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Stop Imagining

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

Nationally, the two largest music-television purveyors, MTV and VH1, have thinned their schedules of overtly aggressive sounds, with only the most harmless hard-rock combos, such as Creed -- whose members are out-front Christians -- continuing to receive as much airplay after the calamity as it did previously. In addition, VH1 has increased the visibility of "heartland" tunes seen as safe; on one recent day, viewers could have set their clocks by the airings of John Mellencamp's "Pink Houses." Meanwhile, anthems from the past have resurfaced with a vengeance, most notably Lee Greenwood's 1984 salute "God Bless the USA" ("And I'm proud to be an American/Where at least I know I'm free"). Chances are that few Americans had thought of Greenwood since the early '90s, when the first President Bush made use of "USA" as part of his unsuccessful re-election bid. But suddenly the musician's omnipresent, even appearing at a Colorado Rockies game last week, where he belted out his signature song for the Coors Field faithful.

Which is all good and well. But just because Greenwood's pledge of allegiance makes particular hearts swell doesn't mean that more ambiguous art suddenly is out of place in our society. There's no doubt that much of our country's creative output, and that of the industrial West as a whole, is despised by the militants probably responsible for the deaths of more than 6,000 innocents in lower Manhattan, and it's equally indisputable that the widely scattered elements that make up our popular culture aren't uniformly worthy of praise. Indeed, even the most liberal among us likely have moments of embarrassment or disgust when faced with the least palatable types of music, film, video and so on available for consumption. Yet abruptly cutting off access to any work that fails to win approval by self-appointed guardians of morality is to subscribe to the same type of reactionary fundamentalism that's at the heart of our current crisis. After all, the Taliban in Afghanistan controls what music its subjects hear, too.

This isn't to imply that companies are automatically in the wrong for pulling problematic material from the marketplace right now; to do so would be just as crass and indefensible as the suggestion that anyone who sells stock in this economic climate is giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Warner Bros. has every right not to release Collateral Damage, a movie in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a firefighter whose wife and child are killed in a terrorist explosion. Shelving it will cost plenty, but putting it out would result in enormous losses as well, not to mention unfathomably poisonous ill will. But for TV channels to yank anything and everything that might remind someone of the New York/Washington, D.C., disaster is an absolute impossibility. When Harry Met Sally... seems okay, right? But it's got a scene on an airplane, so it must go. What about the Jerry Lewis version of The Nutty Professor? Sorry -- it opens with an explosion in a laboratory, students fleeing a smoke-blackened classroom and Jerry being buried in rubble. It gets the kibosh, too.

The same concept applies to music. The Coup, a hip-hop group, would be insane to put out its forthcoming CD, Party Time, with its original cover, which features the World Trade Center in flames. But should little Hightone Records panic because Tied to the Wheel, the latest album by roots-rocker Bill Kirchen, kicks off with "Truckstop at the End of the World," a post-apocalyptic tale whose lyrics include "There's a mass of twisted steel where the cities used to stand" and "New York to D.C. is one big, steamin' hole"? Certainly not. The timing's unfortunate for poor Kirchen, whose music is usually about as political as an episode of The Brady Bunch, but anyone with a frontal lobe in working condition can recognize the ditty for what it is: a good-humored joke that might have been funny at another time and in another place.

In the view of many editorialists, the volume of blood shed on the East Coast means that the age of irony is over, and Clear Channel must agree, because it put Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" on its to-be-avoided list. (Presumably, the difficulty was the verse "Mr. Play-It-Safe was afraid to fly/He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids good-bye/He waited his whole damn life to take that flight/And as the plane crashed down he thought, 'Well isn't this nice?'" and not that the song's completely irritating and always has been.) But let's hope we're not also bidding farewell to the age of thoughtfulness and common sense.

In comparison to the scope of the tragedy, a few baby steps toward censorship might seem totally insignificant, especially in the wake of the needling the Clear Channel list received, even on its own stations. On September 19, at practically the same moment that ESPN anchor Dan Patrick was ridiculing the conglomerate on KTLK, professional blusterer Rush Limbaugh, whose show is owned by Clear Channel, was on KOA defiantly playing his verboten theme song "My City Was Gone" by the Pretenders. ("We are not bound by this directive," he crowed.) Reacting in kind were readers of the Denver Post: Well over a hundred registered their opinions about the Clear Channel list on a discussion board at denverpost.com, with the overwhelming majority expressing strong disapproval.

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