Frog Eyes' Carey Mercer Tears into Artist Censorship at the 2010 Olympics
Published Dec 07, 2009With the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics just around the corner, the city is filled with mixed emotions. On one hand, there's the excitement of free concerts from the likes of Wilco, Feist and many others. There's also frustration for Vancouver residents, as the needs of the city's impoverished Downtown Eastside go overlooked in favour of the games.
Frog Eyes and Swan Lake member Carey Mercer has been a Vancouver fixture for some time, and has pointed out another reason to be frustrated. This time, it comes from the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee, who have forced censorship on their performing artists.
Mercer is upset about the following clause that Olympic performers must sign to be involved with the festivities:
"The artist shall at all times refrain from making any negative or derogatory remarks respecting VANOC (the organizing committee), the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Olympic movement generally, Bell and/or other sponsors associated with VANOC."
In a guest blog post on Stereogum, Mercer analyzed the grave implications of this statement. The full article can be read below.
VANOC is the Vancouver Olympic Committee. No one, including our courts, can figure out if it is a public or private entity. It seems to be public when it needs tax dollars (6 billion), but private whenever it is challenged: challenged by the usual alliance of Beat-niks; Peace-niks; Alternative Media Types; First Nations (particularly pissed on by the Olympic Experience), and any other social group that questions the use of 6 billion tax dollars to build Bob-Sledding tracks, etc., instead of focusing these resources on more pressing social issues. For example: Vancouver has the most condensed area of homelessness and addiction in Canada (hear: any Vancouver musician's ubiquitous and repetitive references to Hastings Street/"The Lower East Side").
But this is a music blog, right? So why am I blathering on about bob-sledding and homeless dudes, and not telling you about Vampire Weekend's apartment?
The Olympics always has a "cultural component," a cultural Olympiad, and this year, to quote their puke-in-my-mouth inducing website, they have made a back-patting hullabaloo about including "cutting edge indie rock." And each and every "cutting edge" performer that has agreed to play has signed a contract that includes the above clause. A clause that states, in case you skimmed over it, that these artists must never say anything negative about an entity that will spend 900 million dollars on "security." An entity that has already infuriated anti-poverty and anti-homeless groups who accuse VANOC of not living up to its promise of providing affordable housing.
Most participating artists claim to be unaware of this clause. Some names you might be familiar with:
- Rural Alberta Advantage
- Laurie Anderson
- Steve Earle
- Something called "Hal Willner's Neil Young Project"
There are more acts, but this is enough information.
Does VANOC think Feist is going to unfurl a massive canvas portrait of the Anarchist prince Kropotkin, inciting a cop-car-smashing riot, the likes of which Vancouver has not seen since Axl Rose cancelled his 2002 concert? Would she play her smash-the-state anthem "Down with the Olympics, Class War Now, Eat The Rich," while the streets run red with revolutionary blood?
No. It is likely that if she said anything to the tune of "maybe we could have spent this six billion dollars of some housing for all of these lost souls that have no where to go," the majority of Olympiad-goers would bite into their hot-dog, agree half-heartedly, and then start thinking about how excited they are for tomorrow's bob-sledding event.
Also: I like Feist. Every time I go to Zellers I hear her song. It reminds me of going to the store to buy batteries, but instead buying licorice.
I like lots of these artists. The idea of this article is not to trot out the old tired binary of punks vs sell-outs. The idea of this article is not to question why these artists were ever aligned with the Olympics in the first place. They should speak for themselves - except they can't. (Though I must admit I was perplexed and saddened when I saw Steve "The Wire" Earle slated to perform.)
I feel bad for these musicians. They've unwittingly gagged themselves. I think they would speak out against this treatment, if they had not unwittingly signed a contract that legally forbids them to do so. I choose to believe that they were unaware of this clause. This is the season for charity.
I don't feel bad for VANOC. I can't fathom why they would have included this clause. Are these people who have absolutely no sense of history? I think so. And by history, I mean: that chilling legacy, wherein totalitarian states silence and dictate the output of artists. Nice company you keep, VANOC! Or: to paraphrase David Eby from the BC Civil Liberties Association, speaking on Q, a national radio program: Propaganda.
When artists are not allowed to critique their government, or the governing agency that endows them with grants and funding, then what they are asking for is nothing more than propaganda. Propaganda, for some reason, rankles that sensitivity towards freedom of expression that seems to be hard-wired into our culture. It's kind of immaterial though: neither propaganda, nor deeply subversive art won't stop us from, in the foreseeable future, cracking a can of cola/Pabst while loading up our cool, individualized playlists that reflect our life-style identification. Sorry: I just ralphed in my mouth again.
So I do not feel bad for VANOC. The bob-sled is in their proverbial bob-sled track. They can respond to the mounting criticism of this clause by publicly removing this inane restriction, or they can remain mute, high up in their glass towers, silently and joylessly holding their contracts to their chests, secure in the knowledge that they suckered a few independent bands to sign a piece of paper that insures that these aforementioned bands cannot criticize their gala event -- an event so imminently meaningful and central to our collective notion of "the world" that it contains, at its core, a ritual where grown men and women dressed in full-body spandex hurtle down an icy downhill track strapped to an ice-sled.