Bleep On, Bleep Off: Kanye West and “Censorship”

LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 17:  Rapper Kanye West performs onstage during the 2015 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 17, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/BMA2015/Getty Images for dcp)

(Photo by Kevin Winter/BMA2015/Getty Images for dcp)

Kanye West closed Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards with a medley of his current hit “All Day” and his two year-old album cut “Black Skinhead.” The performance elicited boos in the room and online, for different reasons. The audience objected to the introductory remarks from pop culture pariahs Kendall and Kylie Jenner and the blinding light that radiated from West’s stage setup, obscuring the performance from view.

Viewers at home objected to ABC’s decision to bleep out substantial portions of the audio from the performance. Such bleeps typically cover words the FCC has deemed profane. In this case, the bleeps covered entire verses of West’s two songs. The biggest ironies: the people let at least two swears slip amid the reckless bleeping.

Watch the performance here (ABC seems to have removed all traces of the performance from embeddable video sites…hmmmm….):

At least publicly, West wasn’t happy either. His team released a statement calling the censorship “gross.” But part of me wonders if the censorship wasn’t part of the act. The blinding lights certainly were.

Whether you realize it or not, artists twist censorship rules to their advantage all the time. Sometimes they use bleeps to encourage a perception of their work as authentic, whether it’s earned that distinction or not. Take, for example, the current (and awful) single by Maroon 5, “This Summer’s Gonna Hurt Like a Motherfucker.”

Maroon 5 is one of the biggest pop hitmakers of the last decade. Their songs obviously pass through many layers of bureaucracy before they hit your eardrums. It’s preposterous to think that Maroon 5 recorded this song without intending it to become a single. And it’s even more preposterous to think, that Maroon 5 will be surprised when radio programmers present an edited version of the song without the swear words.

Using the word “motherfucker” in a song title is supposed to make Maroon 5 seem two things they are not: edgy and cool. They’re going against the man! They used a “bad word” in their song title because they’re a real rock group! But this move is as calculated as the melody of the song itself.

Many artists release their songs in two versions, providing a clean cut to radio programmers and even offering two versions for sale in stores and on iTunes. Sometimes that’s a decision mandated by the record label. But even so, any major-label artist recording a song with explicit lyrics knows that it won’t be played in unedited form on the radio.

This is not to suggest that artists should avoid swear words in their songs, or that the existing standards for what constitutes a swear word should go unquestioned. In fact, I often wish radio programmers would be more amenable to releasing unedited songs – the Bobby Shmurda song “Hot Nigga” loses some of its impact as “Hot Boy,” for instance.

Whether you buy what Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” (feat. Mary Lambert) is selling or not, censoring the word “faggot” as many radio programmers did robs the song of its message.

It’s worth noting, as a music consumer, that it’s not as simple as blaming corporate structures for denying us an artist’s pure artistic vision. Sometimes music arrives at radio already compromised by the artist’s business strategy.

All of this is to say that Kanye West benefited from Sunday’s censorship as much as he lost from it. He got three or four days of headlines portraying him as the victim of network meddling, and his performance is the only one anyone wanted to talk about in the days following the listless three-hour broadcast. The decision to perform while bathed in golden light was almost certainly a statement of some kind, or an acknowledgment of his unwillingness to cooperate with the conventions of a typical awards show performance. (The same goes for selecting “Black Skinhead” from 2013’s Yeezus over “Only One,” “Wolves” or any of the other music from his upcoming album Swish.)

You can take issue with the profundity of that statement or wish the performance had been more clearly visible. But blaming ABC or West for the censorship is beside the point. The “bleep,” both visual and aural, was the act.

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