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October 21, 2013 | CEO's Corner

Music: The Ultimate Expression of Free Speech

What better occasion than Free Speech Week to pause for a moment to recognize the incredible importance of free expression, especially to music makers. We don’t take it for granted. Lyrics mean different things to different people. And music, perhaps more than any other content, is highly subject to interpretation. We make and use music to express our joy and anger, to protest and to empower. Throughout history, there have been many efforts to squelch selected songs based on some people’s interpretation of another person’s music.

For example, John Denver’s song “Rocky Mountain High” was banned from many radio stations as a drug-related song in the ‘80s. As John Denver himself noted, “this was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains and also had never experienced the elation, celebration of life, or the joy in living that one feels when he observes something as wondrous as the Perseides meteor shower on a moonless, cloudless night, when there are so many stars that you have a shadow from the starlight, and you are out camping with your friends, your best friends, and introducing them to one of nature’s most spectacular light shows for the very first time. Obviously, a clear case of misinterpretation.”

Equally compelling was Dee Snider, of the heavy metal rock band Twisted Sister, when his song “Under the Blade” was charged with “encouraging sadomasochism, bondage, and rape.” Snider publicly explained the impetus for the song and the meaning of the words. Turns out the band’s guitar player had to undergo surgery, and the song was about people’s fear of going “under the blade.”

Or more recently the collective Pussy Riot in Russia, a punk group whose members were jailed and currently serving two-year sentences on charges of “hooliganism.” Their music contains such themes of anti-government and LBGT rights, making them unpopular with the Russian government. This unjust sentence stings the conscience of all democratic peoples, and we hope for quick release of the jailed artists.

The truth is, nothing preserves our culture more than our constitutional right to free speech. Music is a powerful tool. It moves people and captures a point like no other medium. So this week we’re proud of all our music makers, and the country that allows them to write, sing, and perform as they see fit. Creativity in America is strong because the First Amendment is strong. In many countries that don’t have our freedoms, the first thing people do after gaining freedom is sing. Here’s to celebrating this great freedom, and to all creators who give us their gift of music.

Cary Sherman, Chairman & CEO, RIAA