Elvis Presley, Censorship, And The Power Of The People

Elvis Presley, Censorship,

The power of the autonomous Nation-State reaches across all levels of society. Governmental laws and regulations resonate throughout a civilized society through the employment of numerous governmental agencies. Every facet of life is controlled by an agency designed to overlook the various factions of individual cultural concepts. In the arts, a Nation-State will look to control the impact artistic intentions may have on a given society. Of course, the levels of state control vary on a global basis. The power of the guitar and pen can be as great as the power of the sword. The flow of ink from a pen or amplification of a song lyric can be seen as a grave threat to a Nation-State’s autonomy from the inside.

Since the impression of the writer’s art can carry great influences in a culture, Nation-States use various methods in controlling the artistic voice. For the most part, the Nation-State does not simply declare a work of art or artistic performance censored from the top, but rather looks to control or censor the art through various state agencies on the peripheries. The Nation-State may also censor art for the sole purpose of establishing quotas on the importation of art in order to establish an audience loyal to its domestic artists. Quotas are also established to preserve national cultures.  Through the use of immigration tactics, cultural polices, religious concepts, and strict governmental regulations, the artistic world will always face the challenges of Nation-States censorship. In the end, it is the impact that art can have on society that forces the nation state’s attempts to cage its own culture. Nonetheless, no matter how powerful the state may be, art always survives and flourishes in the hands of the people.

A work of art cannot be defined as offensive until it has been seen in public. A painting left unattended in a desert is not offensive to anyone.  It is the nature of the audience that finds the work of art offensive.[1] In most cases, it is the opinion of a select few that define the art offensive and imposes their interpretations over the mass audience.[2]  The small faction of society usually finds the work offensive for various reasons. Ignorance often plays a large role in formulating censorship opinions. Art work is often misunderstood or misinterpreted. In essence, art is created to tantalize the audience’s imagination. Art can deplore hidden meeting or offer only ambiguity. At times, the intent is clear, or it at least leads a path to realization. Regardless of intent, art is a form of expression that cradles the spirit of human existence.

The thirst for freedom of expression is not just a twentieth century phenomena. Over three hundred years ago in the year 1644, John Milton’s work Areopagitica  was argued in front of the English Parliament in defense of what Milton called “the privilege and dignity of learning.”[3] Milton was arguing against Parliament’s ordinance to further restrict the freedom to print and distribute books.[4] Milton’s argument defined not only the importance of expression, but also the quest for unfiltered knowledge. Milton’s point is most evident in his statement from the Areopagitica in which he is quoted saying    “Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in tickets, and statutes, and standards.”[5]

Gilbert E. Govan wrote in a 1944 issue of The Sewanee Review, that Milton’s work still stands as the “greatest statement in defense of a freedom of the press.”[6] Govan further argued that fifty years later the world would see the birth of Voltaire who would carry on the intent of Milton’s Areopagitica  by living a life dedicated to freedom of expression and thought.[7] Historians could argue that men such as John Milton and Voltaire have fueled the quest of future artistic expression through the aspiration of the academic and literary poet.

While Gowan argued that Milton demonstrated the greatest response to freedom of expression, the world in 1944 also witnessed the greatest attempt at destroying the written word. Gown wrote that the most striking example of censorship in modern times was the “burning of books, by Adolph Hitler.[8]  Hitler’s intentions of limiting freedom for what he believed was the good of the state was clearly spelled out in his earlier work entitled Mein Kampf. Hitler wrote, “The State must not forget that all means must serve an end; it must not let itself be misled by the boast of a so-called ‘freedom of the press,’ and must not be persuaded to fail in its duty to put before the nation the food that it needs and is good for.”[9] Hitler’s actions during the first half of the twentieth century and the English Parliament intentions to limit freedom of the written word are extreme examples of censorship from the top.

During the World War II burning of books episode, a United States governmental agency would also strike an attack on freedom of expression through a completely different means. It may be hard to believe from a twenty first century perspective, but during World War II, the United States Postal Service would censor packages sent overseas. The United States Army and Navy had approved a catalog of songs to be sent overseas to the soldiers stationed in Europe.[10] However, the United States Post office led by the Postmaster General refused to ship the songs citing them as “un-mailable.”[11] The same Postmaster General also refused to ship newspapers that contained questionable advertisements.[12] The United States Post Office would also refuse to ship catalogs of books if they contained book titles disapproved by the Postmaster General.[13] The Post Office argued that they were allowed to censor mailings if the items were considered to be not off, “information of a public character, or devoted to literature, the sciences, arts, or some special industry.” The Postmaster General assumed his power from the Postal Laws and Regulations of the United States Criminal Code granted to the Post Office by the United States Government.[14] It is within the delegation of power from the head of state to a government agency where the history of United States censorship begins to reach the masses on a national level.

Only a decade after the famous 1944 burning of the books and the United States Postal Master General episodes, more censorship issues would begin to rise in the thought process of members of the United States Congress. In the United States Senate, Estes Kefauver of Tennessee held hearings in order to determine the effect of television violence on the nation’s youth culture.[15]  The scope of Eetes Kefauer recommendations on behalf of his constituents was rather breathtaking. Kefauefer argued that there should be no sympathy shown to any criminal characters on television.[16] Further arguments included, “There should be no detailed presentation of brutality or physical agony by sight or by sound are not permissible.”[17] Also argued within the elements of criminal justice on television was the prospect that, “The presentation of murder or revenge as a motive for murder shall not be presented as justifiable.”[18] The committee took their recommendations to an extreme when the following paragraph was presented on behalf of sheltering the nation’s youth from worldwide realities.

The education of children involves giving them a sense of the world at large. Crime, violence, and sex are a part of the world they will be called upon to meet, and a certain amount of proper presentation of such is helpful in orienting the child to his surroundings. However, violence and illicit sex shall not be presented in an attractive manner, nor to an extent such as will lead a child to believe that they play a greater part in life than they do. They should not be presented, without indications of the resultant retribution and punishment.[19]

Elvis Presley, Censorship,

Public Domain

While Eetes Kefauer and his committee were busy trying to censor the television medium, the emergence of Elvis Presley created even more censorship issues. The arrival of Elvis Presley on the music scene in the 1950’s created tension and fear from magazine editors, government agencies, and even the Catholic Church. Newsweek called Elvis Presley “A Hillbilly on a Pedestal.”[20]  Time magazine described Elvis Presley’s body movements as “a frantic quiver, as if he had swallowed a jackhammer,” [21] Both magazines had long standing reputations for covering serious news issues. The coverage of Elvis Presley in the magazines brought on reader backlash. One Time magazine reader commented that Elvis Presley should change his name to “Pelvis Presley.”[22] While Marylyn Monroe at the time glistened with the same sexual energy that Elvis Presley defined, it was Presley’s sex appeal to the young daughters of parents that caused the greatest fear.[23] Parents weren’t worried about their sons being lost into the arms of a Marylyn Monroe type, but Elvis Presley’s perceived threat to innocent young women fueled the fires of censorship. Elvis Presley’s famous quote about marriage, Why buy a cow when you can get milk through the fence,” only infuriated frightened parents even more.

Elvis Presley’s live performance on May 14th 1956, in the town of La Crosse Wisconsin defined the true birth of censorship in the history of rock and roll music. The Dioceses of La Crosses which was headed by a Bishop named John Tracey wrote a sweltering letter of disapproval and concern to J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI after the Elvis Presley concert.[24] The Bishop who had not even attended the concert described Elvis Presley as “a definite danger to the security of the United States.”[25] The Bishop went on to state that the Elvis Presley concert was “the filthiest and most harmful production that ever came to La Crosse for exhibition to teenagers.”[26] In the letter, the Bishop also argued that Elvis Presley aroused young girls and boys into sexual indulgences and perversions caused by the types of motions Elvis Presley performed on stage.[27] Due to the Bishops’ letter to the director of the FBI, and the unflattering pieces in Time and Newsweek magazine, Elvis Presley had been officially designated as dangerous to society by the official National Catholic Weekly review[28]

The written words of the Catholic Bishop and national news magazines soon translated into broadcast censorship issues due to Elvis Presley’s upcoming television debut. Presley’s first televised performance occurred on the Steve Allen Show. [29] Due to the controversy surrounding the La Crosse concert, the network NBC gave specific orders to the cameramen to be able to “cut above the waist at any time.”[30] Following the appearance on the Steve Allen Show, Elvis Presley would appear multiple times on the Milton Bearle primetime shows, and the legendary Ed Sullivan’s show. The network’s orders to edit Elvis Presley’s performances were due to the broadcast station’s adherence to Federal Communications Commission regulations. The Federal Communications Commission is an agency of the state.[31] So in essence, the network was only following state sponsored censorship guidelines because the Federal Communications Commission is a government agency,

All of Elvis Presley’s performances were met with great trepidation by network executives concerned with Elvis Presley’s dance moves and rock and roll lyrics. The censorship applied to the Elvis Presley performances were invoked using camera and editing techniques. Yet, it would have just been easier to not book Elvis Presley on network shows in the first place. However, the ratings and publicity that the network shows received from the Elvis Presley performances were far too prosperous to ignore by the networks. Even though the chain of command from state agency to network fought to censor the performer, his appeal generated to strong of an interest to be denied. Elvis Presley’s talent, work ethic, drive and appeal trumped the censor’s ability to apply the brakes to the Elvis train.

While the internet has provided access to all forms of art that has been censored on a worldwide basis, Nation-States still posse the power to control the airways though their broadcast systems.  In 1994, the Iranian government banned all non-Iranian music to be broadcast on their airwaves.[32]  In Afghanistan, despite years of United States government intervention in developing a free media, officials in the Afghanistan government still cast a dark shadow of censorship throughout the nation’s media outlets.[33]

Many Nation-States censor broadcast music based on the locality of the artists. A quota system has been often utilized by Nation-States in censoring the amount of airplay international artists may receive on domestic radio. In Martin Cloonan’s article, “Pop and the Nation-State: Towards a Theorisation,” the author argued that the state of New Zealand initiated quotas limiting the amount of international music that may be aired in order to protect the survival of authentic New Zealand music.[34] Martin Cloonan also argued that Nation-States such as Tanzania, Israel and Jamaica have also imposed quotas on imported music being broadcast on the airwaves.

During the days when MTV still actually played music, many countries also felt threatened by the influx of American and British pop artists broadcast on television. Some countries such as Sweden actually set up their own music television stations that only featured Swedish pop artists.[35] While the majority of censorship issues often deal with issues of interpreted obscenity and profanity, the means of protecting national identity also plays a prominent role in many cases.

Michael Jackson The White House

By Pete Souza, Official White House photographer for President Ronald Reagan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nation-States also use immigration tactics to regulate the influence of international pop culture in their societies. South Korea banned Michael Jackson from performing in their country in 1993.[36] The South Korean government blamed Michael Jackson’s extravagant rich costumed designed shows as a bad influence on a country of poor people.  Musical artists tour for the very important reason of promoting awareness of their music. Of course, concert revenue is of vital interest to the touring musician. However, it is the live concert experience that often drives the fans to purchase the artist’s music.

Martin Cloonan stated that the author Steven Jones argued in his 1993 cultural book Who fought the law? The American music industry and the global popular music market’ in Rock and Popular Music, that American Immigration control was utilized as an effective means of establishing cultural policies.[37]  Cloonan analyzed Jones work by stating, “By restricting the amount of foreign bands that could play, the Americans effectively adopted a protectionist policy on behalf of domestic musicians.”[38] If a band is not allowed to tour in any particular country, that offending Nation State is thereby censoring the band’s ability to earn income.

While democratic Nation States often deploy legal regulations, laws and ordinances in censoring artists, non-democratic Nation Sates often utilize far less diplomatic means of censorship. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, Argentinian authorities often used tear gas to disperse crowds at rock concerts in order to dissuade any further festivals of rock music. [39]  In Bulgaria bands that were accused of causing “excessive excitement,” were banned from performing live concerts.[40] The banning of bands from performing live was nothing compared to some of the other methods of censorship utilized by European countries.

European countries often forced the disbandment of groups due to the lyrical content of the band’s material. In 1975, the German Democratic Republic forced the band Klaus Renft Combo to break up because German authorities viewed the group as a threat to the German working class.[41]  The band The Siphons were forced to disbanded in 1976 by Hungarian State authorities because the group was writing and performing political songs.[42] The Siphons are only one example of a long standing history of rock groups not being allowed to perform, and in many cases disbanded in many of the ex-Soviet Bloc countries.

In non-democratic Nation-States, artists have few outlets to fight the tyranny of rule. The internet, when available has served as one of the only ways of spreading art across culturally depressed regions. However, in democratic Nation States, artists have found ways in fighting the hammer of censorship across many avenues. Renowned music critic and author Dave Marsh released a book in 1991 titled 50 Ways to Fight Censorship. In the book’s introduction, Marsh wrote that his work was a response to the question of “What Can I Do?”  It was a question Marsh had heard from hundreds of rock music artists and fans fearful of state censorship.[43] The single most important way in fighting censorship according to Dave Marsh was to “Speak Out.”[44] Marshes’ second choice was the importance of registering to vote. [45] The rest of  Dave Marshes’ work centered on the importance of supporting retailers and industries that backed up the ideology of freedom of speech and banning censorship. Awareness of the power of one’s voice through the ability to vote and spend freely is a power that can result in change.

Nation-States apply the pressure to censor the arts through various channels. By utilizing State agencies like the Federal Communication Commissions, public broadcast networks, and immigration agencies, Nation States impose their will on a society both from direct and in-direct means. However, the impact that art may have on society is always dependent on the art’s acceptance by the people. If an artist releases a song, or a writer issues a book that deploys substantial meaning or even just simply great entertainment value, society will find a way to celebrate the work. As seen in the Elvis Presley episodes, the demand for Elvis was so great, the networks could not refuse the financial reward they gained by presenting Elvis Presley to the public. In countries where small time bands made no money for anyone including themselves, the groups found themselves at the mercy of the Nation-States that so easily destroyed them and their art. In the end, the power to fight censorship lies in the hands of the masses. If there is massive support for an artist or art form, no amount of censorship can ever stop the art from infiltrating society. The power of the people is just too strong to be denied, at least in democratic Nation States.

Written by

Brian Kachejian

All Photos: Public Domain 


Cloonan, Martin. “Pop and the Nation-State: Towards a Theorisation.” Popular Music 18, no. 02 (May 1999): 193.

Fitzpatrick James, Rosenthal Norman and Chapman Jake. “Arts Censorship.” RSA Journal, Vol. 149, No. 5502 (2002), pp. 53-55

Gilbert E. Govan, “Government Censorship.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Winter, 1945), pp. 172-174

“Exploring U.S. History.” April 2004. Accessed November 21, 2016. http://chnm.gmu.edu/exploring/20thcentury/regulatingtelevision/.

Kurti, Laslow. 1994. ‘How can I be a human being? Culture, youth and music in Hungary’, in Rockin’ The State, ed. Ramet, S.P. (Oxford), pp. 73-102

Marsh, Dave and Contributor Dave Marsh. 50 Ways to Fight Censorship: And Important Facts to Know about the Censors. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991.

Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, Television and Juvenile Delinquency, interim report, 1955, “Guide to Senate Records: Chapter 13 Judiciary 1947-1968.” August 15, 2016. Accessed November 21, 2016. https://www.archives.gov/legislative/guide/senate/chapter-13-judiciary-1947-1968.html.

Stancati, Margherita and Ehsanullah Amiri. Violent Censorship on Rise in Afghanistan. (wsj.com), September 18, 2013. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324139404579012783313887184.

Whitmer, Peter O. Inner Elvis: A Psychological Biography of Elvis Aaron Presley – Peter Whitmer – Hardcover –New York, NY, United States: Hyperion, 1997. 


[1] Fitzpatrick James, Rosenthal Norman and Chapman Jake. “Arts Censorship.” RSA Journal, Vol. 149, No. 5502 (2002), p.55

[2]  Ibid

[3] “Areopagitica (1644) (Jebb Ed.) – Online Library of Liberty,” 1918, accessed November 21, 2016, http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/milton-areopagitica-1644-jebb-ed.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Gilbert E. Govan, “Government Censorship.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Winter, 1945), p. 172


[7] Gilbert E. Govan, “Government Censorship.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Winter, 1945), p. 172

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Gilbert E. Govan, “Government Censorship.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Winter, 1945) p. 172

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] “Exploring U.S. History.” April 2004. Accessed November 21, 2016. http://chnm.gmu.edu/exploring/20thcentury/regulatingtelevision/.

[16] Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, Television and Juvenile Delinquency, interim report, 1955

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Peter O. Whitmer, Inner Elvis: A Psychological Biography of Elvis Aaron Presley – Peter Whitmer – Hardcover – (New York, NY, United States: Hyperion, 1997) p 195

[21] Ibid., 196

[22] Peter O. Whitmer, Inner Elvis: A Psychological Biography of Elvis Aaron Presley – Peter Whitmer – Hardcover – (New York, NY, United States: Hyperion, 1997) p 196

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Peter O. Whitmer, Inner Elvis: A Psychological Biography of Elvis Aaron Presley – Peter Whitmer – Hardcover – (New York, NY, United States: Hyperion, 1997) p 199

[29] Ibid.,200

[30] Ibid

[31] Martin Cloonan, “Pop and the Nation-State: Towards a Theorisation,” Popular Music 18, no. 02 (May 1999)p 194

[32] Martin Cloonan, “Pop and the Nation-State: Towards a Theorisation,” Popular Music 18, no. 02 (May 1999)p.195

[33] Margherita Stancati and Ehsanullah Amiri, Violent Censorship on Rise in Afghanistan, (wsj.com), September 18, 2013, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324139404579012783313887184.

[34] Martin Cloonan,pp195-196

[35] Martin Cloonan, “Pop and the Nation-State: Towards a Theorisation,” Popular Music 18, no. 02 (May 1999)p.197

[36] Ibid

[37] Ibid

[38] Ibid

[39] Martin Cloonan, “Pop and the Nation-State: Towards a Theorisation,” Popular Music 18, no. 02 (May 1999)p.197

[40] Ibid

[41] Ibid.,198

[42] Lszlo Kurti. 1994. ‘How can I be a human being? Culture, youth and music in Hungary’, in Rockin’ The State, ed. Ramet, S.P. (Oxford), pp. 73-102

[43] Dave Marsh and Contributor Dave Marsh, 50 Ways to Fight Censorship: And Important Facts to Know about the Censors (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991) p xv

[44] Ibid.,7

[45] Ibid

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