By Kezia Newson
One of the most exciting parts of being the Communications Assistant at Youth Music is hearing the music created by young people from the projects we support. And we love to share this music with our supporters: it’s one of the best ways for us to demonstrate what our charity does via our website, social media, newsletters and other communications channels. However, if we share tracks where young people express themselves freely, do we run the risk of upsetting those who object to the language used or the subject matter?
At Youth Music’s all staff meeting, we decided to collectively agree our policy on which songs we want to share publicly. Should we adopt the approach of BBC radio, where certain language is removed before broadcast? Should we follow the route of Spotify, where strong language is flagged so listeners can make their own choices? Or should we take a different path? (Unsurprisingly, the following post contains language that some may find offensive.)
It was reported in March 2016 that Apple has been given the rights to work on a system that detects swear words in audio as someone listens to it. The patent includes details of how "unwanted audio may be removed during audio playback" and "may be replaced with alternate audio, such as non-explicit lyrics, a beep or silence". Music and ‘explicit’ language is a topic of discussion that people seem to have ever-changing opinions about. For example, Rolling in The Deep by Adele has been edited by some radio stations, because the lyric “reach the fever pitch” had been mistaken for saying “reach the fever bitch”, and it’s unclear whether she sings “ship” or “shit” in one line.
To me this seems needless and petty. However, it’s likely that it would have had fewer radio plays if it hadn’t been changed, so is it better to make songs ‘clean’?
As a music organisation, we talk about this subject a lot. We want to share the work our young people make, mainly because it’s staggeringly brilliant! However, we face a conundrum: which rules do we work with for deciding which language is acceptable? What are we personally offended by? Are we silencing the young people’s voices if we ask them to change their language? Or is it in their best interest for a professional career in music? Which terms are too rude to share?
Language which could be perceived as offensive covers many things. Madonna’s Like a Prayer was taken off radio playlists after criticism from the Vatican. It was said that the song’s video contained blasphemous imagery, and Christians in Italy were encouraged to boycott her concerts.
Other more common objections include refusing to play (or editing out) swearing, hate speech, drug references, sexual themes or even innuendos (remember the controversy caused by Britney Spears’s If You Seek Amy?) Different radio stations have different regulations: however artists releasing tracks containing these themes often have to make a choice between making a ‘radio-friendly’ version or being perceived as unplayable.
Our staff team agreed that since we’re not Mary Whitehouse types, swear words are okay by us. But that doesn’t stand if the same words are used in hate speech. Context is everything. We want the young people on our projects to feel open to talk about their lives and experiences and so wouldn’t censor descriptions of events that have taken place. However, if we sense the language to be threatening or violent in intent, that’s not okay. Openness is encouraged but so is positivity and respect.
Misogynistic language is something that has been addressed in the mainstream media a lot recently. Stormzy, a grime artist from London, was recently asked about the misogynistic lyrics in rap music at his talk at Oxford University. He admitted that it’s become a norm for some artists, and he’s not immune: "Me personally, I say the odd b-word or slut or sket - this sounds so bad man now I'm saying it. I don't know enough to give a proper comment cos I don't want to say 'we're not that bad' when we probably are…”
‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke was flagged in several countries for its references to rape but that didn’t stop it from being one of the most successful songs of 2013. However, increased awareness of and resistance to misogynistic lyrics may mean that the generation of young people making music now may decide that disrespecting women is not acceptable.
Racialised language is another big issue. For example, there have been interviews with black artists saying they want to ‘reclaim’ the N-word by using it about themselves or others in a positive or affectionate sense. Others think it should be banned completely. In the same interview at Oxford, Stormzy was also asked about this subject. "It's horrible. It's disgusting… But I'm the worst. It's not cool. I'm trying to stop… It's not cool and I will stop. It's very lazy of us as well. You know the worst thing, it's become like, just, good to use in a lyric, because it flows well. It's a filler word. That sounds so horrible. The word is way too horrible to be used in that way."
Again, context is everything. If a person is using racialised language in the spirit of reclaiming a word, or describing a situation in which it was used, they should be able to express that. However, racist language used against an individual or group is obviously unacceptable.
These are all questions we asked ourselves and it took a great deal of discussion to come to a complete set of rules. In summary, we agreed two key points:
- We will continue to encourage the projects we support to send us music made by young people, regardless of its lyrical content. Our projects take place (mostly) outside school, and participants are free to express themselves. Often the young people we work with have little autonomy over any other areas of their life, and freedom of creative expression gives them an important outlet to counter this. We know that project staff encourage young people to consider the language they use. We can learn a lot about young people from lyrics: their interests, their emotions, and their attitudes.
- When it comes to sharing music through Youth Music’s communications channels, we will listen to each song carefully, and make a decision about whether it’s appropriate to share, and with whom. In general, we’ve decided to take a Spotify approach (flagging music with potentially offensive language so users can make their own decision) rather than the BBC radio route of only playing ‘clean’ tracks.