On Popular Music: Censorship

I first became interested in popular musical censorship sometime in the early 2000s. I had moved from Western Massachusetts to Northern California, and was riding in my car with a friend when the song “Date Rape” came on the air.

“Here’s that new Sublime song,” I said.

“This isn’t new,” he answered. “It’s been out for a while.”

“Oh,” I answered. “Well, it couldn’t have been that long; I only just started hearing it.”

“It came out years ago,” he assured me.

But I had never heard it, and on consideration I put together a hypothesis as to why. It had to be because the song simply didn’t get airplay in my conservative area of New England. It was evidently not because Sublime was locally unpopular; they were popular enough for me to immediately recognize “Date Rape” as theirs, although I did not own any of their albums. And so it seemed highly likely that the mysterious absence of the song from my northeastern airwaves must have been the result of local censorship.

It was not, of course, the first time I’d heard music censored. Swearing in popular music was still pretty uncommon in the nineties, but there were definitely stations which played kinder, gentler versions of certain music. So, for example, one might hear Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” with the section about the “little red panties” expunged, which undoubtedly made it more palatable when they decided to use it in The Tigger Movie (go figure). Interestingly, though, I never heard the “crystal meth” portion cut out until I got to California. Perhaps the drug was already popular here then; I was barely aware of it at that time myself, so perhaps there was a coastal disparity in its perceived threat. But after that I began to notice regional disparities in popular music and how it’s censored – I heard, for example, the “hash” silenced out of Weezer’s “Hash Pipe” somewhere in the Midwest when it was first released – and more recently it was brought to my attention in a rather startling fashion when I was in a department store in Salinas, and found that the following line from Kashmir’s “Brokenhearted” had been replaced with an instrumental on the store stereo:

Sippin’ on my Patron just to calm my nerves.

Wow, I thought, really? You can’t refer to Patron in department store music? I assumed this was an alcohol and not a brand issue, but given what plays on the radio nowadays, I was amazed. Anyway, so this inspired me to start keeping track of these weird little instances – not the bleeping of ordinary swear words, mind, but the unusual or inconsistent stuff – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it long ago. But here is my list, such as it is, all involving songs I have heard on the radio this year.

Flo Rida ft. Sia, “Wild Ones”: One Northern California station plays a shortened version, eliminating the lines:
Show you another side of me
A side you would never thought you would see
Tear up that body, dominate you till you’ve had enough
I can’t lie, the wilds don’t lie

I have never heard this station shorten any other song, so I have to imagine that it’s a content and not a length issue. The other stations of the same format play the song in full.

Pitbull ft. Ne Yo, Nayer, Afrojack, “Tonight”: In the line “My family’s from Cuba, but I’m an American, I don’t get money like Seacrest,” I heard the word Seacrest bleeped on a Los Angeles radio station in July. Really. The line on Lindsay Lohan remained intact, though. I’m not sure whether that means she outranks him in this station’s eyes or vice versa.

Flo Rida, “Whistle”: One Northern California station – not, incidentally, the same one that plays the short version of “Wild Ones” – censors the “damn” out of the line:

It’s a d**n shame, pulled a d**n hamstring tryin’ to put it on ya.

Now, if you’re familiar with the song, which is incredibly sexually graphic, you know that this cannot have been done for the sake of the children. But I wonder whether there are still people who adhere with particular attention to the idea that “damn,” unlike other swear words, is a blasphemy, for although I don’t recall the song involved, I also heard “goddamn” replaced with “doggone” on an L.A. station this summer. Talking about fellatio, after all, won’t get you sent to hell.

Finally, I’d like to close with two songs which, like my Sublime example, appear to be subject to some form of local bias, for although several months have passed since I first heard them on the radio in the L.A. area, I have yet to hear them on the Northern California airwaves: Cash Out’s “Cashin’ Out” and Young Jeezy’s (ft. Ne Yo) “Leave You Alone.” Now, I don’t know for certain that either of these songs does not, in fact, get airplay here, but if they do, I haven’t heard them, and it does seem to me strange that I have not heard “Cashin’ Out” north of Santa Cruz nor “Leave You Alone” north of Ventura County, particularly considering that I heard both songs down south in the context of a countdown of popular music. It would make more sense if these were artists indigenous to the L.A. area; it did not surprise me, for instance, that I did not hear Kreayshawn’s “Go Hard” while down south, as she is an Oakland artist. It is certainly possible that these tunes are deemed members of a different genre here, and play only on certain stations, but I suspect there are likely other factors at work. The California/Massachusetts thing I can understand, but what possible explanation could there be for such a disparity between two major metropolitan areas in the same state? You tell me.

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