Television was formerly the most sacred gatekeeper in the music industry, a medium that had enough power to make or break careers. However, it also has a dark tendency to stop artists from truly expressing their art, putting them through a beige filter that dilutes the message of the music.
Understandably, this has infuriated musicians, many of whom have felt humiliated by having their art censored by faceless television executives who have watered down their work in front of the eyes of millions.
The reasons for broadcasters taking the decision to suppress artists are wide-ranging, and sometimes their grounds were frankly absurd. Nobody is free from censorship, and some of the most cherished artists to ever grace the world have faced this unenviable situation.
Below, we reflect upon ten times when television interfered with music and stopped artists from conveying their desired message.
10 times musicians were censored on TV:
John Lydon and BBC
John Lydon has never been frightened to say exactly what is on his mind, and he has made it his objective to air uncomfortable truths, even if it landed him in hot water. During an interview with the broadcaster in 1978, the Sex Pistols leader said, “I want to kill Jimmy Savile – he’s a hypocrite. I bet he’s into all kinds of seediness that we all know about but aren’t allowed to talk about. I know some rumours.”
At the time, Savile was one of the BBC’s flagship names, and it didn’t become public knowledge until after the DJ’s death in 2011 that he was one of the most horrific paedophiles in British history. Following Lydon’s comments, he was unofficially banned from appearing on ‘Auntie’ for several years.
The punk icon had the final word in 2015 when he told ITV, “I did my bit, I said what I had to. But they didn’t air that”.
Rage Against The Machine and ‘SNL’
Saturday Night Live is still the holy grail for musicians, and it remains a landmark achievement to perform on the institution. Politics have always been a keen part of Rage Against The Machine’s image, but, for some reason, when they demonstrated their ideology on SNL, it caused an uproar.
The band were an unorthodox booking for such a mainstream programme in the first place, and there was an expectation that Rage would have a trick up their sleeve for their performance.
In truth, their political statement was subtle by their standards, and all they did was hang American flags upside down from their amplifiers while playing ‘Bulls on Parade’. However, they were soon escorted out of 30 Rock and have never been invited back.
The Doors and Ed Sullivan
The Ed Sullivan Show had a notorious policy for censoring artists, and The Doors felt his wrath first hand. During rehearsal, the host approached the band and instructed them to “smile more”, which was a sign of things to come.
Later that afternoon, a producer asked the band to change a lyric in their number one single, ‘Light My Fire’. The contentious line was “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher”, and the suggestion was changing the word form “higher” to “better”.
The band duly agreed to alter the words, but they had no intentions to do so in realirty. Instead, they went on to perform the song how they always intended. Their stubbornness resulted in a ban from the programme, yet, their integrity remained intact.
Neil Young and MTV
Neil Young’s video ‘This Note’s For You’ took a sideways glance at the commodification of artists. This parody was relevant after the likes of Eric Clapton started getting into bed with advertisers, and it was his way of poking fun at his peers.
However, MTV, which relied on funding from the same brands that Young mocked, refused to air the song. In response, Young wrote to the broadcaster and said: “MTV, you spineless twerps. You refuse to play ‘This Note’s For You’ because you’re afraid to offend your sponsors. What does the ‘M’ in MTV stand for: music or money? Long live rock and roll.”
Remarkably, after the intervention by the Canadian, they admitted defeat and began to play ‘This Note’s For You’. In a dramatic turn of events, it even won the ‘Video Of The Year’ award at the 1989 MTV Awards.
The Rolling Stones and every broadcaster
The Rolling Stones are no stranger to controversy, and they’ve enjoyed frequenting the tightrope for years. The band have a history of sometimes overstepping the mark, such as their video for ‘Undercover Of The Night’.
The video was shot in Mexico City and starred Mick Jagger as a detective helping a woman whose boyfriend (also played by Jagger) has been kidnapped by a gang led by Keith Richards, who later kills Jagger.
The video was deemed too violent for MTV, the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority, who put out a blanket ban on the film.
Jagger later revealed it “was heavily influenced by William Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, a free-wheeling novel about political and sexual repression. It combines a number of different references to what was going down in Argentina and Chile.”
The Beatles and BBC
Even The Beatles weren’t too big to be censored, and the BBC refused to air their track, ‘I Am The Walrus’, which was banned completely from all arms of the broadcaster.
It was the line, “Pornographic priestess/ Boy, you’ve been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down,” which upset the institution that believed this proved ‘I Am The Walrus’ was about sex.
In a later interview, John Lennon discussed the ban and said, “The words didn’t mean a lot. People draw so many conclusions, and it’s ridiculous. I’ve had tongue in cheek all along–all of them had tongue in cheek. Just because other people see depths of whatever in it…What does it really mean, ‘I am the Eggman?’ It could have been ‘The pudding Basin’ for all I care. It’s not that serious.”
The Prodigy and MTV
The Prodigy’s provocative dance anthem, ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, caused controversy from the title alone after it angered feminist groups. Their complaints were understandable, but it’s not the use of the discriminatory slur with which MTV took issue.
The video for the track includes drug use, driving under the influence, sex, nudity, and a smattering of brutal violence. Initially, the video was restricted to late-night airings. However, the broadcaster would later release a public statement explaining that they would no longer show it on their stations.
Despite its ban, it was nominated in four categories at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards, winning ‘Best Dance Video’ and ‘Breakthrough Video’.
The Beastie Boys and ‘American Bandstand’
The Beastie Boys made history when they became the first group to become censored on American Bandstand with their appearance in 1987. Their excitement to perform ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)’ dissipated when they were told to lip-sync, and they made the producers rue that request.
“We had to [perform] to a tape,” Adam’ Ad-Rock’ Horovitz later remembered to Morning Call. “We couldn’t play it live, so we threw our mikes on the ground and wrecked them.”
That’s exactly what they did, and they deliberately sabotaged the programme by delivering the most woeful performance imaginable. Halfway through the song, Ad-Rock, even explicitly grabbed his crotch. Unsurprisingly, this suggestive gesture was edited from the final programme that made it to air.
Pearl Jam and MTV
Pearl Jam’s ‘Jeremy’ depicts the heartbreaking tale of a real-life student, Jeremy Wade Delle, who killed himself in front of his classmates, and the video for the track is chilling. However, the film we associate with the song isn’t the original footage they intended to release.
Singer Eddie Vedder initially recruited Chris Cuffaro, who created a graphic video to accompany the track, which never saw the light of day until 2020. MTV told their label, Epic, there was no chance they could air it, and they hired Mark Pellington to create a more palatable version.
Explaining their decision to finally release Cuffaro’s take, Vedder said, “In addition to the equity protests taking place around the country, today also marks National Wear Orange Day. The increase in gun violence since the debut of ‘Jeremy’ is staggering.
“We have released the uncensored version of the video which was unavailable in 1992 with TV censorship laws,” they added.
Elvis Presley and Ed Sullivan
Making his debut on The Ed Sullivan Show was a bucket-list moment for Elvis Presley, who declared after the performance, “Wow! This is probably the greatest honour that I’ve ever had in my life. There’s not much I can say except it makes you feel good. We want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
However, what he didn’t know at the time was that his performance had been censored. Following a controversial hip-shaking appearance on NBC’s Steve Allen Show, television executives decided they didn’t want a repeat incident and only showed Presley from the waist-up for ‘Don’t Be Cruel’.