The long and repetitive history of banned music is perfectly summed up in the pair of quotes that open Peter Blecha's new book Taboo Tunes:
"Their heads are fraught with all kinds of lascivious songs, filthy ballads, scirvy rhimes," said Philip Stubbes way back in 1583. Compare that to Professor Allan Bloom, who in 1983 said, "The children have as their heroes banal, drug and sex-ridden guttersnipes who foment rebellion not only against parents but against all noble sentiments."
Well, you know kids today, with their hair and their clothes. Taboo Tunes is a compendium of teenage rebellion and adult fear; it's a great read. Between the evils of "jungle music" and the drug hymns of the Doors, it seems like a wonder we ever made it to 2004.
St. Louis barely shows up in the book, but a parenthetical aside turns into a pretty interesting story if you know who to call. The parenthetical aside is about O'Fallon's Fort Zumwalt North High School (mislabeled as Fort Zumbald in Tunes) and Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." The person to call is Denise Lieberman, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.
Back in 1998 the Fort Zumwalt marching band put together a medley of rock tunes -- no big deal. But then those teens, clearly under the influence of wacky tobaccky, threw a snippet of "White Rabbit" into the mix. The school, probably fearing mass acid flashbacks from the parents in the audience more than kids becoming drug-gobbling loons from hearing an instrumental, banned the song. The ACLU took the case to U.S. District Court here in St. Louis, where Judge Rodney Sippel ruled that the school did have the right to ban the song. What's really interesting about the case is why it was okay to censor it.
"Stuff can't be censored because of the message it conveys," Lieberman says. "So if there's a student that has a musical piece that has an anti-war message and it's censored because it's not patriotic enough, that would be impermissible."
But the song was banned because of the lyrics to the original version.
"[The ban] was content-based," Lieberman goes on. "It wasn't that the students were trying to present a certain message about drug policy reform by performing that song. They just wanted to play it."
In other words, schools can stop kids from playing "Fight for Your Right (to Party)" unless the kids really mean it.
Obviously, Lieberman and others at the ACLU don't agree with this interpretation of the law. "It was just an instrumental. The kids didn't even know what the song was," she says. "They thought it was a lame band song. To us it seems ridiculous that they would censor it based on a message that the students probably weren't even picking up on."
This is not the first St. Louis case to influence students' freedom of speech, Lieberman is quick to point out. In fact, two Supreme Court cases that are often cited in teen freedom of speech cases have St. Louis ties. The famous case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which placed restrictions on teenage journalists, sprung from our own Hazelwood, and the Tinker in Tinker v. Des Moines (in which the Supreme Court decided that students could wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War) ended up moving to University City to complete her education and still lives in town.
But all of these cases involved the heavy hand of government, and that's where anti-censorship activists like Blecha get off-base. By lumping together government actions like the Fort Zumwalt case with private actions such as the Ed Sullivan Show not filming Elvis' pelvis or radio stations not playing the Dixie Chicks, people weaken what the words "censorship" and "banned" really mean. Folks have a right to what they consider good taste. A Clear Channel station has as much of a right not to play the Dixie Chicks as KDHX has not to play Toby Keith. (OK, for all I know, some DJ at KDHX plays him every week; I'm just trying to make a point here.) Aside from the FCC's new interest in fining stations and the chilling effect that has on people, this new wave of uptight worrying about sex is just as permissible as the lasciviousness that caused it. Allan Bloom can get into a snit over "Fat-Bottomed Girls"; Queen can sing it (well, you and I can).
This doesn't mean there isn't any censorship going on. It just means there might be more important areas for anti-censorship mavens to focus on.
"On a broader level, the issue of censorship is a relevant one right now," Lieberman agrees. "We're seeing censorship in lots of other arenas; in these politically charged times you tend to see that more. But I see that more in the area of protest than music."
While we argue about whether Nelly's "Tip Drill" video is indecent, our government is telling people where they can stand based on their political beliefs (in 1984-esque "free speech zones"). Maybe somebody ought to write a song about that.