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Black Bars and Belly Buttons

Philip Burrowes

Some people would have you think television stations are morally obligated to censor their own shows. These people believe that the influence television exercises over society demands that its influence be as positive as possible. Whether or not this is true -- not as simple a question as one might think -- there are clearly forms of censorship that work in this regard and forms that do not. Demanding that an actress be clothed over her belly button, as they did in the days of “I Dream of Jeannie,” for example, is more effective than editing a small black bar around a navel. In other words, it is one thing to prohibit an action and it is another thing to edit out the action in a way that still allows the viewer to know what is going on. Yet music videos have been doing the latter for years.

Nowhere is this more egregious than in the video for “Part II,” a song off the soundtrack to the Method Man and Redman movie How High. A cable station which shall remain nameless blanks the word “high” in the song’s chorus, but only sometimes. Said hook (and the song’s background) is partially taken from the Toni Braxton song “Making Me High” -- a song concerning men and masturbation, not marijuana -- with Toni beginning “I get so high.” Meth’s subsequent warning of getting “high off your own supply” has both “high” and “supply” silenced. Braxton continues “I can touch the sky,” but when Meth follows with “So high that...” it is again quieted. Finally, the refrain’s end of the rappers saying “Let’s get” and Braxton ringing in “high” is removed so all the listener hears is the beat.

Of course it can be rationalized that the “high” at the beginning of the song does not suggest smoking until it is placed in the context of “supply.” By the same token, once the song is placed in the context of it being by Method Man and Redman (note that this is “Part II”) it should be obvious. Furthermore, consider that it is off the soundtrack of a motion picture with the premise -- besides the running joke that Harvard is too uptight -- that marijuana is a panacea. The vast majority of people watching the video will know this, so bleeping any part of the song does little to affect the public’s already attained desensitization. Perhaps it is a warning to the artists, but if they went far enough to make a film purporting (and profitably so) weed as an all-purpose herbal remedy, some video editing will little dissuade them.

“High” is not the only recent target of this ineffective strategy. “Ecstasy” was excised in “Cash, Money, Cars” by Ruff Endz. “Crack” was censored from “We Thuggin’” by Fat Joe and R. Kelly. “Drug” itself and “dealers” were deleted from Ludacris’ “Southern Hospitality.” If I had the patience to sit through all the Puffy (I don’t care what he wants to be called) and Jay-Z videos which came out last year, I could find many more instances. This is all from a network that still managed to air Afroman’s “Cuz I Got High.”

What really renders this strategy impotent is not the lack of coordination within a given network, but throughout the entire music playing industry. To illustrate this, consider that Jammin’ 94.5 FM played D12’s “Purple Hills” with “acid” references intact, but even the toned down video version which replaced it with “Tums” was banned from some television programs. By themselves, lyrics need not suggest either the use of or abstinence from drugs. However, once a song is aired, listeners would know what was censored and it may make the word more pronounced, paradoxically reinforcing what was removed.

All this is to say it is indeed a concern, that the prevalence of drugs in popular music is a problem. It is a largely one-sided story, one of profitability and glory. When Missy Elliot made a mini-video of “4 My People,” she was able to seamlessly substitute “American” for “ecstasy,” which should give you a hint of its original context. Such lyrics overlook the consequences of substance abuse, either because of ignorance on the part of artists or, even worse, apathy. The concern, however, cannot solely be drug-related.

Conceptions of drugs are simply not dictated by music (of that form, anyway). Offhand I couldn’t name a single song in 2000 that mentioned ecstasy. While I can name several from 2001, the actual jump in teenage use -- according to the recently released NIH-funded study “Monitoring the Future” -- was lowest since its popularity jump before the turn of the century. In fact more 12th graders are associating risk with experimentation than ever before on record. To think this will be reversed because Ja Rule claims to keep women “drugged up off that ecstasy” in “Always on Time” misses the problem; that’s just a reprehensible line to put in a song.

By keeping drugs taboo, music television allows artists to convey a certain feeling simply by mentioning a random substance, freeing musicians from having to craft truly substantive messages. Yes, it is unfortunate that a video audience may be presented with the idea that drug use is something more than hedonism, but it’s far worse that general music quality is decreasing as sales increase.

Each of the artists I’ve mentioned has gotten away with multiple hits (yes, even Afroman). If a network feels people are incapable of deciding not to watch videos which mention, let alone showcase drugs, then it should feel compelled to do more than snip out “objectionable” material (which it can’t do properly anyway). Where are the attempts to prevent music like that from becoming popular? Or how about addressing the musicians’ own conceptions of drug use rather than doing their own work for them? As it is now, video censorship is merely a superficial attempt at addressing a deeper issue.