What Radio Censorship Says About America
Last month, Barrett Brown's legal counsel sent us a letter from their imprisoned client, who was at the time bored out of his mind in jail. Today we recieved another missive from Barrett, this time exploring the contradictions of cencorship in America, and what it says about our citizenry.
The fact that certain words are still bleeped out on the radio strikes me as a sort of historical oversight. It seems like one of those practices that should have been ended by previous generations, like prohibitions on sending birth control information through the federal mail, or the obligatory depiction of married couples as sleeping in separate beds on network television. The Baby Boomers probably intended to deal with radio censorship, but then they got caught up with Vietnam, and then Watergate, and then Star Wars came out, and before you knew it it was the 80s and nobody was into social liberalization anymore. Long story short—it's 2013 and you still can't say "fuck" on the airwaves without getting fined by the Federal Communications Commission.
I know what you're thinking: Is the de facto FCC-driven ban on "explicit lyrics" over the national airwaves really the huge deal he's about to try to make it, or is this guy just an idle rabble-rouser with too much time on his hands? Or both? To answer these questions, we should probably get a sense of what, specifically, we are talking about when we refer to "the de facto FCC-driven ban on explicit lyrics." Luckily, I've spent a good portion of the last year compulsively listening to the radio and taking notes whenever a word is bleeped out, so we have some research to go on. (And, just for the record, yes, I do have too much time on my hands.)
Before we look at the specifics, it should be noted that the blame for what we're about to find doesn't lie entirely with the FCC. Although it is a state entity that practices coercion through its ability to fine and shut down broadcasters, it is of course not the only factor that goes into a given broadcaster's policies regarding what does and doesn't make it on the airwaves. If the FCC were to disappear tomorrow, for example, networks would not start filling their primetime lineups with lesbian pornography. Likewise, some of the "bleeps" and word substitutions on the radio aren't even necessary to avoid FCC fines, but are instead done because some company executive has the vague sense that advertisers might find such content offensive. That matters solely because the advertisers in turn have the vague sense that consumers might find such content offensive and so direct their demented rage toward the advertiser. And thus it is that the totality of radio censorship in the U.S. is a messy-yet-comprehensive indicator of the national psyche, as represented not only by what our state bans, but also what our commercial institutions fear and what is believed to be upsetting to our people. It is, all in all, an across-the-board index of the American character.
And what if it reveals the American character to be psychotic?
Let us calibrate with some help from Sublime. If the reader has the ill-fortune to recall the 90s, he or she will no doubt also remember that Sublime song that goes, "Lovin' is what I got." I'm guessing it's entitled "Lovin' (Is What I've Got)" or something. This obnoxious little song proceeds apace until we reach the line:
“I can play the guitar like a motherfucking riot.”
...at which point the frontman proves this with a riot-y guitar solo. And as you would probably expect, the "fucking" in "motherfucking" is missing from the radio version. Well, certainly we can do without it, for the sake of the children.
Later the singer goes on to illustrate his imperturbability:
“I don't get angry when my mom smokes pot
Hits the bottle and goes right to the rock”
Here, both "pot" and "rock" are left out. Again, we can probably get over this pretty quickly. The kids, etc. We don't want the kids smoking marijuana and crack rocks trying to imitate their hero, the lead singer of Sublime's mom. If they want to hit the bottle a little, though, that might be OK, because we're pretty hip parents. Maybe we'll give them a bit of wine next time we have one of our little dinner parties. Oh, come on, honey, the Europeans do it. Don't be that way.
Now let's look at a song by Weezer that appears on the very same station. The song is called "Hash Pipe," and it is about a hash pipe. It includes the refrain "I got my hash pipe," and otherwise consists of the vocalist going on and on about the virtues of his precious hash pipe. Unlike the word "pot," "hash pipe" is not censored at all. So what gives? What was all that bullshit about the kids? Maybe the thinking is: We're not too worried about kids getting their hands on hash, which after all is pretty exotic. If they've got access to hash in the first place, they're probably already in that phase where they're hanging out with Arab drug dealers, staying up all night taking acid, and using a Ouija board to communicate with djinn. They're just, like, on that journey, man, so let it play out. Let it all play out. Probably that's what the thinking is on that.
Otherwise we've got ourselves a big, glaring contradiction.
But maybe you're not sold. Perhaps a bit of inconsistency is to be expected here and there across any censorship policy, and surely it would be ungenerous to just malign an entire nation over some small discrepancies. Fair enough. On the other hand, I've got my little heart set on maligning an entire nation, plus I've already written that whole introduction and everything, so let us reach an accommodation. I am so superbly confident of the demonstrable psychosis of the American people that I will now proceed to prove my point entirely within the context of Sublime tracks and the manner in which they're censored. What's more, I will limit my case to a mere two Sublime songs beyond the one we've already examined.
We'll start with "Santaria," which still gets plenty of play on the nation's "alternative rock" stations. To the extent that the song is about anything in particular, it deals with the protagonist's angst over his girlfriend having left him for some guy:
“If I could find my Hannah
And that Sancho that she's found
Well I'd pop a cap in Sancho
And I'd slap her down”
“And I won't think twice to stick that barrel
straight down Sancho's throat
Believe me when I say that
I've got something for his punk-ass”
None of this is censored, because it's not like he's singing about smoking pot or anything. He simply wants to beat up his ex-girlfriend and murder his romantic rival. If the kids can't groove to that, fuck 'em.
Finally, I present for your consideration "Wrong Way," in which the stage is set as such:
“Danni's 12 years old
In two more she'll be a whore
Nobody ever told her
It's the wrong way”
...and so on and so forth. But hapless Danni isn't headed for whoredom in a vacuum. We're provided with the following exculpatory background:
“The only family that she's ever had
Were her seven horny brothers
And a drunk-ass dad”
But hark! Here, the "ass" in "drunk-ass" is silenced out in radio play. On the one hand, we don't want to darken the innocence of the kids, who are just trying to listen to the song about the child prostitute without having their virgin ears assaulted with filth. On the other hand, you may recall that the phrase "punk-ass," as applied to intended murder victim Sancho, was left intact. I don't think I could think up even a facetious explanation as to why "punk-ass" is OK but "drunk-ass" simply must be censored.
“A cigarette rests between her lips
But I'm staring at her tits
It's the wrong way
Strong if I can
But I am only a man
So I take her to the can
It's the wrong way”
Here, the word "tits" has been removed. Finally, then, we've found at least a modicum of consistency, a sense of the rule of law, if only within the context of this one song—between "tits" and "ass," clearly we're not going to do references to secondary sexual characteristics in "Wrong Way." So that's something, at least. BY THE WAY, DID YOU CATCH THE PART WHERE HE TAKES THE CHILD PROSTITUTE TO THE BATHROOM SO HE CAN FUCK HER?
In conclusion, they should let me out of jail.