Smashed Hits

Music censorship doesn't start and end with rock 'n' roll.

One of the best known musicians this century to have encountered the ultimate form of censorship—state-sanctioned murder—was the Chilean folksinger Victor Jara. Politically infused popular song (nueva canci�I>) emerged in Argentina in 1962, but soon became a potent force in the liberation movements then sweeping South America. It even found echoes in a Spain still laboring under the Franco dictatorship.

But it was in Chile, thanks to Jara and others such as Violeta Parra, that it reached its peak; nueva canci�I> played a key role in the campaign that led to the election of the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, who, after the election, appeared surrounded by musicians with a banner proclaiming, "There can be no revolution without songs." For Jara, "the authentic revolutionary should be behind the guitar, so that the guitar becomes an instrument of struggle, so that it can also shoot like a gun." His songs were in trouble before Allende was elected, and it is hardly surprising that when the democratic government was violently overthrown, Jara should have been one of the earliest victims of the brutal, US-backed dictatorship that succeeded it. Indeed, nueva canci�I> was so identified with Popular Unity that Gen. Augusto Pinochet's regime banned as subversive even the traditional instruments on which it was played as well as the works of all musicians associated with it. It was made an offense even to mention Jara's name.

Nor was the explicitly political persecution of musicians confined to Chile. Wherever the military was in power in the 1960s and 1970s, in Europe as in Latin America, popular resistance through music was stamped on. The Brazilian military coup of 1964 ushered in 20 years of military rule and, with it, strict censorship of broadcast music—and especially of musica popular brasileira. Numerous musicians during that period spent time in exile, including Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, and Caetano Veloso. The 1967 military coup in Greece led to the imprisonment and torture of internationally known singer Mikis Theodorakis. Eventually he was released as a result of international pressure and went into exile; other, less well known musicians were not so fortunate. In Turkey, where the army still pulls the strings behind the civilian government, the Kurdish language is illegal, Kurdish music is banned from the airwaves, and its singers, like Sivan Perwer and Temo, live in exile.

The most obvious example of musical censorship on the African continent was for many years the apartheid regime in South Africa. But there are others. Fela Kuti encountered difficulties with almost every Nigerian government after independence; before it fell in 1991, the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia drove many musicians into exile with "a censorship as pedantic as it was bureaucratic"; in Zaire, one of the greats of Congolese/Zairean music, Franco Luambo Makiadi, the leader of OK Jazz, was jailed on a number of occasions and had several records banned by the Mobutu regime, even though he was a crucial part of its authenticit鼯I> program.

In Islam too, despite the magnificent musical traditions of many Muslim countries, music and fundamentalism are all too often unhappy bedfellows. In Sudan under the National Islamic Front government, in Afghanistan of the Taliban, in Algeria where singers have been a target of Islamists and government alike, silence has fallen.

But there is little doubt that the most thoroughgoing and systematic attacks on music this century have been in the Soviet Union between 1932 and 1953, and in the Third Reich. Although these were by no means confined to classical music and composers, the latter bore the brunt of the attacks, and it is for this reason, maybe, that they have received more substantial critical attention than popular music.

In Stalin's USSR, the chief enemy was modernism, or "formalism" as it was usually known. From 1932, the doctrine of Socialist Realism, which had been developing for some time, became the party line. In 1934 the newly formed Composers' Union stated:

The main attention of the Soviet composer must be directed towards the victorious progressive principles of reality, towards all that is heroic, bright, and beautiful. This distinguishes the spiritual world of Soviet man and must be embodied in musical images full of beauty and strength. Socialist Realism demands an implacable struggle against folk-negating modernistic directions that are typical of the decay of contemporary bourgeois art, against the subservience and servility towards modern bourgeois culture. (Quoted in Boris Schwarz's 'Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia 1917-1970')

But it was not until 1936 and the premiere of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District that the storm broke in the form of an unsigned—though allegedly by Stalin himself—article in Pravda signaling a drastic intensification of the campaign against "formalism" in all the arts. The opera was hastily withdrawn and, along with Shostakovich's recently completed but unperformed Fourth Symphony, silenced for a quarter of a century.

At the end of World War II, there was a further tightening of ideological and artistic control. Music's turn for the flame-thrower came in January 1948 when Andrei Zhdanov, chairing the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Composers in Moscow, identified "formalism" with "decadent western influences" and "bourgeois cultural decay." In a resolution published the following month, the party's Central Committee attacked the leading composers of the day—Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Shebalin, Popov, and Khachaturian—and defined "formalism" as "the cult of atonality, dissonance, and disharmony" and "confused, neuro-pathological combinations that transform music into cacophony, into a chaotic conglomeration of sounds." It dismissed everything by these composers as "alien to the Soviet people" with devastating consequences for them all. In some cases, it undoubtedly contributed to their premature deaths. The contagion spread into other countries under Soviet domination, restricting the careers of composers such as Witold Lutoslawski in Poland and Gyorgi Ligeti in Hungary.

In the Third Reich, the enemy was again modernism, now coupled with "musical bolshevism" and Jewish influences, both real and imagined. Thus Alfred Rosenberg, one of the Reich's chief ideologues, declared in 1935 that "the atonal movement in music is against the blood and soul of the German people," and the musicologist Herbert Gerigk in his Lexicon der Juden in der Musik argued that: "The twelve-tone system in music is equivalent to Jewish leveling-down in all matters of life. . . . This represents the complete destruction of the natural order of notes in the tonal principle of our classical music." The clearest example of this kind of "thinking" was provided by the Entartete Musik exhibition in Dusseldorf in 1938; opening the event, its organizer, Hans Ziegler, stated that it "presents a picture of a veritable witches' sabbath portraying the most frivolous intellectual and artistic aspects of Cultural Bolshevism . . . and the triumph of arrogant Jewish impudence."

However, anti-Semitic and reactionary musicology well predated 1933. Wagner's essay Das Judentum in der Musik, which argued that Jews were capable only of imitation rather than originality, had long ago helped to make anti-Semitism respectable in the music field, and also helps to explain why his music still cannot be publicly performed in Israel.

Specifically Jewish "internationalism" was attacked in 1920 by the composer Hans Pfitzner, who, ironically, also equated the "atonal chaos" of modern music with "bolshevism." In 1925, the renowned journal the Zeitschrift fr Musik was relaunched to campaign for the "spiritual renewal of German music" and became openly anti-Semitic. The ZfM was part of the growing right-wing campaign against jazz and, like other conservative musical forces, was particularly enraged by Ernst Krenek's 1927 opera Jonny spielt auf! Altogether unsurprisingly, Alfred Rosenberg took up the same refrain in his paper the Volkischer Beobachter and in the Kampfbund fr deutsche Kultur, which he founded in 1929.

When the National Socialists won a majority in the local state elections in Thuringia in 1930, an "Ordinance against Negro Culture" was passed in order to rid the province of "all immoral and foreign racial elements in the arts," all jazz was banned, and works by Hindemith and Stravinsky were removed from the repertoires of state-subsidized orchestras. By now it was not uncommon for the Nazis to disrupt musical performances of which they disapproved; thus the Brecht/Weill Mahagonny encountered difficulties in Leipzig and Frankfurt in 1930.

In 1932 an SS Untersturmfuhrer, Richard Eichenauer, published Musik und Rasse, a work that was to be highly influential in the Third Reich, arguing that any racial mingling posed a threat to the supposed "purity" of Nordic artistic achievements and needed to be stopped at all costs.

What those costs were became clear soon after the Nazi seizure of power. With the formation of the Reichsmusikkammer (RMK) as part of the Reichskulturkammer (RKK), whose president was Goebbels himself, it was relatively easy to purge the musical world. If composers and musicians wished to work they had to be members of the RMK, and membership was simply refused to "undesirables," in particular to Jews, whose work was simply expunged from the broadcast and concert repertoire. Anti-Semitic measures were extended to cover Jewish music teachers and concert agents, and were greatly aided by the infamous civil service law of April 1933, which removed Jews from all areas of public administration, and the 1935 Nuremberg laws, which effectively banned mixed marriages. As part of the process, critics, musicologists, and radio personnel had also to join (if permitted, of course) the appropriate chambers of the RKK. The inevitable early exodus included the composers Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Hans Schreker, and the conductors Fritz Busch, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, and Hermann Scherchen.

It would be comforting to think that music censorship didn't take place in democratic societies. Comforting but, unfortunately, quite wrong. Musicians as well as the denizens of Hollywood felt the force of the McCarthyite witchhunts and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA), no one more so than Paul Robeson.

Robeson is undoubtedly the most censored of all American musicians. As Eric Bentley states in Thirty Years of Treason,

[He] provided the American Establishment with the opportunity to see if it, like the Soviet authorities, could make an unperson of someone. In American history it would be hard to parallel the blackout of Robeson imposed by the Government and the press during the early and middle 1950s. It was as if the "famous actor and singer" had never existed.

After years of harassment and vilification, the State Department revoked Robeson's passport in 1950, and US officials prevented him from singing in Canada in 1952. He was subpoenaed by the HCUA in 1956 and put up one of the most spirited defenses of any of those dragged through this charade. His passport was eventually returned, after strong international pressure, in 1958. There is no doubt, however, that like some of the Soviet composers, the experience of political persecution left him a broken man.

In the UK, meanwhile, it was US music that was causing problems and being rationed by the cultural authorities to the point of censorship. When rock 'n' roll arrived in Britain, it encountered a strictly controlled popular music regime: Of the three BBC radio stations only one, the Light Programme, played pop, and the BBC restricted its "needle time" (programming of records) to 22 hours a week across all three channels. Deeply uneasy about the growing teenage phenomenon and worried about the "Americanization" of British youth, the BBC consciously resisted rock 'n' roll and deliberately favored less threatening British alternatives, such as skiffle and Cliff Richard. The attitude of the music press, which consisted of only the New Musical Express and Melody Maker, was equally censorious and was typified by a 1956 article in the latter by Steve Race in which he complained that "viewed as a social phenomenon, the current craze for Rock-and-Roll material is one of the most terrifying things to have happened to popular music."

The BBC may have given up patroling the parameters of popular musical tastes, but the years since are nonetheless littered with examples of banned and marginalized records, which suggest that, for the Corporation, music is still a potentially subversive force. At one time or another, worries about drug references and sexually explicit language have banished from the airwaves songs by some of the biggest groups, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Various chapters of the Irish "Troubles" have involved the temporary disappearance of a range of "politically sensitive" material; "unpatriotic" lyrics became casualties of the Falklands/Malvinas and Gulf wars; songs about the Queen, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan have equally been victims of the desire not to offend.

This list of bans, however, is not only far from complete, it ignores a much more everyday, taken-for-granted form of control. As John Street puts it in Rebel Rock, "What is of greater concern are the records that disappear before they even reach the public. It is radio's and TV's ability to act as a gatekeeper for public taste that identifies the real site of political control." The key mechanism here, in the case of both the BBC and the commercial stations, is the playlist, which, in selecting those records to be played, automatically excludes many others and thus plays a crucial role in setting the musical agenda.

Radio and television are not, however, the only censors. In 1977, the title of the album Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols was the subject of an unsuccessful prosecution in Nottingham under the Indecent Advertising Act of 1899 and, in London, the Small Wonder record shop was raided for stocking it. In 1982, after pressure from Mary Whitehouse's National Viewers and Listeners Association, the Anti-Nowhere League's So What became the first record to be successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. Two years later this was joined by the "Bata Motel" track from the album Penis Envy by Crass.

By refusing to stock certain items, major record shops also act as censors, although doubtless they would argue that they were simply exercising "normal commercial judgment" or something equally euphemistic. In 1987, the New Musical Express revealed that HMV Record Stores had drawn up an extensive Obscene Product list of records that would not be stocked in its outlets.

Of course, HMV is not alone in acting thus. Indeed, when the major UK chain WH Smith's banned the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen," some branches effectively made it a "non-record" by leaving a blank in their singles' chart where it should have been. Records carrying stickers warning of "explicit lyrics" put certain chain stores immediately on their guard and, according to Martin Cloonan in Banned: Censorship of Popular Music in Britain: 1967-92, the ubiquitous high street chain Boots refuses to stock such products altogether as, "We do not consider it ethical to stock merchandise which would offend the families that shop at Boots." Presumably they don't consider it economic good sense either, and this is where market forces once again enter into the censorship process. The stickering of records, which originated as a defensive response by record companies to campaigns by the Parents' Music Resource Center, is not simply a matter of "consumer protection," but actively contributes to the marginalization, demonization, and, ultimately, censorship of certain kinds of records.

The suspicion that the treatment of such records is, in the broadest sense of the word, ideologically motivated is intensified if one examines it in conjunction with the sustained and, on occasion, brutal persecution of New Age Travellers, in whose culture music plays a central, defining role, in the UK during the 1980s. While groups such as Liberty were demanding public inquiries into the abuse of power and illegal police behavior, the government was busy urging local authorities to use all available existing legislation, however arcane, against the Travellers, and enacting new measures such as the 1986 Public Order Act, the 1990 Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act, and, most important, the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. Crucially, this last contained a number of clauses relating specifically to music, which, as Matthew Collin points out in the seminal Altered State:

defined and proposed to outlaw—when played in certain circumstances—a genre of music: house. It stated that "'music' is defined as sounds wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats," and for the first time the word "rave" appeared in British legislative language. . . . Never before . . . had a government considered young people's music so subversive as to prohibit it. John Major's government, unlike many pop commentators, obviously didn't consider dance-drug culture to be either meaningless or apolitical.

And nor should anyone concerned about music censorship today, let alone broader questions of civil rights.

Threats to basic freedoms so often come in the guise of attacks on individuals or works that many don't think worth defending. But in what has come to be known as the "New Protest" or "DIY Culture," which is all too often short-sightedly dismissed as "non-political," music is inextricably bound up with some of the most important political/ideological issues of our time—witness Reclaim the Streets and Exodus. In its most memorable protest, RTS dug up a section of motorway using its sound system to cover the noise of hammering drills—those "repetitive beats" turned against the government once again. Exodus organizes not just free parties, but also community training and housing projects, drawing support from local councils and bitter opposition from the police. Far from merely forming a soundtrack to their activities, these groups' music is fundamentally interwoven with their radical world view—the beats drive, unify, identify.

Music has power. As a means of communicating dissent, it has few competitors, and it binds as tightly as any other cultural ties. Little wonder then, that music so often draws the censors' fire, even if their assaults eventually prove futile. As the Exodus dub has it, "Babylon them try to ban the beat/but Jah say Exodus we have to/Beat the ban.

Julian Petley is a lecturer in media and communication at Brunel University. This article was originally published in Index on Censorship 6/98. For more information, contact +44 (171) 278-2313, fax +44 (171) 278-1878, e-mail contact@indexoncensorship.org, or visit Index on Censorship on the Web at http://www.oneworld.org/index oc.

 
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