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Censorship in Music



Songs are commonly edited for broadcast on radio and television to remove content that may be considered objectionable to an outlet’s target audience—such as profanity, or references to subjects such as sex and drug usage. This is typically done to comply with any relevant broadcast law or codes of conduct, and to make the songs more marketable to a mainstream audience.[1][2] Songs edited for content in this manner by are often referred to as a “clean version” or a “radio edit” (the latter also referring to songs that may be edited for length on radio airplay, and in the past, space limitations on 45 RPM vinyl records).[3][4] Common editing techniques include distorting vocals to obscure offending words (including muting, bleeping, and backmasking), or replacing them with alternative lyrics.[5]

The amount of censorship required may vary between broadcasters, depending on standards and practices and their target audience; for example, Radio Disney imposes stricter content guidelines than conventional U.S. radio stations, as it primarily targets a youth audience and family listening.[4][2] By contrast, some radio stations may relegate unedited versions of tracks containing objectionable content to airplay during time periods deemed appropriate, such as late-night hours.[4] Joel Mullis, an Atlanta sound engineer who became well-known in the industry for his work on radio edits, noted that his job was often complicated by differing standards between broadcasters (such as BET and MTV), requiring different edits to meet their individual needs. Mullis’ edit of the Ying Yang Twins‘ “Wait (The Whisper Song)” was constructed by splicing in vocals from other Ying Yang Twins songs, but Mullis eventually had to bring the group back to his studio after facing demands for additional edits.[2]

In some cases, a record label may choose to withhold a release entirely if they believe that its subject matter would be too controversial; Ice-T and Paris both had gangsta rap albums withheld or indefinitely delayed by Warner Bros. Records over content concerns, with Ice-T’s Home Invasion delayed due to the 1992 Los Angeles riots and controversy over “Cop Killer“—a song by Ice-T’s metal band Body Count, and Paris’s Sleeping with the Enemy over its songs “Bush Killa” and “Coffee, Doughnuts, & Death”. Insane Clown Posse faced similar issues after they signed to Disney-owned Hollywood Records; despite compliance with the label’s demands to censor specific songs and lyrics, The Great Milenko was recalled almost immediately after its release (but not before selling 18,000 copies out of 100,000 shipped). All three acts moved to different labels (including Priority Records and Island Records), which released their respective albums without objections.[6][7][8][9]

Notable examples

Multiple edits of CeeLo Green‘s song “Fuck You” exist, including one which changed the titular lyric to “Forget You”, and one which muted “fuck” without replacing it. Green also performed a parody of the song about Fox News in an appearance on The Colbert Report.[10][11][12] The Black Eyed Peas re-wrote “Let’s Get Retarded”—a song from their album Elephunk, as “Let’s Get It Started” to serve as a promotional song for television coverage of the 2004 NBA Playoffs. “Let’s Get It Started” was subsequently released as a standalone single.[13][14] When performing his song “Power” on Saturday Night LiveKanye West similarly replaced an entire verse, which contained profanities as well as lyrics directly criticising the program (such as “Fuck SNL and the whole cast”) with newly-written lyrics.[15]

Songs containing potentially objectionable double entendres or mondegreens have also been subject to censorship. For example, the title and chorus of Britney Spears‘ single “If U Seek Amy” was intended to be misheard as “F-U-C-K me“; her label issued a radio edit which changed the word “seek” to “see”, in order to remove the wordplay.[16][17] Similar concerns were raised by radio stations over The Black Eyed Peas’ “Don’t Phunk With My Heart” upon its release, as the word “phunk” (a deliberate misspelling of “funk”) could be misinterpreted by listeners as sounding like the word “fuck”.[17] Meghan Trainor recorded an alternate version of her debut single “All About That Bass” for Radio Disney and conservative adult contemporary stations, which removed the song’s suggestive metaphors.[18][2]

Censorship of music is not limited to lyrical content; MTV edited the M.I.A. song “Paper Planes” to replace sounds of gunfire in its chorus with alternative sound effects, and remove a reference to cannabis. Similar sound edits occurred when M.I.A. performed the same song on Late Show with David Letterman (broadcast by then-corporate sibling CBS). M.I.A. subsequently criticized both MTV and Late Show for censoring her song.[1][19]


Some listeners have expressed dissatisfaction over the editing of songs for radio airplay, arguing that it compromises the artistic integrity of the original song, and encourage listeners to seek out alternative platforms that are not subject to such censorship, such as digital streaming. At the same time, edits are considered a necessary concession to receive the radio airplay that can influence a song’s overall performance.[2] N.W.A.‘s debut album Straight Outta Compton (which had attracted controversy for its song “Fuck tha Police“) contains a song entitled “Express Yourself“, which criticizes radio censorship of music as inhibiting free expression, and criticizes other rappers for releasing inoffensive songs that target radio airplay. Despite its themes, “Express Yourself” is the only song on the album to not contain profanities.[20]


Some songs may be pulled or downplayed by broadcasters if they are considered to be inappropriate to play in the aftermath of specific events.[21] After the September 11 attacks, program directors of the radio conglomerate [[iHeartMedia|Clear Channel] compiled an internal list of “lyrically questionable” songs, which included various songs with themes related to war, destruction, flight, or New York City, and all songs by Rage Against the MachineSlate noted several unusual choices on the list, including “Walk Like an Egyptian“, two Cat Stevens songs (Stevens had converted to the Islamic faith and changed his name to Yusuf Islam), and John Lennon‘s “explicitly pacifist anthem ‘Imagine‘”.[22][23]

In the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in February 2003, Mark Wills‘ “19 Somethin’” was temporarily pulled by some radio stations as it contains a lyric referencing the Challenger disaster.[24] Also that month, Madonna‘s then-upcoming music video for “American Life” generated controversy due to its politicized and “unpatriotic” imagery (such as a fashion show featuring women dressed in military equipment, and a scene where the singer throws a grenade-shaped lighter to a George W. Bush lookalike to light his cigar), which were considered to be especially sensitive in the wake of the Iraq war. Due to the negative response, Madonna pulled the video prior to its planned premiere, as she did not want to “risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video”.[25][26]

In 2006, after Gary Glitter was convicted of child sexual abuse in Vietnam, the National Football League banned the original recording of his song “Rock and Roll” (which was popularly played at U.S. sporting events)[27] from being played at its games. While the NFL still allowed a cover version of the song to be played, in 2012 the league instructed its teams to “avoid” playing the song entirely, following negative reception from British media over its continued use by the New England Patriots, and the possibility it could be played during Super Bowl XLVI.[28][29]

In 2009, after Chris Brown alleged physical altercation with his then-girlfriend Rihanna, various radio stations began to voluntarily pull Brown’s music from their playlists as a condemnation of his actions.[30][31] In December 2013, HMV removed the entire catalogue of Lostprophets from its stores after the band’s lead singer Ian Watkins was charged with thirteen sexual offences against children.[32]

Legal issues

Songs and albums may, in some cases, be censored due to copyright problems (particularly related to sampling) or other legal issues. The JAMs album 1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?) was withdrawn from distribution following complaints by ABBA, whose music was sampled on the album without permission.[33] The Notorious B.I.G.‘s album Ready to Die was similarly pulled following a lawsuit by Bridgeport Music over unauthorized samples.[34][35]

By request of Atlantic Records, parody musician “Weird Al” Yankovic did not commercially release “You’re Pitiful“—his parody of James Blunt‘s song “You’re Beautiful“, even though Blunt himself had approved of the satire. It was subsequently released as a free single instead.[36]



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