What the !&*#% did he just say there?!

Editing offensive lyrics has become extremely commonplace — if inconsistent and haphazard

National Post
August 2, 2021
By Neil Strauss

Something seemed a little strange when the Los Angeles hip-hop radio station Power 106 played a song by pop's biggest current star, 27-year-old white rapper Eminem, that had not yet been released as a single. Trying to mask offensive lyrics, the station bleeped out a derogatory term for blacks but left in a derogatory term for gays.

On the so-called clean version of the Eminem album, The Marshall Mathers LP, the record label excised entire tracks to create an alternative CD that parents could buy for their children.

In the remaining songs, the lyrics have been extensively edited -- up to 60 times in a single song -- to eliminate references to drugs, violence, profanity and hate speech. Most anti-gay slurs have been removed, while a derogatory term for women remains, cropping up scores of times on the album.

These and countless other such incidents show a remarkable change in the way record companies and radio stations now handle explicit lyrics as well as the inconsistencies in these methods. In the 1980s and early '90s, major music labels held themselves up as free speech champions as they fought against pressure groups attacking specific songs. But today, as the record-buying audience grows younger and political and business pressures on record companies mount, an array of song-lyric review and editing procedures have become routine.

Artists are regularly asked to re-sing lyrics, edit out particular words and even excise entire songs from albums. In addition, changes made to songs for radio play are often far more extensive than the simple editing required to make them conform to federal regulations.

Universal Music, the nation's biggest record label, now has a review board of employees representing different races and both sexes. The board screens the lyrics of every record the company releases for explicit language. As a result, recent albums by rappers such as Eminem, Dr. Dre and Juvenile have lyrics that are bleeped or excised from all copies of their albums -- not just the clean versions -- in a practice that has never existed to such a degree in the industry.

Although every major label creates edited versions of explicit singles for radio and clean versions of albums (which can account for 10% to 15% of sales for an artist such as Eminem), those speaking for major labels outside the Universal system denied having formal committees to review lyrics. Many music executives, however, say review boards are widespread.

"It's getting like we almost have a McCarthyism in the business," said Phyllis Pollack, a press agent who has worked with some of rap's most notorious groups, including NWA and the Geto Boys. "But the censorship isn't new. What's new is the fear and the compliance going on to this extent. And I think a lot of artists go along with it because they're afraid of being lost in the corporate shuffle and falling out of favour with their labels."

Hilary Rosen, the president of the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group representing the major labels, said that the attention paid to lyrics was not a matter of McCarthyism but a means of balancing several different responsibilities.

"Every label has a review board, or at least someone reviews the music," she said. "I think it's a combination of both not wanting to stifle artists, but wanting what I feel is a very real sense of corporate and social responsibility. The political pressures are real, but I think just as importantly, executives and artists care about the parenting issues."

Industry executives and experts cite many other possible reasons for the increased vigilance. Some see it as a response to the increasing cultural dominance of hip hop, generally a more verbally explicit genre than rock and pop.

Others point to the increased share of the music market -- 10% to 20% for popular artists -- represented by chains such as Wal-Mart and Kmart, which refuse to carry albums with parental advisory stickers. And some complain that the industry is giving ground to conservative critics such as William J. Bennett, the Reverend Pat Robertson and U.S. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. These shifts in the handling of explicit content also come as record labels are seeking government help in their war against unauthorized downloading of music from the Internet, and high-stakes corporate mergers are making many companies more financially and musically conservative.

"There's no rhyme or reason to what we're made to do," complained a top executive at one major label who, like many interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he felt caught between artists' rights and the demands of more conservative retailers.

J-Flexx, a rapper who has written No. 1 hits for Dr. Dre and others, has another theory about the changing attitude toward explicit content. "I don't think the industry has such high morals," he said. "I think the industry goes to whoever's buying the music. When gangsta rap was selling four or five years ago, everyone was looking for something hard. But right now pre-teens are buying the records, so the industry is looking at lyrics real closely and catering to them."

In many cases there are dozens, sometimes more than a hundred, different versions of a popular single floating around, most of them edited by individual radio stations with no contractual relationship with the artist. But as artists such as Eminem are attacked for homophobic and misogynistic lyrics, critics are noticing that those trying to clean up these lyrics are not doing a consistent job. The sanitized songs, they say, are full of inconsistencies and double standards that reveal as much about the sensitivities -- or lack of them -- of the industry expurgators as they do about the artists.

One example is on the recent Eminem CD. A new song was added to the cleaned-up version to replace one about domestic violence. Titled Kids, it is a tongue-in-cheek anti-drug rap that parodies the cartoon South Park. But while much of the hate speech and references to violence and drug and alcohol abuse have been cut out of the album (even to the extreme of removing all instances of the words "kill," "hit," "slit," "shoot," "O.D." and "Zig-Zag"), in this new song a student makes fun of a teacher, laughing and saying, "He's got AIDS."

"It's disturbing to me that they even have to make a clean version of a record and eliminate certain things," said Danny Goldberg, founder of Artemis Records and the former president of Mercury Records. "But if retailers want to eliminate things that offend some people, why does that not apply to language that's offensive to gays and lesbians?"

Executives at Interscope Records and its parent company, Universal, declined to comment on the Eminem inconsistencies or to discuss anything related to the screening or editing of content. But elsewhere, one top-ranking major label executive said that creating a clean version of a record at his label was a haphazard process with no rules and that it was usually done by an unsupervised junior staff member at a computer.

The finished product, the executive added, is something no one at the label signs off on, in part because it is "annoying to listen to" with all the missing lyrics, not unlike a cellphone conversation in an area with bad reception.

Bob Bernstein, a spokesman for Universal, confirmed the existence of a formal board that screens all lyrics before a record with a parental advisory sticker can be released. Some of Universal's subsidiary labels, such as MCA, have also instituted review panels, meaning that some records have to pass through two committees before being released. The results, with lyrics noticeably edited or obscured in every version, make it impossible to hear a song as it was intended to be heard.

This occurs on recent albums by Eminem, Dr. Dre and Juvenile. On What's the Difference, on Dr. Dre's Chronic 2001, a computerized female voice is inserted to obscure a lyric in which Dr. Dre venomously insults another rapper. On the Eminem record, at least two small passages have been dropped -- one sympathizing with the Columbine killers in I'm Back, another a graphic insult directed at his own family in the rap Marshall Mathers. On the Juvenile record 400 Degreez, for some reason the word "homicide" has been removed from Gone Ride With Me while all other references to violence and gunplay on the album remain.

Bernstein said Universal would neither disclose the names of those on the review board nor permit interviews with them. But executives at other record companies and at radio stations were willing to discuss the editing process, and the consensus was that there was no consensus. What can be played at night on the radio is not the same as what can be played during the day; what's suitable for a modern rock station might not float at an oldies station; what's right for Manhattan might not fly in Little Rock, Ark.