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The Arts

It's Only Rock 'n' Roll

By Shelly Ridenour | Posted 9/26/2001

What comes to mind when you hear the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" on the radio? Goofball '80s dances? Dennis Miller's impersonation of Susannah Hoffs? Maybe. But someone at Clear Channel Communications, the world's largest owner of radio stations, is afraid that, in the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies, this seemingly innocuous pop song might somehow conjure more disturbing thoughts. (Get it--Egypt? Home of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, sentenced to life imprisonment after a failed 1995 plot to blow up five Manhattan landmarks.) In the wake of the attacks, the San Antonio-based conglomerate e-mailed its 1,170 stations last week with a list of "lyrically questionable" songs potentially inappropriate in our mourning culture. Also on the hit list: the Youngbloods' "Get Together," John Lennon's "Imagine," James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets."

"Imagine"? "Get Together"? Aren't these songs, in fact, pleas for peace and love? And I guess context isn't a consideration when you have words as damning as "fire" and "jets." Strangest of all, Clear Channel suggested avoiding Sinatra's "New York, New York" and the Ad-Libs' "The Boy From New York City," apparently considering it safer not to remind us the city even exists.

While several stations publicly disregarded the e-mail (at New York's Clear Channel-owned Q104.3 FM, "Imagine" and "New York, New York" were top requests last week), and Clear Channel almost immediately started spin-doctoring, saying the list was merely a suggestion and not an actual ban, the threat was already in the air.

Everyone's talking about the new world, the new war, the new new economy. Well, welcome to the new culture of fear. The new age of censorship. As a friend of mine put it, the media are now forced to wrestle with whether "freedom of expression can become an expression of bad taste." That's certainly the case for RCA Records and the Strokes, on the eve of what was to be the release of the band's debut record, Is This It? Already stymied by a recent decision to scrap the original cover art--a fetishistic, Spinal Tap-ish photo of a gloved hand on a woman's bare bottom that was deemed too controversial for the U.S. market (but, apparently, just fine for merry old England)--the band and its label delayed the album's release until last Tuesday to replace the song "New York City Cops." Offending lyrics: "New York City cops/ they ain't too smart." Never mind that the rest of the song seems to be about the doomed relationship of a couple on the run (or that everyone I've played the tune for mishears the chorus as either "New York City bars" or "New York City girls"). Says Strokes spokesperson Jim Merlis, "The band stands by the song 'New York City Cops ' but feels, after witnessing the valiant response of the New York City Police Department during last week's tragedy, that the timing was wrong to release it during these highly sensitive times."

It's hard to argue with the sentiment, but . . . how is taking a song off a punk record going to protect the world? While it's not fair to call the decision a calculated PR move, you have to think it's at least an act of covering collective ass in fear of a societal (i.e., consumer) backlash. Then again, I do understand the decision to scrap the cover of the upcoming album Party Music by hip-hop group the Coup. It shows the Twin Towers exploding above the duo--but was, in fact, created months ago.

Am I backpedaling, just like Clear Channel, just like the Strokes? Maybe. Or maybe it's soft-pedaling. Still, there is a line between being considerate and overreacting out of fear of what someone else will think. It's hard to find right now, but it's there. As recently as 1997, various groups tried to get Shel Silverstein's classic children's book A Light in the Attic off school-library shelves, because it was too dreary and negative. I'd bet anything at least some of the same people who find that action ridiculous are squeamish about even tongue-in-cheek criticism of New York City cops right now.

But, self-inflicted or not, censorship is still censorship, same as it ever was. The bigger question is, should we be--can we be--protected from music, or movies, or books? Not if we want the world to move forward.

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