Music of the United States

Davidson College, Fall 2015

Month: November 2015 (Page 1 of 3)

1989: NWA Arrested in Detroit

In the year of 1989 the gangsta rap group NWA went on a tour throughout the United States for their album Straight Outta Compton. One song on the album tilted “Fuck Tha Police” had garnered a lot of attention by the United States populous and their government. Throughout the country communities that were predominantly African-American had started to report riots due to the feelings the song stirred up about the police. Eventually the riots became so bad that the group had received letters from the FBI requesting that they no longer play the song for the safety of police officers everywhere.

The song was written by NWA members, Ice Cube and MC Ren, based off their personal experiences with police brutality in Compton. The song is based around a mock trial with NWA member Dr. Dre acting as the judge. Ice Cube’s, MC Ren’s and  Eazy-E’s lyrics are a testimony against the brutality of the police force. The song ends with Dr. Dre declaring the police officer is guilty of being a “redneck, white bread, chickenshit motherfucker”.

Before the group went on their tour they promised their producer that they would not perform Fuck Tha Police on stage because of the riots. The concert in Detroit was the first time the song was played during the tour.

Before the group went on stage, the Detroit Police addressed them and told them that if they performed the song that they would be arrested. When the group went on stage the crowd repeatedly chanted “Fuck Tha Police.” Eventually the group gave into their demands and performed the song. The Detroit police immediately responded, pushing their way to the front of the crowd. One officer set off fireworks in the crowd causing the group to scatter off the stage.

The group was able to avoid the police and make it back to their hotel rooms however, once they traveled back to the lobby to meet their groupies the police greeted them instead and they were promptly arrested.


Hinds, Julie. “Did ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Get That Detroit Scene Right?” Detroit Free Press. Detroit Free Press, 22 Aug. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Should Madonna have Censored Her Music Video “American Life”?



In March 2003, Madonna filmed a music video for her song “American Life” but later decided not to release it. The video opens with the scene of models on a runway dressed up as soldiers. The video then shows Muslim children walking the runway as the soldiers bully them. In the final scene, Madonna throws a hand grenade at George W. Bush. Additionally, weapons shooting, planes firing missiles, bombs dropping, and buildings collapsing frequent the video. On March 20, 2003, United States troops entered Iraq and the Iraq War began. Shortly after on April 1, 2003, Madonna cancelled the release of her music video and instead released a video of her singing the song in front of a backdrop of flags of different countries. After the cancellation of the release of her music video, Madonna stated, “I have decided not to release my new video. It was filmed before the war started and I do not believe it is appropriate to air it at this time. Due to the volatile state of the world and out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, who I support and pray for, I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video.” Because Madonna cancelled the release of the video on her own accord, this is an example of self-censorship. Since she owns the rights to the video, Madonna has the right to censor it. But should she? Anthony Tommasini, an author for the New York Times once said “Of course art can provide solace and comfort. Yet art can also incense and challenge us, make us squirm, make us think.” And Madonna’s video does just that. It challenges us. It makes us think. To me, it is obvious why Madonna removed her video. When watching the video, it is clear that Madonna opposes war. I highly doubt her thoughts on the war had  changed after the war started. Madonna didn’t release this video not because her thoughts on war had changed but simply because she knew it would receive backlash and she wanted to preserve her image. To me, this is a coward move. Although Madonna’s video may be upsetting to some, it does provide an interesting perspective on war, a perspective that needs to be circulated and discussed. The only way to progress as a society is to allow for the circulation of all ideas, no matter how popular or unpopular they may be. Ultimately, just as “one is free to make art, one is free not to pay attention to it.” Therefore, while I do think there is a case for censorship, the act of censoring should be done by the audience, not by the artist.

Works Cited

Scherzinger, Martin. 2007. Double Voices of Music Censorship after 9/11. In Music in the Post- 9/11 World, Jonathan Ritter and J. Martin Daughtry, editors. New York: Routledge.


Sylvester was an American disco and blues singer and song writer, he was openly homosexual. He was known by his flamboyant appearance and for singing in falsetto. His career started with the Disquotays, an African-American cross dressing group that Sylvester helped form out of friends he made in his local gay community.  He then moved to San Francisco where he joined The Cockettes, where he was a very significant member because of his falsetto abilities. Sylvester then went on to start his own group Sylvester and His Hot Band, they did not experience much commercial success.

The Intersection of Gay Disco and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

As Alice Echols argues in her book “Hot Stuff”, the rise of American disco was intertwined with the rise of the masculine queer subculture that was arising in New York and San Francisco.  Echols also claims that the popular disco group Village People served as ambassadors of gay macho to the rest of the world.  However, because of society’s misconceptions about what a gay man stereotypically looks like, many heterosexual men failed to realize that the disco culture was actually promoting a queer subculture, believing instead that these disco groups were a new representation of masculinity in America.

This misperception of the disco movement led to an interesting intersection between the disco movement and the United States military.  In 1978, Village People released a song entitled “Y.M.C.A.” that became extremely popular in the United States, and served as an excellent advertising tool for the YMCA.  Once the United States Navy realized that disco music could potentially be an extremely powerful recruiting tool, they decided to reach out to Village People to see if they would be willing to create and perform a song that the Navy could use to recruit more potential troops.

The different perceptions of disco between the gay and straight cultures are extremely important in this particular case, because at this point in time, openly gay individuals were not allowed to serve in the United States military.  While this particular military policy did not actually receive the name “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” until 1993, the military had effectively operated under this policy for almost two hundred years prior to Village People performing the song “In the Navy”.  Because of this, the song could possibly have two different interpretations depending on the background of the person listening.  Members of the United States Navy who sponsored this production would likely view it as promoting the Navy as being hyper masculine group, simultaneously stroking their own egos, and hopefully incentivizing other young men to join their ranks.  However, queer men who saw this advertisement during this time period may have viewed it as a work of satire, mocking the fact that the armed forces are unknowingly utilizing the rising hyper-masculine gay subculture as a recruiting tool, while the target audience for this type of performance would not have been allowed to join.

While in this particular scenario, the music itself was not censored, it highlights one of the many ways in which queer voices have been silenced over the course of American history, particularly in regard to them participating in the armed forces.  However, the disco movement certainly seemed to take the appropriate steps to challenge society’s views on homosexuality, which began the process of allowing homosexuals to be fully integrated into all facets of American life without having to hide their true personalities.


Echols, Alice. “Homo Superiors.” Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American       Culture. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. N. pag. Print.

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland was an American composer whose work was most prominent during the early to mid 20th century. Some of his most famous works include Appalachian Spring and Fanfare for the Common Man. Copland is referred to as the “Dean of American Composers” because of his initial establishment of an “American” style of composition. He wrote his works in a way that they were accessible to the public, known as “populist” style.


W.A.S.P is a heavy metal band that was started by Blackie Lawless in 1982. The group was most prominent in the 1980’s but, they continue to perform and make new songs today. The band is most well known for their shocking and obscene live performances. One part of the show that is most notorious is performed during the song Tormentor. During the song Lawless would reveal a half naked woman tied to a rack and pretend to torture her on stage. The band was a large target for the Parents Music Resource Center due to their offensive lyrics and obscene performances.

In The Navy

“In The Navy” is a disco song written by the American disco group Village People in 1979.  Village People had previously been extremely successful with the song “Y.M.C.A.”, which provided a valuable advertising tool for the YMCA.  The United States Navy, after seeing the popularity of this song, contacted Village People to see if they would be willing to produce a song to be used as a recruiting tool for the US Navy, and “In The Navy” is the song that ended up being used for these purposes.

If I Had A Hammer

“If I Had A Hammer” is a song that was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949.  Seeger’s version of the song was not particularly commercially successful, however, in the early 1960s, a cover version by Peter, Paul and Mary eventually became a top 10 hit.  The song became a freedom song of the American Civil Rights Movement, because the lyrical content focuses on the power of individuals to enact progressive social changes in their society.

Kanye West at the 2015 Billboard Music Awards vs. Censorship


Censorship is a matter that has posed a lot of issues for artists spanning many different genres, from folk, rock n’ roll, heavy metal, and rap. The most recent case of censorship I encountered was Kanye West’s performance of “Black Skinhead” and “All Day” at the 2015 Billboard Music Awards. Throughout his performance, his microphone would suddenly turn off, but so much of his performance was censored that over a minute of his performance was inaudible. When I first saw the performance live on TV, I thought it was just a technical issue with the microphone. But it had a huge impact on the way I perceived his performance. Comparing it to the recorded versions I listen to on his album, his performance was incredibly disappointing, but not through any fault of his own.

In this case, censorship occurred on a corporate level, since the producers of the Billboard Music Awards were the ones who chose to censor Kanye. It is difficult to determine who had the right in this situation. Since the music is technically Kanye’s property, did he have the right to perform what he wanted without interference? Or did the producers of the awards show have the right to censor his music, because he was a guest on their show?

I would argue that Kanye had the right to perform his songs without interference and censorship from the producers. He created his music with the intent to spread a message and has previously performed to thousands of people without any form of censorship. By censoring his performance, not only did the producers ruin the aesthetic effect of the performance (which is one of the main pleasurable aspects for the audience), but they also made a bold statement about the messages Kanye conveys through his music. Kanye actually apologized “to television audiences who were unable to enjoy the performance the way he envisioned” (Pitchfork). So because of this uncalled for censorship, his performance was disappointing for both the audience and for himself as a performer. The producers may have felt that his message was inappropriate because it included a lot of profanity, but as a form of artistic self-expression, he is just discussing his own views and experiences. By censoring his performance, the producers were, in a sense, questioning and even denying the realness and validity of Kanye’s own experiences.

In a world where we pride ourselves on being more and more accepting and inclusive of differences in race, gender, sexuality, etc., why are we still censoring reality? We still have a long ways to go in the fight to equality, and music is able to expose us to issues that still exist. By censoring music, we are merely covering up real problems instead of actively trying to fix them. I believe that if an artist were to censor their own music, then that would be okay, since they have control over their own work. But if an external entity, such as the government or a corporation, were to impose censors on an artist’s work without their consent, or even their knowledge, then this would be an issue.

Work Cited:

Minsker, Evan. “Kanye West Releases Statement About Billboard Music Awards Censorship.” Pitchfork. Pitchfork, 19 May 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.

The Importance of Aaron Copland in American Music

Aaron Copland is without a doubt one of the most important composers in American history.  In a time when America’s classical music was dominated by old, European concepts of music, Copland provided a fresh new perspective of what American classical music had the potential to be.  Copland created music that contained a perfect balance of intricacy but also accessibility to the masses, creating what many consider to be the first truly American sound in classical music.


In the 1930s and 40s, Copland created some of his most important works as a composer.  During this time he attempted to create a kind of classical music that would be accessible to a “mainstream” audience in the U.S.  This style is now often referred to as “populist” music because while it contained many intricate aspects of European classical music, it was presented in a format that was much simpler and accessible for the masses.

During the Great Depression, the U.S. government funded massive programs in the arts in an attempt to create jobs and to form some kind of “art for the people”.  Copland’s political affiliations inspired him to attempt to create music that appealed to the masses.  Works like Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for the Common Man, and Third Symphony are slow and grand, conjuring images of the picturesque, open American landscape, as well as evoking thoughts of America’s stereotypical pioneer spirit.

While Aaron Copland was originally inspired to create his unique music by a desire to reach the masses, he was able to successfully find the right balance of quality and accessibility, which allowed him to create a sound that is now thought of as authentically American.  Copland helped shape American music by emerging from the sea of classical European-style composers to create something entirely new.


“Copland and the American Sound.” PBS. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Trudeau, Andy. “The Copland Story: An Artistic Biography.” NPR Online. NPR. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.

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