Banned in the U.S.A.?

In both the best and worst of times, one of the functions of music is to communicate emotive ideas and use the power of sound to tap into some internal aesthetic that allows us to feel music rather than just hear it. It’s the reason that something as simple as a pop song can “speak to us”. We invest personal meaning in a song and make it our own. Music can also transport and inspire us to action as well as emotion, be it the fury of a mosh pit, the overwhelming urge to dance, or simply placing a flower down the barrel of a rifle.

With all of this in mind, following the turmoil felt all across the United States after the events of September 11, 2001, Clear Channel Communications announced a list of songs that are deemed “questionable” in the wake of terrorist attacks and a move towards war. The radio giant, which owns stations all over North America and claims a combined listenership of roughly 110 million people a day (about a third of the US’s population), sent this list to its stations as a recommendation that its programming be sensitive to the issues of what amounts to a national crisis. And this sensitivity, it seems, means that anything that may cause listeners to think about the crisis at all is to be avoided.

Given that music is such a powerful medium for both communicating ideas and inciting us to take action, Clear Channel’s motives aren’t entirely opaque. On some level, it makes sense that songs about airplane crashes, or dead bodies, or even amorphous topics like terrorism and war, could upset listeners who are emotionally invested in the attacks on the US or who have lost loved ones. Songs that promote anger and violence are conceivably dangerous in such a stressful time. But if Clear Channel’s intentions are well meaning enough, how well were they thought out?

By now, you might already know a little bit about this story. The initial reporting said that this list of songs was a banning, and condemned Clear Channel for promoting censorship. Further reporting revealed that Clear Channel is not enforcing this list, but only sending it to its program directors as a suggestion, the decision to be made at each program director’s discretion. And there has been an equal uproar about the songs that made the list and how they were chosen. Apparently a smaller list was first compiled and then added to as it passed around the corporate email network. But it’s the fact that songs that are both pro-war and anti-war, angry and peaceful, racially charged and harmoniously motivated, that has caused the most uproar. If you’re unfamiliar with the list, you can check it out here.

A thorough investigation of the list begs the question, “What the hell were they thinking?” Okay, perhaps it’s true that heavy metal songs that focus on destruction and pain might be a little touchy for some listeners, but is it okay to single out a whole genre of music, much less a genre of programming, as “questionable”? And, hmmm, if you stretch things a bit, maybe Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash into Me”, or even that one line about the plane going down in Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” could be misconstrued. But the Beatles? Savage Garden? Simon and Garfunkel???

No matter how the list got started, the way it currently stands says more to censorship and stupidity than it does to sensitivity. Is it more politically correct to ensure that a sensitive listener who might find Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” sickeningly ironic is appeased than it is to try and engage the public in serious contemplation of the situation we find ourselves in? Is it better to turn a blind eye to anything that might reflect on the events of 9/11/01 and pretend through our music that nothing happened? It seems obvious that the answer is an unqualified “no”, but apparently it’s not so clear to Clear Channel.

To be fair, Clear Channel emerged immediately after the tragic events of that day as a company that chose to use its influence to help the victims of the attack. They’ve organized a huge relief fund and have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the relief effort. But for all the good they’ve done with their charitable aid, they’ve completely screwed their primary importance as a broadcast conglomerate. Not to name any specific names, but in the radio market where I live, Clear Channel owns the top metal, alternative, Top 40, classic rock, and ’80s format stations. With their “questionable songs” list they’ve effectively cut out half of their most requested music. These are stations that spend thousands of dollars making sure their listeners are getting what they want (or think they want, depending on who you ask). And, in the case of many of the songs on the list, these are songs that people have a personal connection to and will likely turn to in order to help them grieve and heal. However, this is also a company that employs certain jocks in the Denver area who have, in the past, dropped live chickens off of buildings and invaded a local mosque to play the national anthem on a trumpet. Go figure.

Rather than having our fragile emotions protected by our benevolent corporate keepers, I think that in a time like this many people would rather choose to listen to music that helps them connect to their rage, frustration, fears, pains, and, most importantly, hopes. To compound the insult to individuality, Clear Channel is a company notorious for its target-marketed programming. It’s not very likely that someone familiar with Clear Channel’s stations in their market, who knows that a set of call letters means a given style of music, will suddenly decide to pop over to the hard rock outlet and take offense because they hear System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” And it’s even less likely that fans of Clear Channel stations will suddenly find the songs they listen to with regularity in bad taste. If anything, songs that speak about issues related to war, devastation, or even healing will probably strike a chord with sympathetic listeners and become that much more poignant.

This is to say nothing about the songs themselves. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find the Cure’s “Killing an Arab” on the list, but it’s nowhere to be found. However, trying to find a reason that anyone would be offended by Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man” or James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” is beyond me. And with all the patriotic musical fervor that has accompanied the support and unification of the United States against the specter of terrorism, I’d think that Neil Diamond’s “America” is going to wind up a third or fourth national anthem right behind Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”. Oh no, wait, I get it now. “Travelin’ Man” refers to traveling. And “Fire and Rain” mentions “flying machines in pieces on the ground” (Flying Machines being the name of James Taylor’s first band). “America”? Well, that mentions immigrants, now, doesn’t it? Never mind that they’re coming here in search of freedom.

The whole fiasco with Clear Channel reveals the complicated issues that result from daily life competing with a riveting national tragedy. It’s an issue of free speech, and First Amendment rights will be up against the wall in the coming months as the nation prepares to legally battle terrorism. It’s an issue of profiling, especially with the inclusion of “all songs by Rage Against the Machine” in the list, and disturbingly parallels the possibility of discrimination within our own borders. Some see even the existence of a list of suggestions as a precursor to the kind of censorship imposed on US media during World War II. The whole affair is also a small-scale model of the relationship of the populace to the media. Left with looped images and vaguely supported facts, we the people have a need to know more, understand more, feel more, and experience more. We are dependent on our media outlets to fulfill that need, but we are only as satisfied as the content allows us to be.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a tiny bubble of trivial news that will pop as soon and disappear as more important developments unfold. Clear Channel’s suggestions will seem unimportant in the light of real news about war and justice and will eventually be forgotten. However, the importance of music as a tool to focus and direct our emotions will never fade. We will continue to listen to something as we process the information that our world feeds us. And maybe, when all is said and done, months or years down the road when the need for peace outweighs the demand for vengeance, we’ll need a song like John Lennon’s “Imagine”. But until then, you might have to wait to hear it.

PopMatters is moving to a new hosting company to resolve our tech issues. Thanks for your patience.
PopMatters is moving to a new hosting company to resolve our tech issues. Thanks for your patience.