What Makes a Song Explicit?

Music is an art form, and art has never held a good relationship with censorship. Earning the “explicit label” can be somewhat of an ordeal for songwriters. William Shakespeare himself wrote that censorship is “art made tongue-tied by authority,” insinuating that censorship simply ruins the point of art.

Some songs contain lots of curse words, stories about sexual endeavors, or drug/alcohol endorsing statements, which many parents can find inappropriate for their growing children to hear. Innocence means very impressionable, right?

One well-known, intense censorship case happened back in the late ’90s with the band Everlast, a hip-hop/rock’n’roll-infused band. One of their most popular songs entitled “What It’s Like” is about different stories of people struggling through life, but the lyrics included words like “shithead,” “whore,” and referenced drugs and guns. When the time arrived to play it on the radio, the song was edited and reduced to a series of sounds and effects to bleep out the explicit terms, completely obscuring the meaning of the song in the process.

The radio is broadcasted to any willing listener, and has always been intended for the people at large, by the people. Why censor it? Well, probably for the same reason that anyone can listen to it, which means children have the ability to as well. So accepting the argument that radio censorship might be necessary for the sake of shielding innocent children (plus it’s the law), how does a song deemed explicit get edited or pulled from the radio?

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is the U.S.’s primary authority for communications law, along with regulation of such technological innovations. They are the ones who keep an ear trained on what’s going on the radio, and if it’s straying from the course of the law.

First of all, the First Amendment does not protect broadcasters to air obscene language at any time. What is considered obscene is written directly on the FCC’s site:

“According to the U.S. Supreme Court, to be obscene, material must meet a three-prong test: (1) an average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest (i.e., material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts); (2) the material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and (3) the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. The Supreme Court has indicated that this test is designed to cover hard-core pornography.”

There is also a separate description to what deems any material indecent–which is apparently different from “obscene.” Indecency is less of an accusation than being deemed obscene, and it’s up to the FCC to dish out either label. It reads on their site:

“Material is indecent if, in context, it depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium. In each case, the FCC must determine whether the material describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities and, if so, whether the material is patently offensive.”

Courtesy of Flickr user Bill Kerr.

They also have an entire section dedicated to just the f-word, and any words pertaining to the f-word. Apparently that’s one of the harshest strikes. There’s no way you can get any style of the f-word on the radio.

However, there is also something called a “safe harbor,” which is a time period between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. where radios are allowed to air material that is indecent and/or profane, but never obscene.

Shannon Kurlander is head of radio promotion for Terrorbird Media; for every song she sends out to radios in help of getting plays, she’s required to mark which songs may violate FCC regulations.

“When we send out a record to radio stations there is a promotional sticker attached and we also send out the same info digitally that gives a bio, a bit about the sound and also which tracks are considered FCC violations,” Kurlander explains. “It’s more of a warning, but we can’t stop stations from playing the tracks—however, we’ll try to offer radio edits of the tracks digitally if possible, that way there is at least more options for people to play from the album.”

There are also bands that strive for the explicit label. Metal, rock’n’roll, and punk bands have traditionally loved to be the rebellious groups of the music world—it’s not your mama’s music. (Unless you’ve got a real badass mom…)

Though the intent behind the creation of this 1985 label was to get kids to stop listening to music parents didn’t approve of, it didn’t affect sales at all, and soon became a symbol of rebellion. Even today, its efficacy is still wildly debated.

Even front man for Maroon 5, Adam Levine, took to social media to express a very decided opinion on the label and parenting:

“I know it may be passé or very ”90s” to still care about how stupid this label is, but it happened during my youth so [I’m] passionate about it. Adhering to a meaningless label won’t make me a good parent. Asking my kid about what they’re listening to will. I also often wonder, why aren’t there labels like this on McDonald’s bags? If I have a happy, healthy kid who does well in school, doesn’t eat Big Macs every day, and listens to “Doggystyle” on repeat, I’ll consider myself a successful father.”

So then what is the point of censoring? If someone, be it a teenager or an adult, wants to listen to a certain song, it will take a lot more than just censorship to keep them from hearing it—especially with mediums like the internet rendering all songs so accessible.

“Art is never chaste—it ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared,” Pablo Picasso once famously said. “Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.”

Censorship and/or label warnings may help initially, but is it worth it to create a bias about the art before even getting to hear its true form? That’s up to the listener to decide.