Back in 1993, when I was 16, a grim announcement was made from the podium of the church my family attended three times a week.
The topic? ABC was about to debut a new television drama featuring R-Rated violence/gore and pornographic sex scenes.
A petition was circulated throughout churches all across America, urging ABC to pull the plug on this unthinkably offensive program, which was titled NYPD Blue.
The backlash, sparked by one Donald E Wildmon, head of the American Family Association, didn’t get the show cancelled. Our local ABC affiliate, however, along with several others throughout America, at first refused to air it.
When the hype died down, the ban was lifted, and I tuned in to see what all the fuss was about. Turned out it was all hype, because the show was in no way, shape or form as explicit as it’d been made out to be.
Meanwhile, the publicity caused its ratings to skyrocket.
Wildmon, who spearheaded multiple subsequent TV boycotts, later wrote this book to cry about people trying to silence his voice:
Several years prior, in 1989, a woman named Terry Rakolta was so offended by Married… With Children that she successfully managed to, through a letter-writing campaign, get sponsors to remove their ads from the show. Fox even made them tone down the “raunch.” Still, the show continued to be a monster hit, and the boycott probably boosted its ratings. I wasn’t allowed to watch it after this, but I did anyway.
In 1990, Federal Judge Jose Gonzalez declared Miami rap group 2 Ljve Crew’s album Nasty As they Wanna Be legally obscene.
The publicity surrounding this was… well, if you were alive, you definitely remember it. It made your great grandma aware of who 2 Live Crew was. Everybody was talking about it.
The group’s appearance on Phil Donahue is one of my favorite moments in Television history, due to the reactions on the faces of the studio audience during their performance. The first verse was the sanitized version, but for the second verse, Brother Marquis performed the uncensored lyrics.
A record store owner in Florida made national headlines when he was arrested for selling the album after it was declared obscene. The significance of all of this is that people were so offended by the record that they managed to browbeat the government into censoring it. The government. Censored. Let that sink in. The band itself was arrested for performing the illegal songs.
The ruling was finally overturned in 1992, and by that time the band were superstars, having made millions thanks to the publicity. Having unwittingly became first Amendment Crusaders, they released the single Banned in the USA, with the full blessing of Bruce Springsteen.
Naturally, 14 year-old me absolutely had to hear that tape. I finally did when riding in my friend’s older cousin’s mini-truck, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was the most shocking thing I’d heard to date. Once again, efforts to prevent kids from hearing something resulted in more kids hearing it.
Also in 1990, Judas Priest was actually PUT ON TRIAL, the allegations having been made that a 1978 cover of Spooky Tooth’s Better By you, Better than Me contained subliminal messages that prompted two teen fans attempt suicide in 1985. One survived, and one died at the scene.
They were found not guilty after the trial turned farcical and the accusations deemed to be without foundation.
In 1986, Ozzy Osbourne was sued by the parents of John McCollum, a teenaged boy who committed suicide while listening to the song Suicide Solution.
The song, clearly about the slow killing of oneself with alcohol, (the “solution” being liquor), was twisted into some sort of pro-suicide anthem by the media. The case was thrown out, but the backward masking issue that Priest later dealt with was present in this case as well.
In 1992, Ice-T’s newly formed metal band Body Count released their debut album, which featured a track called Cop Killer.
The song was written to express frustration with police brutality and cops literally getting away with murder. The President went after him, police nationwide went after him, Charlton Heston and the NRA went after him, etc etc etc. Ice-T was public enemy #1 for quite some time.
Oddly, the media for years called the track a “rap song,” even though it was metal. It used to make me wonder if they’d even heard it.
The legions of offended called for boycotts of Time Warner and everyone else involved in peddling this “dangerous” music. Warner at first refused to remove the song, but finally did so at Ice-T’s behest. The song is no longer commercially available, but everyone heard anyway it and it’s readily accessible for kids to discover today.
In 1985, the PMRC, or Parents Music Resource Center, was founded by Tipper Gore and a bunch of other ‘80s Karens. They made a big stink about Prince, WASP, Madonna, and all kinds of other artists they compiled for a list dubbed “The Filthy 15.”
A senate hearing was held, during which Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, Frank Zappa and John Denver, among others, all testified, speaking out against what they saw as a call for censorship by the PMRC, who wanted to put the following sticker on records:
Of course, that sticker became iconic, and for a time it served as an assurance to teens that the music contained beneath it was cool.
In 1989, the FBI sent this letter to Eazy E’s Ruthless Records. It wasn’t traditional censorship, by the strictest definition, but its intent was clearly to intimidate.
Thanks to the FBI’s free publicity, NWA’s album sales skyrocketed. are you starting to see a pattern, here?
Cancel culture was a big part of my youth, though it wasn’t called that. It was usually perpetrated by offended conservatives, with the exception of the PMRC.
We would receive these newsletters in the mail from “Family” organizations that told readers who to boycott and who to vote for, among other things. Levi’s was a major one. I wasn’t allowed to wear any Levi’s products due to a nationwide boycott by those offended by the company’s “gay-friendly” stance. I think we even boycotted KFC for some reason or another.
Way back in the day, entertainers were “blacklisted” after accusations of communism rendered them social pariahs. Didn’t matter if it was true or not. If you were gay, you hid your orientation out of fear of losing your career as well. And that wasn’t limited to the entertainment industry, either. This was across the board.
Remember all the hubbub over Marilyn Manson in the ‘90s? He was even accused of being responsible for the Columbine Shooting, though the kids involved allegedly didn’t even like his music. Everything he did pissed people off, and of course, caused album sales to skyrocket as a result.
Remember the Reverend Calvin Butts(real name) publicly running over Snoop Doggy Dogg cds with a steamroller? Butts, C Dolores Tucker and even Oprah all got in on the rap-bashing, and all helped the albums they railed against go platinum.
Remember people burning Beatles records?
These are all just a few examples of a “cancel culture” that has always existed in America. In 1798, for example, President John Adams signed a Sedition Act that essentially made it illegal to criticize the government in the press. 25 people were arrested under the law.
I know you remember what happened to the Dixie Chicks.
I recognized, even as a kid, that one day all of this censorship, whether by the hand of the government or social pressure on companies, would one day be turned around on the very same people perpetrating it. Because of course it would. And now it has. The chickens have come home to roost.
My stance? I’m firmly against manipulating the system with the intended result of silencing anyone’s voice. You can tell me all you want that it’s “not censorship,” and by the legal definition, you’re correct—it’s a loophole.
It’s kind of a lonely place to be. You know, being a proponent of unrestricted speech. Both the right and left want to suppress the things they don’t like, and I’m not here for any of it.
Having said that, I absolutely love enjoying things that people tell me I shouldn’t be enjoying, whether it’s a book, a movie or a song. Adds a dash of flavor, y’know? Joe Rogan is a cool show, IMO. I enjoy it on occasion, when the guest is interesting or even iconic, and care not what Neil Young or anyone else thinks. I like him too. They’ll both be okay because celebrity “cancel culture” as we know it today is largely bullshit and continues to provide free publicity to its targets.
The real danger of cancel culture continues to be everyday people victimized by the loss of their livelihoods over virtually nothing. I’m not talking about someone getting in trouble for tweeting some outrageously racist or threatening statement and then being called out on it and fired because the company doesn’t want the heat. That’s always been a thing.
I’m talking about people who DIG through years of tweets and mine little nuggets of mildly “problematic” material and use them to attack someone and ruin their life. That person may have moved on and matured with the times and their understanding of certain issues, but this random musing from 2009, that may have even been considered fine at the time, is held up like evidence of witchcraft in 17th century Salem. The hysterical, bloodthirsty mob delights in downfall and cares not for any personal growth that may have taken place since said Tweet. That’s the “cancel culture” I have a problem with.