No Offense: Music videos are still prone to censorship, but does it matter?

May 17, 2010 by Emily Zemler

No Offense: Music videos are still prone to censorship, but does it matter?

For decades, music videos have faced censorship since artists began crafting visual companions to their music. The first music video ever banned by MTV was in 1982 when Queen released their homoerotic video for "Body Language." Ever since, artists have dealt with the fact their videos are subject to certain pre-determined expectations; and if they refuse to adhere to those standards, MTV or similar outlets will remove their clips from rotation. From Madonna to Lady Gaga, artists have seen that videos with too much sex, too much violence or too many drugs (but usually too much sex) pushed off the air. Although what was deemed outrageous in the '80s and '90s can often be tame by today's standards--and even though consumers have many more ways to watch anything they want online--that doesn't mean censorship is dead.

The recent video for M.I.A.'s "Born Free," which depicts nudity and brutal violence, has been a recent focal point of such discussions. The video, directed by Romain Gavras (who will be turning the short into a feature film), reveals how censorship has transitioned into the digital age. Being banned from MTV is no longer the end of a video. The mark of controversy today is being removed from YouTube--the place most people watch music videos nowadays. YouTube's community guidelines are laid out very clearly, broken down into categories like "sex and nudity," "dangerous illegal acts" and "hate speech"--which apply the same to official music videos and user-submitted clips.



M.I.A, Born Free
 from ROMAIN-GAVRAS on Vimeo

According to a YouTube spokesperson who requested not to be identified, there is technically no such thing as "banning" on YouTube: A video is either simply removed from the site or age-restricted due to explicit content. The spokesperson confirmed that "Born Free" was initially removed, but has since been added again and restricted to those 18 and older. "With 24 hours of video uploaded every minute to YouTube, it is simply not possible to pre-screen content," the spokesperson explains. "Instead, we count on our community members to know the community guidelines and flag content they believe violates the rules. We do review flagged videos quickly, and if we find that they violate our policies, we take them down, usually in under an hour." The guidelines essentially make the site's users the censorship board. 

Another recent casualty of perceived standards is MAYDAY PARADE's risque video for "Kids In Love," which debuted on YouTube on April Fool's Day but quickly was removed. The video, directed by Josh Mond, is a graphic depiction of a group of friends traveling together during a summer road trip as they take drugs in Las Vegas, engage in various sexual acts and run naked through the desert. If the video had been a feature film, it would have been likely slapped with an NC-17 rating. Singer DEREK SANDERS explains that the video is a result of the band trying to break the mold and push boundaries, but they didn't intend to spark as much controversy as they have. "We've done four or five videos in the past, and they were all typical for a band like us--[they showed] us playing somewhere and a [there would be a plotline about a] love story," Sanders says. "We wanted to do something different. When we saw the treatment [for the "Kids In Love" video], it seemed like something that was really cool and really interesting. It would get people talking, so we liked it. We were only there for a very little bit of the filming, so I kind of knew what it [was about], but I didn't know what it was going to look like. I thought it was very cool and a very great video, but it was more explicit than I thought it would be. To be honest, I was pretty shocked when we saw the final video."



Mayday Parade - Kids in Love
 from Facebook User on Vimeo.

In addition to being removed from YouTube, the video has also upset many of the band's fans--who likely had a hand in flagging the video in the first place. It raises the question of whether viewers think the content in an artist's video is a reflection of what that artist believes and does, or whether it's merely an artistic statement. Are Mayday Parade condoning the use of drugs and sex with multiple partners? Or does this video merely offer a visual narrative to accompany one of their songs? Sanders says the band stand behind their video, but fans shouldn't read into it too much further. "We're not saying at all that the activities in the video are good or bad," he says. "We're not going either way. We're not saying that anything in it is right or wrong, or good or bad. It's just what we wanted to make."

Although Mayday Parade defend the clip, in the end, the pressure of appealing to their relatively young fanbase won out over artistic vision. The band recently posted a "clean" version of the video that they had always planned to release on their website and hope that this new version will get play on MTV and Fuse. They also, of course, hope it won't get flagged again on YouTube. But should artists cave to this kind of pressure? Previously banned clips by Madonna ("Like A Prayer") and Michael Jackson ("Black Or White") eventually stood the test of time and it's not because they glossed out the explicit aspects to appease MTV. 

Some artists ignore this system altogether, refusing to acknowledge the role MTV and Fuse play in the promotion of music. For them, a video is simply an extension of their art and an additional means of expression; not something that can or should be compromised for anyone else--just like their music. AIDEN frontman WIL FRANCIS believes videos are something an artist should be able to make without worrying about offending anyone and risking its dissemination. Francis' video for "Beautiful Loser," from his 2008 William Control album, Hate Culture, was an example of this sentiment. While Francis doesn't believe any of his fans were personally upset by the video which contained nudity, the clip has been banned in several countries and has not received play on MTV or Fuse. "It was a weird concept to begin with," he says. "It's not your typical 'sing into the camera with a story about a boy who loves a girl' type of video. People were upset with fact that a naked Russian and a beautifully large woman scantily clad [in] a negligee and snake were featured a lot throughout the video."

 

But does it really matter that MTV and Fuse haven't played this video? It's easy to find on the internet, and undoubtedly all of William Control's fans have been able to view it. In a time when the internet has blown away any gatekeepers of content, does censorship really affect artists in the same way it did when MTV played videos? A similar question could be posed in regard to the parental advisory stickers the Recording Industry Association of America began slapping on controversial albums 25 years ago. The RIAA's guidelines for the warning are clearly laid out on the organization's website, centered around a quote from CEO Mitch Bainwol:



"All music is not always appropriate for all ages. The music industry takes seriously its responsibility to help parents determine what is and is not appropriate for their children. That's why the record companies created the Parental Advisory Label Program. This program is a tool to help parents make the choice about when-- and whether--their children should be able to listen to a particular recording. Music can be a tremendous tool in fostering dialogue and understanding across generations. Through music, parents or other adults can tune into what kids are thinking and feeling. We need to pay attention to the music children choose and ask questions: Why do they like a certain song or album? What do they think the artist is saying? When these opportunities to talk openly are seized, parents, kids and music are best served."



But the question remains: Does anyone really have the right to determine what is "appropriate" for someone to see or hear? This debate has been raging for years, especially since Tipper Gore helped found the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985 to protect children from content found in music and music videos. After all, what is offensive to one person is perfectly fine to another. In response to the controversy over "Born Free," M.I.A. was quoted as saying to NME, "I find the new Justin Bieber video more violent and more of an assault to my eyes and senses than what I've made."

Still, is there really anything stopping anyone from accessing the music or videos they want? Although a record store employee in 1987 wouldn't have sold anything with the warning to a minor, kids today can circumvent the entire regulation process online. Francis, who just finished filming a new video for a song off William Control's forthcoming second album, Noir, (one that he says "will never get played on any TV station ever and YouTube will probably ban it for having too many shots of cock"), thinks practices like the RIAA warning label and banning videos are archaic now. "If kids want to get something that their parents won't buy them, downloading is the perfect scenario," he says. "If I had a computer and LimeWire when I was 12 [or] 13, I would've been stealing music and movies like there was no tomorrow." alt

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