by Alex Cosper (11/14/17)
Lyrics have been important to popular music throughout the history of the recording industry. Yet when you ask the common person why they like a certain song they are likely to mention the beat or tune before they mention the lyrical message, if at all. In other words, people don't always tell you the full story on why they like music, partly because most people aren't musicians and don't have a wide musical vocabulary. The reason it's clear that lyrics are important whether people mention them or not is that not that many instrumentals have been widely popular since the 1970s.
Within the broad category of lyrical songs is a subcategory of songs that aren't necessarily intended for that subcategory, which is songs with offensive lyrics. The word "offensive" often is applied by critics of a certain storyline or choice of words. The Beatles' song "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," for example, was accused of being about an LSD experience since the song title lends itself to that acronym. John Lennon, however, insisted that it was about a picture that his son drew. Yet the lyrics did paint the imagery of a dream-like psychedelic experience. Whatever the intent was, some radio stations banned the song for its implications.
The notion that song lyrics can be offensive, whether the intent is political, sexual, violent or vulgar has existed long before the sixties or recorded music for that matter. "The Star Spangled Banner," for example, is offensive to people who view a forgotten stanza as racist because of the line "no refuge could save the hireling and slave / from the terror of flight of the gloom of the grave." Although pro football players began protesting the national anthem in 2016 by kneeling instead of standing, most people never hear this third verse, as the song by slaveowner Francis Scott Key normally only includes the first famous verse these days.
Sometimes offensive lyrics are much more blatant than the previous two examples and don't require decoding or speculation. The RIAA's parental advisory label (PAL) was a response to complaints by an organization called Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), co-founded by Tipper Gore. PMRC presented a list of 15 songs at congressional hearings that the group claimed were inappropriate for children. The list included the Prince album cut "Darling Nikki," which made references to masturbation. The PAL label was suggested by the RIAA on musical products as early as 1985. The label that warns "parental advisory explicit lyrics" began to surface in 1990, starting with the single "Banned In The USA" by 2 Live Crew. The word "lyrics" was changed to "content" in 1996.
Censorship of lyrics began to proliferate in the 1990s, as labels issued to radio "clean edits" of songs with profanity, while the album versions were left unedited. In some cases, as with "Jeremy" by Pearl Jam, many alternative radio stations still played the album version. Lyrical context and community standards for decency have shaped the flexible FCC guidelines regarding what radio stations are allowed to air. In 2001 the FCC fined radio station KKMG $7,000 for broadcasting a version of "The Real Slim Shady" by Eminem for its references to sexual activity.
The "F word" began to appear in musical recordings in the late sixties with one of the most notable examples being the anti-war anthem "Fixin' To Die Rag" by Country Joe and The Fish. Earlier in the decade the FBI investigated the lyrics to "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen for sexual content, but concluded the lyrics were too slurred to make a difference. The first top ten hits to use the word "ass" came out a decade later with "Heart of Glass" by Blondie. It went to number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and was not met with much resistance from the public.
An early example of the word "damn" on a hit recording was "Green Back Dollar" by Kingston Trio in 1963, proclaiming "I don't give a damn about a greenback dollar." While many radio stations refused to play the song because of the lyric, causing the record to miss the top 20, by 1973 two number one hits got away with "damn" in the lyrics: "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Ole Oak Tree" by Tony Orlando & Dawn and "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce.
Radio stations were not as squeamish in general by the 1970s. In the previous decade, station managers were much more cautious about songs that depicted sexual activity such as "Brown Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison, which mentioned "making love in the green grass." Another example was "Let's Spend The Night Together" by The Rolling Stones. When the band appeared on Ed Sullivan's TV show, they were forced to change the lyric to "Let's Spend Some Time Together."
In many cases song censorship has been more about offending sponsors and broadcasters more than the public. Radio audiences, for example, didn't seem to have a problem with the first big hit to have sexual moaning in it, "Love To Love You Baby" by Donna Summer in 1975. Only occasionally have there been massive outcries from the public over lyrical content. Feminist groups, for example, were offended by a few Rolling Stones songs, such as "Satisfaction" which says "trying to make some girl." The general theme of "Under My Thumb" was defended by Mick Jagger as a woman having influence over a man instead of the reverse perception.
Several rap songs were banned from the airwaves starting in the late eighties due to lyrics about sex or violence and accusations about misogyny. On the flipside, peace anthems have also faced censorship, particularly during wartime. John Lennon's "Imagine" was initially offensive to religious groups because of the opening line "imagine there's no heaven." Eventually they backed off after it became a huge peace anthem and one of the most popular songs of all time.