In a foreign airport thousands of miles from Ann Arbor, a cashier explains to me through indecipherable hand signals that I do not possess sufficient funds to purchase the latest Grisham book, the key to my surviving a five-hour layover. Stricken, I return to my luggage, finding “Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America.” Not only is this book non-fiction, but the title includes a colon. I fear the next five hours will pass more slowly than the grandma cart snaking its way through the airport crowds.
But surprisingly, “Parental Advisory,” written by a nerdy-looking arts contributor to National Public Radio and various pop-culture magazines, grabs the reader”s attention immediately and sustains interest throughout the entire book.
“Parental Advisory” traces the history and evolution of music censorship in America, starting with what most remember as their first cognizance of censorship, Mrs. Tipper Gore”s insisting that her daughter”s Prince album be labeled obscene to warn fellow parents of the dirty nature to the artist”s lyrics. So “Darling Nikki” doesn”t refer to Prince”s adorable five-year old niece?
However, music censorship extends far beyond Tipper”s reach. As early as Stephen Foster”s songs in the 19th century and Cole Porter”s in the early 1900″s, concerned citizens have fought to stifle what they consider bad taste and what artists consider free expression. The author points out that often parents, members of Christian Fundamentalist groups and Wal-Mart store managers refuse to purchase or promote material that they do not understand.
Numerous amusing examples of such ignorance are revealed and explained. One notable anti-rock preacher discovered the secret of how musicians lure their fans to hell: It”s through their lyrics! Apparently the minister learned the insider rock lingo and translated for his audience: “”Funk” refers to sexual odors “gig” is a reference to sex orgies “groovy” is a description of the physical position of intercourse ” The evil groups at the focus of his complaint? ABBA, The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees and Olivia Newton-John. And I thought their only heinous act was wardrobe choice.
Mr. Nuzum organizes his extremely informative history in two parts. The first section clusters historical accounts by the issues under attack by censors, i.e. violence, drug use, sex and political protest. The author provides comprehensible detailed explanations of when and how censors infringe upon artists” and listeners” constitutional rights.
Part Two lists a fairly elaborated chronology of music censorship from the decades before 1950 through the year 2000. Part One is far more readable than Part Two, because in organizing the information by issue, rather than by date, the book resembles a more complex story than simply a rehashed recounting of events.
Almost to compensate for the censorship he indignantly condemns, Mr. Nuzum does not attempt to stifle his bias against parents, citizen groups, politicians and music industry executives who pander to demands for censorship. This overt bias often interferes with the legitimate points he intends to emphasize. The role of racism and classism in determining what to censor should be discussed and criticized, but the reader must wade through Mr. Nuzum”s personal commentary to find these important arguments. In the last chapter, he interviews people who led the fight for censorship, but these conversations tend to mock the subject rather than provide a balanced perspective.
As a non-fiction book, the author occasionally cites references, but he does so inconsistently, thereby failing to distinguish his opinion and common sense from verified research. Finally, the reader is left with a lingering feeling that the author ran out of material. He too frequently repeats information and stories as though he needed to stretch the writing to satisfy publishing requirements. This technique won him publication but forces the reader to experience dj vu practically every other page, again distracting from the book”s merits as an intriguing, informative look at a hotly debated and highly relevant issue.