Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Dirty Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

It is an error to believe that the Hollywood Production Code prohibited sexual content—it did not. Rather, it simply codified its ciphered expression (e.g., the pan out the window, with the curtain gently flapping in the breeze, to indicate the sex that was about to take place off-camera and out of sight). As Slavoj Zizek has shown, the Hollywood Production Code of the 30s and 40s “was not simply a negative censorship code, but also a positive (productive, as Foucault would have put it) codification and regulation that generated the very excess whose direct depiction it hindered” (The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, p. 6). Stated in another way, the role of censorship is far more ambiguous than it seems. Prohibition does not simply function in a negative way, but in fact generates the excessive, all-pervasive sexualization of everyday experience. Edgar Allan Poe referred to this unintended by-product of prohibition as “the imp of the perverse,” the obscene underpinning that supports systems of symbolic domination. In other words, prohibition encourages the subject to develop a “dirty little mind”: without the prohibition, the perverse impulse remains dormant, inactive.

Hence the best marketing strategy, the best way to sell something, is to hint at the existence of some transgressive image or form of expression while maintaining a socially acceptable decorum at the same time: you must be able to activate the spectator’s dirty little mind while nonetheless adhering to standards of decency. The asterisk, for instance, is a stigmatic mark that both conceals, and yet signifies, profanity, e. g., in the word mother*****r. A famous use of the asterisk is in the title of the Rolling Stones song, “Starfucker,” which became “Star Star” on Goat’s Head Soup (1973). In the audio-visual realm, bleeping is to the audio track what the asterisk is to print media: the bleep interferes in the aural reception of the offensive word while also pointing out that it was actually uttered. The bleep and the asterisk (and the “Parental Warning: Explicit Lyrics” sticker) are therefore censoring devices that prompt and encourage in the mind of the subject the very “dirty” thoughts they presumably function to prevent. I suspect that the placing of the “Parental Warning” sticker has had the unintentional effect of selling far more units of a particular album than would have happened without it (yet another instance of what Foucault means by “productive” codification leading to excessive expenditure).

The censorship of rock and rock music began with Elvis, who, famously, in September 1956, was censored when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show: when Elvis began to sing and dance to Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy,” the camera moved in so that the television audience saw him only from the waist up. Here are a few other examples in the history of rock:

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland (1968) (for the album’s U. S. release, the twenty nude women were replaced by a close-up of Hendrix performing live)
John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Unfinished Music No. 1—Two Virgins (1968) (sold in the U. S. in a plain wrapper in order to cover the couple’s full frontal nudity)
Blind Faith – Blind Faith (1969) (for the U. S. release, a nude young girl holding a phallic model airplane was replaced by a picture of the band)
Alice Cooper – Pretties For You (1969) (on some copies a sticker was placed over the drawing of the girl on the right in order to conceal her exposed white panties)
Santana – Abraxas (1970) (cover had a sticker with an excerpt from a review of the band covering the black woman’s exposed genital area)
Alice Cooper – Love It to Death (1971) (RCA record club issue printed only the top half of the front cover, with the bottom half left blank)
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (1975) (early copies of the album in the U. S. were issued with dark blue cellophane in order conceal the cover picture of the man in flames)
Nirvana – Nevermind (1991) (the genitalia of the male baby were airbrushed away)
Chumbawamba – Anarchy (1993) (cover depicting childbirth in close-up was sold in the U. S. in a plain white sleeve)
While Zombie – Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds (1996) (nude girls on the cover and interior booklet are given bikinis in the “clean” version)

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