Sunday, June 17, 2007

indecent recordings

i personally discovered obscene recordings back in elementary school. a friend had somehow obtained comedy albums by cheech and chong, richard pryor, george carlin, and redd foxx on one of those "get 14 records for a penny!" record club promotions. the sexual references surely sailed over our heads, but we knew this stuff had to be funny and guffawed accordingly.

now i learn that obscene recordings have been with us since, well, any kind of recordings. yesterday's npr's weekend edition featured a new collection of lewd victorian-era recordings titled Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s. the feature replayed clips from the original wax cylinders, showing that there's nothing terribly novel about lewd, crude, and immature humor.

in light of the rapid pornographication of any new medium today, it really shouldn't surprise us to learn that by the late-1890s one could hear, say, "The Whore's Union" or "Dennis Reilly at Maggie Murphy's Home after Nine O'Clock." nevertheless, the clips are still a bit jarring to modern ears. they might not be funny" but they are certainly obscene, as evidenced by the bleeping necessary to get them on the airwaves in 2007.

i can imagine that this sort of phenomenon is old news to social historians, who could likely point out ancient (e.g., socrates' whoopee cushion) or far nastier attempts at humor over the course of human history. i'm personally fascinated by the social control aspects of the story -- some of the actors heard on the recordings were actually incarcerated -- and will likely order the CD for my sociology of deviance class. i'm guessing that enforcement under the comstock act must have been somewhat effective at policing such vice, for precious few of these recordings exist today.

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