Sunday, September 27, 2009

Weekend Music Roundup (BANNED MUSIC EDITION)

I thought for this week's music post, I would continue with the theme of censorship that I discussed yesterday as it related to books. Books aren't the only art form that meets with first amendment challenges, in fact all art often does. Music is far from immune, and actually, I would suggest that it is targeted just as often if not more so than books. 

For some people, the choice of not listening to something isn't enough, they decide that it's their right to try to force others to make the same decision without even having the benefit of evaluation. In some case, they haven't even evaluated the music for themselves and simply object to it by title, inferences, cover art, or other arbitrary reasons. This is one of the more dangerous forms of censorship...the censoring of things they haven't even taken the time to understand. 

Like books, the banning of music is often associated with principles of protecting children, eliminating unpopular opinions, and promoting the will of the masses (or vocal minorities) on the general population. It's despicable and dangerous. If someone chooses not to like something, don't listen to it...don't let your kids listen to it...don't buy it...but you have no right to ban it. 

I've compiled a list of some of the most controversial albums below. WARNING: Some my find these albums distasteful, but that's why their on the list. However, the ideas they express have just as much of a right to exist as anyone else's. 

The Beatles - It seems unfathomable today to think the most revered band in the history of music was once one of the most controversial. 1966 was a banner year for this controversy. As most people have heard, John Lennon made his famous comment that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Rather than attempt to understand his point of view, knee-jerk reactionary fervor ensued and Beatles records were burned (see photo at top of the post), songs were banned from many radio stations, and suddenly the biggest band in the world was in jeopardy of fading away in the States. Also in that year was the release of the above album, which is one of the earliest incidents of outrage over cover art. People were so offended (why is beyond me) by the image that the record was pulled in many cases. 

Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols:  There wasn't really anything about the Sex Pistols that wasn't offensive. Starting with the band title, then the album title, their anarchist message, their song insulting the Queen (an absolute no-no in the U.K.). The band was notoriously signed and dropped by many labels before any official release was ever in stores (meanwhile, collecting signing bonuses the whole time, leading the Great Rock N Roll Swindle moniker). Impressively, they topped the singles charts without any radio airplay. But most offensive to people was just their attitude. As young people, their songs were really about saying to the establishment, "We're not going to fall in line." It was a complete refusal to subjugate themselves to class law and it caught on. That was the dangerous thing about the Pistols, and the thing we should all thank them for. 

Judas Priest - Stained Class: After two teenagers committed suicide allegedly while listening to this album, not only was this album and band blamed, they were actually brought to trial by grieving parents and crusading prosecutors who claimed "the music made them do it." Bringing up the which hunt tactic of backwards messages and hidden subliminal messages, the trial wasn't the laugher we might expect. The band was actually fighting for their freedom. Censorship advocates had their silver bullet so to speak...they were close to proving that messages could be so dangerous that they had the power to kill. Thankfully for civilization's sake, they lost.

N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton: Probably not the first and certainly not the last hip-hop album to come under fire, but this one really pissed people off. The record is accused of glorifying violence, demeaning women, promoting drugs, and spreading civil unrest and hatred. It's the holy grail of "evil" music. Are there elements of all those things in this album? Yes. But is that what it's about? Not even close. The album is really one of the first hip-hop albums to indite the system responsible for the creation of ghettos that breed those messages. It not only states how they feel, but WHY they feel that way. It's a message a lot people don't like and therefore, they do what they always do...try to silence it. It's fine if you don't like what they have to say, but that doesn't mean they have any less of a right to say it.

Guns 'N Roses - GN'R LIES: This follow-up E.P. was put out after Appetite for Destruction's monster success. A collection of old songs from pre-fame days on one side was complimented with 4 new acoustic songs. Two in particular caused outrage. The first, "Used to Love Her" which is obviously a joke, was taken way too literally by a handful. The other, and more problematic, is "One in A Million." There are two lines in the song that particularly send people into fits as they are offend immigrants, gays, and African-Americans. But that's not what the song is about by any means. If you listen to it, it's a very personal narrative about a person struggling with poverty, alienation, and grief. It's actually a very beautiful song. I'm not defending the use of certain words, but just like with the N.W.A. album, to deny some one's right to feel a certain way and express it is plain wrong. The controversy still continues and as it seems to come up over and over concerning future issues of this album which debate leaving that track off. Axl has talked at length about this and how he feels the song was misunderstood and would rather take it off rather than be accused of being something he is not...but at the same time, is conflicted about caving to censorship. As of today, the track remains on there.

Nirvana - In Utero: I've chosen this as my example of what I'll call the Wal-Mart brand of censorship. Wal-Mart has made a habit of not selling albums it's doesn't like (which is their right). However, they also often request edited editions be made, many times this is done without the artist's consent. Now, the record companies are just as guilty there, I won't put it all on Wal-Mart. When In Utero came out, the company not only wanted a black sleeve over the cover (apparently medical mannequins are too sexy) but wanted the title of "Rape Me" changed to "Waif Me." Now, "Rape Me" was also banned from MTV, so Wal-Mart isn't alone. These are people that obviously didn't listen the song, which has nothing to do with rape but is metaphorical for the way fame and famous people are exploited and used by others for their own gain. But back to Wal-Mart, the whole concept of censoring and changing albums, as if they have some superior control over expression as some sort of moral protector of its customers is disgusting. They are still very active in this particular brand of censorship. 

Marilyn Manson - Antichrist Superstar: Practically the symbol for outraged parents in the late '90s, Marilyn Manson was at one point public enemy number one. Pre-Bin Laden, it seems he was blamed for everything that was wrong with the youth. Concerts in the mid-west were protested, he was the subject of much religious right ire, and then it was capped off when a large portion of the media went so far as to blame him for the Columbine massacre. Like the Judas Priest case, people were claiming the music made people do things. There's a great quote from Manson, from way before he was in the spotlight, when he was asked "Do you think the music makes you do what you do?" and he responded "We make the music do what it does." Rather than turn an inward eye on a society where popularity is overvalued, where parents are absent, where bullying is accepted and sometimes encouraged (all the real causes for Columbine), it's easier to find a scape goat. It's ironic that in this case, they found one who started his band as a way to test the limits of free speech and expression. 

Prussian Blue - Fragment of the Future: In 2003, Dateline did a piece on this preteen twin-sister duo, propelling them into the media spotlight. Children of White Pride activists, the band sang tradition folk music with songs about pride in their race (always a touchstone in our culture for obvious reasons). The media, always quick to take a populist stance, declared them the "Nazi Pop Twins" though there's far from any nazi messages on the album. The masses rallied to denounce these two girls and all over the internet you can still find hate rants against them from people that have never bothered to listen to the music (and isn't it ironic that objections to what is perceived as hate speech are often expressed with hateful speech). I wonder why is it that bands like Minor Threat, which had messages on par with what could be consider the "worst" on this album, are not subjected to same outrage, but are also considered music pioneers. Why misogynist manifestos chart frequently and are easily forgiven, but this isn't even given consideration? One reason is the obvious sensitivity of race issues in this country. But another is a subtler reason. I believe part of the reaction is that people don't expect (or want) cute young girls to have political opinions and certainly not to express them. This album is one of those cases of blind censorship that is so dangerous because the majority of people agree with it's censorship. To those, I remind them that free speech protects all speech. 

The September 11th effect

The next bit of the list is directly related to September 11th, a date that unleashed the best and worst of humanity...amongst which was a wave of patriotism which was easily corrupted into censorship.

The Strokes - Is This It: The debut album by NYC's most hyped band was due to come out the week after Sept. 11th. Despite being eagerly awaited, it was delayed. The reason? A track titled "NYC Cops" was to be removed for the U.S. release because it was deemed insensitive given the recent events. But the fact remains that the song is really about the abuse of NYC cops under Giuliani's reign, which anyone who lived in the city during that time can attest to. Just because the events of that day changed the image of the police force, doesn't mean the abuses of the decade before can or should be erased from history. 

The Clear Channel banned list: After Sept. 11, Clear Channel (one of the biggest radio station conglomerates in the country) circulated a list of 150 songs that they strongly suggested their stations not play because they were deemed to be upsetting or in bad taste. On this list were songs such as REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It," Kansas's "Dust in the Wind" and Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." This is another case of a Big Brother style of protection, as if we needed it. The fact is, the messages in many of these songs were ones that as a people, we probably should've been contemplating rather than ignoring. A full list is available here.

The Dixie Chicks - After their famous anti-Bush comment, radio stations across the country stopped playing their songs. People gathered to smash their CDs, burn them, or steam roll them. Again, this was an overwhelming display of trying to squash decent (another proud moment for Freedom under the Bush Administration). Like Prussian Blue, I think this is another example of people not tolerating political views from girls, instead just wanting them to be attractive and to sing pretty songs. 

To bring the whole thing full circle, I want to point out the picture to the left, of a young girl smashing her Dixie Chicks CD and ask you to compare it to the Beatles photo at the top. Freedom of Speech is constantly being tested. Nothing has changed and all who value a free society need to remain vigil and aware and vocal. 

I know there are those who think some of the above examples are indefensible. But I would argue that the idea of banning unpopular speech only serves to validate the fringe groups in many ways. I'm not suggesting we accept their point of view, but we need to tolerate it. If you don't tolerate the opinions of those who disagree with you and attempt to silence might not be long before your point of view is the one that is declared unpopular and is silenced.

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