Crew material and was summarily arrested. The case was thrown out of court.
In another case, which started in 1989, the controversial 2 Live Crew recorded a parody of the Orbison song ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’, using the alternate title ‘Pretty Woman’ for their album ‘Clean As They Wanna Be’. The 2 Live Crew sampled the distinctive bassline from the Orbison song, but the romantic lyrics were replaced by talk about a hairy woman and her bald-headed friend and their appeal to the singer, as well as denunciation of a “two-timing woman.” Orbison’s publisher, Acuff-Rose Music, sued 2 Live Crew on the basis that the fair use doctrine did not permit reuse of their copyrighted material for profit. The case, Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decided in 2 Live Crew’s favour, greatly expanding the doctrine of ‘fair use’ and extending its protections to parodies created for profit. This was considered a seminal ‘fair use’ decision.

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A more extensive list of censorship incidents in the USA 1950-2000 was created by Eric Nuzum. See below, or see: web.archive.org/ericnuzum.com/banned/

1980
Fearing association with its theme, Mercury Records refuses to release Frank Zappa’s single “I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted.”

A representative of the New York State Division of Substance Abuse Services suggests a tax on musicians whose songs promote drug use.

In October, Youth Minister Art Diaz organizes a group of local teenagers who conduct a record burning at the First Assembly Church of God in Des Moines, Iowa, including albums by the Beatles, Ravi Shankar, Peter Frampton, and the soundtrack to the movie Grease. A similar burning takes place a few months later in Keoku, Iowa, where a church group burns the work of The Carpenters, John Denver, and Perry Como.

1981
A municipal judge in Newark, Ohio, bans rock concerts at the Legend Valley Park because they pose a public nuisance.

Believing that rock condones drug abuse and promiscuous sex, Carroll, Iowa, nightclub owner Jeff Jochims renounces his transgressions and sets fire to $2,000 worth of rock records.

The morals of Provo and Salt Lake City residents are saved when two radio stations ban Olivia Newton John’s hit single “Physical.” The stations fear that the song’s lyrics may be a bit too suggestive much for their heavily Mormon audiences.

1982
Ozzy Osbourne is forbidden from performing in San Antonio, Texas, after he is arrested for urinating on the Alamo. Osbourne’s various legal troubles also prevent him from playing in several other cities, including Boston, Baton Rouge, Corpus Christi, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia and Scranton, Pennsylvania.

California assemblyman Phil Wyman introduces a bill to outlaw the practice of including subliminal messages in rock records.

1983
Roger Wilcher, a Baptist youth minister in Emporia, Virginia, petitions the city council to remove MTV from the local cable system.

Voice of America programmer Frank Scott issues a directive to staff that they are not permitted to play music which might offend any portion of their audience.

1984
Rick Allen and his wife express concerns over a Prince album to their local PTA meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. This action started the mid-80s music censorship movement that eventually results in the RIAA universal parental warning sticker.

Following a complaint by Wal-Mart, PolyGram Records changes the cover of the Scorpions’ Love At First Sting. The original features a partially nude couple locked in an embrace; the man is giving the woman a tattoo on her thigh.

In May, popular Surgeon General C. Everett Koop speaks out against rock music when he insists that rock video fans have been “saturated with what I think is going to make them have trouble having satisfying relationships with the opposite sex … when you’re raised with rock music that uses both pornography and violence.”

Dade Christian School in Miami, Florida, forbids students from attending a local concert by the Jackson Brothers, because they fear it will lead the youth to use drugs, drink, behave irresponsibly, and participate in lewd dancing. Any student who attends the concert is guaranteed fifteen demerits.

Critics call for boycotts of Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. after it is widely rumored that the cover depicts “the Boss” urinating on an American Flag.

After issuing a report on the violence in music videos, in December the National Coalition on Television Violence calls for the federal government to regulate rock music on television.

1985
The parents of John McCullom sue Ozzy Osbourne, claiming that his song “Suicide Solution” “aided, or advised, or encouraged” their son to commit suicide. The judge in the case decides that overt lyrics are protected speech and that evidence is insufficient to connect the song to the suicide.

Following attacks from a conservative group lead by the Reverend Jimmy Swaggert, Wal-Mart discontinues sales of all major rock magazines such as Rolling Stone, Hard Rock, Spin, and Tiger Beat.

The group “Women Against Pornography” provides a lecture program in public high schools about “the sexist and violent content of rock videos.”

Provo, Utah, apartment complex owner and Mormon bishop Leo Weidner bans MTV from his tenant’s apartments. Weidner says music videos are “pornographic” and feels they are harmful to his tenants. Weidner later admits that he has never seen a music video.

Following a meeting at St. Columbia’s Church in Washington, D.C. in early May, Tipper Gore, Susan Baker, and twenty wives of influential Washington politicians and businessmen form the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The PMRC’s goals are to lobby the music industry for: lyrics printed on album covers; explicit album covers kept under the counter; a records ratings system that is similar to that used for films; a ratings system for concerts; reassessment of contracts for those performers who engage in violence and explicit sexual behavior on stage; and a media watch by citizens and record companies that will pressure broadcasters to not air “questionable talent.”

Christian rock band DeGarmo & Key see their video for “Six, Six, Six.” banned by the channel because their music video is too violent.

MCA Records sends radio stations an urgent letter that encourages them to stop playing Al Hudson’s “Let’s Talk.” The company fears they may be subject to obscenity prosecutions because of the song’s sexually suggestive lyrics.

After receiving a letter from the PMRC expressing their concerns over rock lyrics, Eddie Fritts, head of the National Association of Broadcasters, writes a letter to the heads of forty-five major record companies. In his letter, Fritts requests that lyrics sheets accompany all songs released to radio.

The PMRC writes to music industry presidents and CEOs and requests a rating system for music lyrics and imagery. The letter contains a list of the “filthy fifteen” (the artists initially targeted by the PMRC), those artists are AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Cyndi Lauper, Def Leppard, Judas Priest, Madonna, Mary Jane Girls, Mercyful Fate, Motley Crüe, Prince, Sheena Easton, Twisted Sister, Vanity, Venom, and W.A.S.P.

During an addresses at the New York Television Academy, televangelist and presidential candidate Pat Robertson calls for content regulation of rock music on radio and television.

Determining that music videos are “decadent, moraly degrading, and evil,” two women in the Boston suburb of Weymouth, Massachusetts, petition city officials to eliminate MTV from their local cable system.

Under the leadership of mayor (and future Clinton cabinet member) Henry Cisneros, city officials in San Antonio, Texas, pass an ordinance forbidding children under the age of fourteen from attending rock concerts at any city-owned facility.

At the urging of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation holds hearings on music lyrics and proposed systems to rate or sticker albums that contain violent or sexually-themed lyrics on Septmber 19th. Representatives from the PMRC and National PTA, Senator Paula Hawkins, and Dr. Joe Stuessy speak in support of regulating music, while three musicians – Frank Zappa, Dee Snider (of Twisted Sister), and John Denver – speak in defense of popular music.

In October, President Ronald Reagan insinuates that “reactionary” and “obscene” rock music does not deserve Constitutional protection. Reagan states “I don’t believe that our Founding Fathers ever intended to create a nation where the rights of pornographers would take precedence over the rights of parents, and the violent and malevolent would be given free rein to prey upon our children.”

American Bandstand producers refuse to let Sheena Easton perform her hit song “Sugar Walls” because it has been targeted by the PMRC.

In November, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) strikes a deal with the National PTA and the PMRC to create a universal parental warning sticker that will be placed on all albums containing graphic depictions of sex and/or violence.

William Steding, vice-president of KAFM in Dallas, forms the National Music Review Council, whose mission is to inform broadcasters and parents about music that features controversial themes and lyrics.

The title of Marvin Gaye’s song “Sanctified Pussy” is changed to “Sanctified Lady” for a posthumous release, Dream of a Lifetime.

Columbia Records wraps the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work in dull red plastic, hiding certain words and song titles.

1986
In February, CBS Music sets a strict, yet vague, company-wide policy regarding explicit lyrics. The policy is meant to dissuade artists from releasing any albums that may be deemed “controversial.”

After complaints from groups such as the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Cure requests that radio stations pull “Killing An Arab” from airplay.

Meyer Music Markets places an “explicit lyrics” warning sticker on Frank Zappa’s Jazz from Hell – even though the album is entirely instrumental.

First Lady Nancy Reagan withdraws her support for an eleven-hour anti-drug rock concert because promoters refuse to drop certain acts who are targets of the PMRC.

The families of two young men sue the British heavy metal band Judas Priest, alleging their 1978 album Stained Class encouraged the young men to commit suicide.

Maryland Delegate Judith Toth introduces legislation aimed at amending the state’s obscenity statutes to include records, tapes, and laser discs.

Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys is charged with violating section 313.1 (“Distribution of Harmful Materials to Minors”) of the California state penal code for a poster included in the band’s Frankenchrist LP. The offending poster contains a painting by noted Swiss artist H.R. Giger (best known for his Academy Award winning art design work for the 1980 film Alien) entitled, “Landscape #20, Where Are We Coming From?” The painting features about a dozen sets of interlocked male and female genitalia. After a court battle, the charges are dropped.

1987
Fearing eviction, many mall retailers refuse to carry new releases containing the word “fuck” in the title.

A part-time record clerk is arrested in April in Callaway, Florida, for selling a copy of 2 Live Crew’s album 2 Live Is What We Are to a fourteen year old boy.

Radio stations in Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Denver, and New York ban George Michael’s single “I Want Your Sex” because of its explicit sexual content.

In an attempt to thwart an upcoming concert by the Beastie Boys, the city of Jacksonville, Florida, passes an ordinance in August that requires all “adult” acts to put a “For Mature Audiences Only” notice on all concert tickets and advertisements.

An unidentified congressperson commissions a study by the Congressional Research Service to determine if Congress has the Constitutional authority to regulate albums that contain explicit lyrics by restricting their sale.

MTV refuses to air the video for the Replacements “The Ledge” because executives fear it may encourage teens to commit suicide.

1988
Some retailers refuse to stock Nothing’s Shocking, Jane’s Addiction’s debut album for Warner Brothers, because of its cover.

A faculty advisor, at a Newark, New Jersey, student radio station yanks all heavy metal from the station’s playlists in April because he fears it will cause young listeners to commit suicide.

The co-owner of Taking Home the Hits in Alexandria, Alabama, is arrested in June for selling 2 Live Crew’s Move Somethin’ to an undercover police officer.

After initially agreeing to broadcast the world premiere of Neil Young’s “This Note’s For You” on July 1st, MTV refuses to air the video clip. MTV eventually reconsiders the matter and begins airing the video.

Retailers across the country refuse to carry Prince’s Love Sexy, protesting the record’s cover, which contains a nude, yet unrevealing, photograph of Prince.

Protestors in Santa Cruz, California, picket retailers carrying Guns ‘N Roses’ debut album Appetite for Destruction, despite the fact that the offensive cover art has already been replaced.

1989
In January, Yusef Islam, better known as folk singer Cat Stevens, is misquoted regarding the Ayatollah Khomeni’s call for the death of The Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie. Following press reports of the statement pronouncement, radio stations across the U.S. pull his records from play. Radio talk show host Tom Leykis runs a steam roller over a collection of Cat Stevens records in protest.

The City Council of New Iberia, Louisiana, enacts an emergency ordinance that adds music to the list of materials that must be kept from view of unmarried people under age 17.

The RIAA releases its black and white universal parental warning sticker in early March that reads, “Explicit Lyrics – Parental Warning.”

A Pepsi commercial set to Madonna’s song “Like A Prayer” is pulled after one airing because religious groups are offended by the song’s accompanying video.

Guns ‘N Roses are cut from the New York AIDS benefit “Rock And A Hard Place,” because of the lyrics to their song “One In A Million.”

Following complaints about Cher’s video for “If I Could Turn Back Time,” several video channels drop or restrict the music clip.

MTV refuses to air a Fuzztones video that contains an oblique reference to condoms. MTV demands that the lyric “rubbers” (an antiquated term for foul-weather footwear) be changed to “raincoat” before it will air the video.

The Hastings Record Store chain institutes a policy that states certain rap and rock titles cannot be sold to minors in its 130 stores nationwide.

The Pennsylvania house passes a bill requiring a warning label on all albums with explicit lyrics. The Pennsylvania legislators place the burden of enforcement (and criminal liability) on the backs of local retailers.

The Federal Communications Commission launches a campaign to clean up a backlog of radio obscenity complaints, handing out thousands of dollars in fines to stations in order to discourage them from playing risqué music.

Officials at the FBI write to gangsta rap group N.W.A. in August, informing the performers that the bureau does not appreciate their song “Fuck Tha Police.”

Also in August, MTV enacts a policy that a lyric sheet must accompany all videos submitted to the network. The network rejects videos it feels endorses or promotes violence, illegal drugs, excessive alcohol consumption, or explicit depictions of sexual practices.

After protests from the gay community in September, Los Angeles radio station KDAY pulls from rotation the song “Truly Yours,” by Kool G. Rap and D.J. Polo from rotation.

In Texarkana, Texas, city officials force the Dimension Cable Service to offer channel-blockers to prevent MTV from entering the homes of concerned families. After the channel-blockers are offered free of charge to Dimension’s 22,000 subscribers, only 40 units are requested by customers.

 

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