Stop Imagining

Will freedom of expression be the first casualty in the war on terrorism?

On September 19, the Rocky Mountain News published a letter from Francois Bellouin of Boulder that began as follows: "Yesterday I was singing John Lennon's 'Imagine' all day long. Following the horror of Sept. 11, I wonder if any of us, almost 20 years after his death, understand and will stand up for his message."

Or, Bellouin might have added, will people even get a chance to hear that message at all? In the days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Clear Channel, America's largest owner of radio stations and controller of approximately 60 percent of rock radio nationwide, sent a memo to its outlets featuring a list of 150 songs that might be considered inappropriate at this time. And among the songs was "Imagine," a tune (practically a hymn) that's universally regarded as one of the most thoughtful and eloquent popular standards produced during the last thirty years.

So what's suddenly so potentially offensive about "Imagine"? In all likelihood, the lines "Imagine there's no countries/It isn't hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion, too/Imagine all the people/Living life in peace..." Apparently, Clear Channel types believe that people don't want to envision folks existing peacefully right now, nor would they like to muse about a planet where political divisions or reasons for reprisals are unknown. Instead, citizens want to focus every ounce of their energy on fantasies of retribution, and as such, anything that might encourage them to dream about other things, even if they're beautiful, should be squelched.

Not that anyone at Clear Channel will admit thinking this now. As soon as news about the list reached a slack-jawed public on September 18, the company started backpedaling, issuing a press release in which Mark Mays, its chief operating officer, denied that any songs had been banned (a dubious claim), emphasized that programming at its stations is handled locally (yeah, sure) and underlined Clear Channel's support of "the First Amendment and freedom of speech" (when it suits them). The spin took place locally as well, with Mike O'Connor, director of Clear Channel's FM programming in Denver, making calming statements in both the Denver Post and the Rocky, which published its article about the list on September 19 (the same day that Bellouin's letter appeared), and attempting to laugh off the developing controversy during an appearance on KHOW. No, ha-ha-ha, he said, he didn't expect that metal-edged KBPI, ha-ha-ha, would be playing Shelley Fabares's "Johnny Angel" (another song on the list) anytime soon, ha-ha-ha.

Beneath the chuckles, however, was a Denver connection to the Clear Channel list that no one's discussing. According to a September 18 piece in the New York Post, the executive who assembled the roster was Jack Evans, the former operations manager for KBPI, who left Colorado a few years back in favor of San Diego -- the very place Clear Channel Denver vice president and general manager Don Howe is heading at the end of the year. Evans, moreover, was the man overseeing KBPI when members of the station's morning team disrupted an area mosque -- a failed stunt that seems even more appalling under these circumstances than it did back in 1996.

Given the level of empathy this routine implies, it's hardly surprising that no songs arguably insulting to Arab-Americans -- such as, say, Ray Stevens's "Ahab the Arab" ("The swingin' sheik of the burnin' sand!") or the Cure's "Killing an Arab" (a song inspired by Albert Camus's The Stranger that actually condemns violence and bigotry) -- made Clear Channel's dishonor roll. It also raises questions about the motivations behind the listing of specific songs. Was System of a Down's "Chop Suey!" targeted because of the couplet "I, in my self-righteous suicide/I cry, when angels deserve to die," or because the group's members are of Armenian descent, look Middle Eastern and have names such as Serj Tankian and Shavo Odadjian? Could Rage Against the Machine, whose entire oeuvre was recommended for elimination, have attracted Clear Channel's wrath because the outfit has a history of standing up for indigenous populations and Third World freedom fighters? Did Cat Stevens's "Peace Train" wind up in the corporation's sights thanks to such "divisive" lines as "Why must we go on hating?/Why can't we live in bliss?" or as a result of the singer's 1979 conversion to the Muslim religion, when he changed his name to (gasp!) Yusef Islam?

Of course, Clear Channel may well have had the best intentions when compiling and distributing its list; it may have merely been attempting to be sensitive to its listeners, something with which it has precious little experience -- locally, anyway. But the effect of its action was to treat its audience like children incapable of differentiating between the aircrafts that smacked into the Twin Towers and the one at the center of Steve Miller's totally benign "Jet Airliner." In one of the toughest, least-emotional essays published since the crashes, novelist and commentator Susan Sontag, writing in the September 24 New Yorker, accused the government and television networks of infantilizing the public by oversimplifying an extraordinarily complex situation, and Clear Channel is obviously guilty of the same thing. But it's hardly the only media organization to err in this manner, especially with regard to music.

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