Man at His Best

Opinion: Ban It, And The Kids Are Gonna Crank It

Jonathan Fong wonders if music censorship is relevant in current times.

BY Jonathan Fong | May 16, 2016 | Music

Not so long ago, when record stores existed and folks bought physical copies of music by the millions, someone actually had a job in the Media Development Authority (MDA) listening to releases and, in the process, censoring, categorising and banning music.

As far back as the ’60s, there was a public servant who decided that Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon” was not just about a boy who lived by the sea with his unusual pet, but also a veiled message encouraging listeners to smoke marijuana. In the ’90s the authorities decided to ban Janet Jackson’s seminal album The Velvet Rope, because some tracks touched on homosexuality and sexually explicit themes like bondage. I, fortunately, managed to score my copy back in ’97 at a pasar malam stall in Jurong that sold bootleg CDs.

Procuring a copy of Weezer’s Pinkerton in 1996 proved a little more challenging. I took a bus to Johor Baru and hit up the handful of CD shops in malls. The album was deemed controversial at the time for “Tired of Sex” (a confessional track about River Cuomo’s meaningless trysts with groupies on the road and his inability to find true love), which, in 2016, sounds weaker than an episode of MTV’s Jersey Shore.

Of course, these formerly banned albums and songs are now easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, rendering any previous attempts at classification or censorship invalid. 

So is censorship or the regulation of musical content relevant in the present day? Yes, in terms of public performance and broadcast (hey, the MDA still keeps busy), but not when the Internet comes into play. When a child is pretty much able to watch a video of someone being beheaded alive on a newsfeed and explore the ever-evolving categorisation of on-demand pornography, the use and the context of vulgarities, ethnic slurs and hate language in music seem almost trivial by comparison. Eminem rapping about murdering his wife and stuffing her body in the trunk of a car enraged parents at the turn of the millennium. But those very same kids who cheered and championed the violent, evil Slim Shady alter ego (myself included) have to discern content for their children’s ears now.

At the end of the day, the reality is that banning and censoring music is only going to make a listener, regardless of age, curious about it. With far more pressing problems in existence across the globe (Donald Trump, climate change, poverty, Kanye West, just to name a few), I don’t see any harm in listening to Puff the Magic Dragon get his S&M on while sipping on his Mo-Fo gin and juice with my kid and responsibly doing the right parental thing by discussing the lyrics later on. I can only hope that when Weezer performs here in August, they do some cuts off Pinkerton. But I’m fine without “Tired of Sex” because, as everyone knows, the best tracks on that album are “Across the Sea” and “El Scorcho”.

From: Esquire Singapore's May 2016 issue.