Friday, February 29, 2008

Book Review: Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America by Eric Nuzum

The back cover of Eric Nuzum's Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America describes the book as a "thorough and complete chronicle" of music and artists that have been censored or suppressed in Uncle Sam's land. In this sense, it's pretty accurate.

Over the course of several hundred pages, Nuzum covers music censorship according to a variety of themes including race, religion, drugs, and the good ol horizontal tussle. However, Nuzum's book is far from an objective history. Much of it is little more than a very slanted tome that takes far too long to say nothing more than (to use the technical terms) censorship sucks and freedom of expression rules.

At its best, Parental Advisory gives a detailed account of music censorship in the United States. Nuzum covers all the key events including the uproar caused by the skinny Elvis Presley's swinging hips, John Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" comment, the rise and influence of the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) in the 1980s, and attempts by various groups to regulate heavy metal, gangsta rap, and goth rock.

The author does a nice job showing how several key characteristics of censorship have been repeated over the decades:

• Some concerned parents, religious leaders, and politicians always feel the current generation's minds and morals are being poisoned by filthy popular music. For them, music of the present day is far more violent, sexual, and dangerous than music at any other point in history. Music now viewed as both quaint and benign (e.g.: Cole Porter, Bobby Darin) was once viewed as threats to the very moral fabric of the nation.

• Violent tragedies (such as the Columbine shooting in 1999) almost always trigger a backlash against certain types of music, leading to the inevitable Congressional grandstanding and calls for tighter regulation of the music minors have access to.

• In many cases, those advocating parental warning stickers, bans on certain albums, and other forms of censorship don't have the first clue about the music's actual content. In one hilarious story, Nuzum describes how wild rebel John Denver's song, "Rocky Mountain High," was banned by radio stations for its supposed drug undertones. Similarly, Frank Zappa's Jazz From Hell was slapped with a parental advisory sticker for explicit content. The album was entirely instrumental.

• It doesn't take much to get the censorship ball rolling. Musicians who have the misfortune of getting on the radar of an overzealous politician, conservative watch group, religious leader, or everyday parent who complains to the authorities can quickly and easily find themselves at the center of controversy.

The book's major drawback is that it is not a balanced history. Nuzum doesn't really question the motives of the performers who find themselves being censored (with the notable exception of Marilyn Manson). In this way, he sees every artist who was ever suppressed as essentially a crusader for free speech and artistic expression.

In many cases this characterization is accurate (Frank Zappa), but in other cases, it's clear certain artists were more concerned with gaining notoriety — however negative it was — than with fighting as First Amendment soldiers (like 2 Live Crew). This is not to say such acts should have been censored (any music fan realizes the grave implications of any form of musical censorship), but it would be na├»ve to think certain artists didn't exploit the attention for financial gain in the form of increased record sales and sold-out concerts.

The book fails to place censorship in the larger context of how it influences American culture or society. How censorship has impacted artists as they record and release music, whether consumers avoid (or prefer) censored artists, and the long-term impacts of censorship on freedom of expression are never addressed. There is more to censorship than Congressional hearings, altered album covers, and manic reactionary conservatives. Unfortunately, Nuzum rarely covers these areas.

Music fans interested in a thorough, though biased, history of music censorship in America should enjoy this read. However, readers looking for a thoughtful analysis of how censorship has impacted music will likely be disappointed.

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