Censoring Music or Limiting Musical Taste is a Bad Idea
My daughter often challenged me. She was bright and given permission to question and participate in many decisions; she took this privilege and pushed herself into areas in which she had little expertise or insight, often exasperating me.
One testy discussion included music. I argued for limiting exposure to popular lyrics and MTV or VH1 because they are pernicious, weaving their way into our memories, often without our critical judgment or awareness.
For example, in my experience, a new song takes hold before I’m even aware of its message. It catches one part of my attention as I drive while my brain is otherwise busy processing the proximity of other cars, the color of traffic signals, the posted speed, and road conditions. Music recedes further and further into the background as road speed and congestion increase.
Still the song’s rhythm, the quality of the vocals, and the instruments command my attention. Like those “American Bandstand” kids fifty years ago, upon first hearing a new recording, I’ll like or dislike it based upon a superficial judgment. Much, much later, I may become aware of a phrase or the chorus repeated, but still I fail to appreciate the whole and the full meaning of the lyrics escapes me. I must stop and heed the words in order to fully appreciate the message of the song, and when I do, I am often stunned by that message.
So it was with Bruce Springsteen’s wonderful song, “Born in the USA.” Many, including me, were surprised to learn that the lyrics do not, in fact, celebrate America uncritically. The lyrics clearly convey sorrow, including that of veterans returning from war.
Another startling song is one by 50 Cent, “Candy Shop.” I never paid close attention to the lyrics until the Pom Pon dance squad performed to a snippet from that song. I was already an old fogie about the trend in uniforms and dance moves for high school girls before I heard “lollipop” as a metaphor for the penis at 10:00 a.m. during a pep assembly so later, I stopped to listen closely to the entire tune. It was graphic, salacious, yet undeniable because of the beat, a very danceable song.
Another that disturbed me was Smashmouth’s “Walkin’ on the Sun.” The first word I picked out was “toked” so I just wasn’t sure my daughter should own it until I analyzed the lyrics and concluded the song was a much more positive call to action than a sexual or drug come-on. “Superstar” was similar: a beat that defies being still in its presence and lyrics that inspire listeners to believe and dream big.
MTV was more worrisome and frightening, however. The videos planted suggestive, sometimes confusing images, possibly urging teens to make choices that are better made when older and more self-assured. The programming that MTV created was worse. Those young adults thrown together under one roof cursed, drank to excess, teased and toyed with each other. They were heartless and heartbroken often, especially because few boundaries existed for them and their behaviors.
Thus, without defining it clearly for myself or my daughter, I was at war with her generation. I wanted to limit her exposure and shield her from the worst trends, including increasingly tighter and tighter clothing, lower and lower necklines, and the sounds of provocative music everywhere.
My own hypocrisy soon dawned on me, however. A generation before mine broke ground by swooning and gyrating with Elvis and Jerry Lee even as preachers and social scientists predicted the fall of civilization. More girls screamed and cried in the presence of The Beatles, musical escorts for my journey from age 12 through college graduation, and like them, at first, we just “wanted to hold hands” and “Twist and Shout the night away.” Soon though, like them, we sought deeper understandings and connections. Gurus and Timothy Leary beckoned as did Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock. We learned from them that the “love you take is equal to the love you make,” and Beatle lyrics even advised us to “give peace a chance” as war and protest rocked the sensibilities of the electorate.
So what did we from the so-called Hippie generation become? Stock-brokers, Steve Jobs, high-powered attorneys without much time for pro bono work, teachers and doctors and iron workers. We found a channel into the world and merged with the great rivers that flow past events that we deem momentous, eroding their sharp outlines and consigning them to the past.
Music accompanied us day in and day out, but it didn’t ruin us. And thus, I found my rhythm and understanding. I bought my daughter a copy of Smashmouth’s CD. I talked with her about lyrics and their pernicious talent to weave a narrative that is best woven in conscious deliberation. I spoke about the necessity of respecting boundaries, but ultimately, I resigned myself to the truth that ideas should never be censored because they must be dragged into the light and examined from every angle in order to embrace some and reject others.
I also remembered the lesson that Milton taught through his version of Eve’s downfall: forbidden fruit is just too enticing, especially when a wicked flatterer slithers by. My daughter needed to be well armed against flatterers who would persuade her to act against her own best interests. Finally, I acknowledged that each of us encounters temptation and bad ideas, and each of us needs to be armed against them not by a parent’s will, but by our own.