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Why does Fort Bend public library sanitize Pulitzer Prize winners?

June 25 Update. I emailed this message a month ago to one of the library branch managers. Because of the issue’s importance, I have decided to forward the message to Clara Russell, the Fort Bend library director.  Below is the note I included with my original letter and then the original letter itself. 

Letter to Ms. Russell

Dear Ms. Russell:

On May 6 I wrote a complaint letter to the branch manager of the library I regularly visit (Cinco Ranch) without receiving a reply. The complaint was about buying “clean versions” of music CDs.

Just recently I checked out a Grammy-nominated best-selling music CD, “Rainbow” by Kesha. Kesha is not only a critically acclaimed pop singer, she was also embroiled in a recent dispute with her music producer over sexual harassment. Regardless of what you think about this dispute, it is indisputable that  Kesha is in touch with the cultural zeitgeist, the “Me too” movement and youth culture. She uses a moderate amount of profanity in her songs, but in one or two songs of the “Rainbow” album,  she uses profanity pointedly as a form of cultural reappropriation. Indeed, the nation’s leading music magazine “Rolling Stone” published a long essay about her song “Woman” where Kesha explains that in the context of this “female empowerment song,” she had earned the right to use swear words:

That day in particular I felt like I had earned the right call myself a motherfucking woman. I have always been a feminist, but for much of my life I felt like a little girl trying to figure things out. In the past few years, I have felt like a woman more than ever. I just feel the strength and awesomeness and power of being female. We hold the key to humanity. We decide if we populate the Earth, and if so, with whom. We could just decide not to have any more kids and the human race would be over. That is power. I just really fucking love being a woman and I wanted an anthem for anyone else who wants to yell about being self-sufficient and strong. (Yes, men, this song can be for you too.).

Here’s what the Fort Bend library version of this song sounds like:. In effect, the Fort Bend version of the song ruins the effect of the lyrics  and undermines the very empowerment message embedded inside the song.

Here’s how the artist intended the song to sound:

This is not a selected instance of censorship. To me, this seems to be an institutional effort to systematically remove musical examples of vulgar language in its collection — while making no such effort in prose or cinema.

If this were the 1980s, perhaps you can justify the removal by pointing to examples of misogyny or hate speech in the rap music genre. But now Fort Bend is censoring songs across the spectrum, including a well-known album described by critics as embodying female empowerment.

If your acquisitions department didn’t have enough funds to buy the album or if it thought that buying other items were more culturally important, I could at least respect your decision. But here your library has decided as an institution and as a matter of policy to refrain from buying an entire category of  material simply because of word choice.   That is unfortunate and harmful in the long run.

Original Letter (sent 1 month ago)

Dear Fort Bend Library Manager:

I am writing about the music CD collection both at your branch and the Fort Bend library system.

Thank you for maintaining a  growing collection of music in CD media form. I realize that library systems experience pressure to stream/digitalize their collection, but CD media are more permanent and can be repurposed for a variety of platforms. They also are not encrypted in any way and do not depend on Internet access.

This may sound counterintuitive, but having access to streaming music and music CDs through the library makes it MORE likely for patrons like me to spend money on music. No matter how much a library tries, the amount of albums it has in its collection will remain only a small fraction of what recordings have been made and sold.  The chance to hear library copies of one or two albums by an artist increases the likelihood that I will support the artist (through concert tickets and purchasing downloadable music).

But I am concerned that the Fort Bend Library system has a clear preference for purchasing  “clean” or “edited” music CDs over the normal commercial versions.

I don’t normally listen to rap music with explicit lyrics; on the other hand, I would expect that a library collection not to exclude the explicit version of these albums.

I recently checked out two albums from Cinco Ranch: “Damn” by Kendrick Lamar and “Beautiful Trauma” by Pink. Both are extremely popular albums and have mainstream appeal. Neither is particularly known for using vulgar or derogatory lyrics. I have taken the time personally to check the uncensored lyrics for both albums. The profanity on both albums is very mild.

Unfortunately, Fort Bend bought the “edited” music CD of both the Kendrick Lamar and the Pink album. This library system chose NOT to buy the original unedited version of either album.

Kendrick Lamar’s album won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music. This actually was historic because it is the first time ever that a popular music album has won this prestigious award.

As I explore Fort Bend’s collection of music CDs, I keep noticing that a huge number of rap albums CDs are available from Fort Bend only in “edited” versions. Indeed, just to satisfy my curiosity (and to waste maybe 15 minutes), I went to Cinco Ranch branch’s music section, pulled all the rap music CDs and checked the online catalog. My spot check of rap music CDs at Cinco Ranch branch library  is that about 80 percent of the albums at the branch are marked “clean”, and probably ZERO of the albums with clean versions have explicit versions circulating in the library system. Further study would be required, but I am guessing that this trend is true not just as this branch but the entire music collection in the system.

Hoopla carries original versions for SOME of these albums, but not all and certainly not the older albums.

I am not a huge fan of rap music or or profanity in general. I can understand how in some contexts (at school or on the radio), it may be necessary to restrict the playing of songs with explicit lyrics. On the other hand, I value being able to hear the work as the artist originally intended. The Pulitzer judges apparently decided that the profanity on the Kendrick Lamar didn’t detract from its cultural importance; why should Fort Bend library decide otherwise?

We are not in middle school. I  am 52 years old!  Presumably, someone who checks out a music CD is playing it for private use, and social mores have changed to a point where teenagers today listen and watch material with a lot more explicit language than during the years of my youth.

During my last visit to Cinco Ranch branch’s DVD section, I noticed    Clockwork Orange, The Godfather and  Seven. All three are lauded R-rated  movies with explicit and highly provocative content. It would not occur to most people or libraries to ask that the Hollywood Studios which made these movies to  sell a “sanitized” version of these movies.  Why then should public libraries have different rules about music albums?

Having only edited versions of albums sends an unfortunate message to patrons that individuals are not entitled to experience art works the way the artist intended. Also, by making only edited versions available, you are trying the hide the coarseness that the musician wished to convey.

I don’t particularly object to libraries deciding not to purchase works with too much vulgarity; but if you think that an item is worth purchasing, you should buy the version that is closest to what the creator wanted.

As much as I enjoy checking out music CDs and appreciate what resources you offer to the patrons in your county, I recognize that fairly soon it will make more sense for the library to focus on investing in its streaming collection.

Regardless of how this library develops their music collection, I would like to see the library system commit itself to no longer buying “clean versions” of music. Doing so strikes me as culturally retrograde.

Sincerely,

Robert Nagle

PS, One other thing is that although the metadata in the catalog discloses that a CD is edited, the physical CDs show no such indication, making it practically impossible for patrons to know whether the music CD is the original version or a sanitized version.

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