Published Oct 01, 2001Whether it be Rage Against The Machine's call to arms or John Lennon's plea to put them down, music has always been the soundtrack to the revolution. But in the wake of terrorist attacks and military mobilisation, the volume has suddenly been turned down.
Before "America's New War" (cue bombastic orchestration and slo-mo shots of the Twin Towers toppling) there was the old one. Vietnam was a protracted, punishing war and the young people of the West turned against it. But it was the pied pipers of pop who led the challenge. While the anti-war movement involved hundreds of thousands, the glue that held them together, galvanised opinion and pushed for change were the protest songs of artists such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and, of course, Lennon. Their songs embodied the struggle and gave people the strength to keep on keepin' on.
This did not go unnoticed. The powers-that-be heard that by the time they got to Woodstock they were half-a-million strong. They saw how protest songs threatened the state and its war. And it looks like they know how to deal with it this time.
While Dubya was busy putting up Wanted: Dead or Alive posters all over town, radio stations began the morally questionable task of protecting Americans from "lyrically inappropriate" songs. While much of the wave of cultural self-censorship is perfectly understandable violent movies, TV shows and video games delaying release or re-cutting scenes we have landed firmly on the metaphorical slippery slope.
Admittedly, there are worse threats to our freedoms and I use "our" since Canada too is at war. The draconian surveillance laws being pushed through the U.S. Congress are not a positive development and our future may well involve regular ID checks and racial profiling. All very bad developments. But one cannot underestimate the importance of music in times such as these. As the news media have cynically demonstrated by splicing horrific images with pop ballads, music is inherently manipulative it can soothe the savage beast, inflame violent passions, bring us to tears and inform our dissent.
Some musical revisions make perfect sense. The Coup decided to pull the cover of their latest album, Party Music, featuring the anti-capitalist rappers with a detonator in front of an exploding World Trade Center. And prog-rockers Dream Theater, whose album cover for Live Scenes from NY coincidentally released on September 11 features the World Trade Center and Statue of Liberty aflame on top of a barbed wire-wrapped apple, have recalled their record. Both covers are political statements that could now be misinterpreted.
But in a more disturbing development, some bands are being specifically targeted for censorship. Leftist rockers Rage Against The Machine who made headlines during last year's Democratic National Convention with a free protest concert that ended in a violent clash with riot police were hit almost immediately. First their web site's message board was shut down after the Secret Service called their provider Infopop concerned about "inflammatory" posts. Then came Clear Channel's "ban" on "all Rage Against The Machine songs." The world's largest radio chain running about 1200 U.S. stations issued a list of "recommendations" of over 150 songs from all genres that its DJs should avoid playing.
Many songs were cut for their names "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" by Peter, Paul and Mary; "Great Balls of Fire" by Jerry Lee Lewis; and Sinatra's "New York, New York." Still others were dropped for their topicality: Ozzy Osbourne's "Suicide Solution," Limp Bizkit's "Break Stuff" and Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like a Hole." And some were listed for no apparent reason as if Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" wouldn't simply make us feel better.
Another radio chain, Citadel Communications, which runs about 200 stations, is passing out a similar list and even some indies are altering their play lists. The spectre of censorship is currently hiding under a veil of sensitivity, but once the propaganda war kicks into high gear, will the ban on Rage be the first step in silencing opposition?
Bush once told CNN, "If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator." Well, he may yet have his wish. We can no longer make fun of his stupidity or even mock his syntax. We certainly can't question the inevitability of war or the futility of "ridding the world of evil." And I'm betting there won't be much allowance for the anti-globalisation movement in the future either.
At the moment, it feels as though there is no longer room for protest not in person, not in the movies and, most certainly, not in song. All this in defence of the "world's greatest democracy" from an "enemy of freedom." To sample yet another insensitive (and banned) song, "Isn't it ironic?"