Twenty-two and a half years ago, Frank Zappa sat down in a chair on a television set for a political debate show on a cable news network that was still fighting to be taken seriously. The previous fall, Zappa had appeared as a witness before a Congressional panel about the potential censorship of music that was found to contain questionable lyrical content or cover art. Zappa’s feelings about words, art and what exactly freedom of speech entails were laid out at the feet of one incredulous fellow guest and the somewhat amused, if not in agreement, co-hosts.
Music censorship is a curious topic as it does bring up the question of just how much words mean to people. Ignoring John Lofton’s automatic loss in the argument thanks to his citing of Hitler, does he not have a point that rhetoric, whether in poetic form or not, is a potential catalyst for socially irresponsible acts? Zappa argues that unrestricted speech is the only road that needs to be traveled. If you don’t want to hear something, don’t buy it, turn it off. But is he right to suggest that there not be any sort of ‘decency’ limits on public radio or television broadcasts? If we agree there’s a common set of standards, then, as Tom Braden asks Robert Novak at the end, “who’s to be the censor?” Who decides, by listening to something, that others aren’t allowed to hear it?
In the two decades since the adoption of the infamous warning stickers on records, the labels have become nothing more than a serving suggestion. To my knowledge, and correct me, fair readers, if you have had different experiences, a minor can purchase a record with that sticker on it without any sort of adult present. So what was really accomplished? I suppose that the sticker gives parents some guidelines to what the record might contain, but it isn’t very specific, unlike the Motion Picture Academy’s somewhat more helpful rating codes for films. Blur’s most recent album, Think Tank, received the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” label. Why? After listening to the album numerous times through, the only thing I could locate were a few specific references to illegal drugs. By this logic, should anyone under 21 be allowed to buy a John Lee Hooker album that contains “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer?”
At the very least, this video is another sober reminder of what a great mind and great champion rock and art lost when Frank Zappa died in 1993. Leave your thoughts on censorship in the comments below. words/j. neas