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.

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.

But if the already-declared war is to be as long as the administration maintains, there are guaranteed to be many more infringements on speech rights in the future and more battles to be fought to overcome them.

Were he able, John Lennon, who was persecuted by the FBI and the U.S. Immigration Department for his peacenik views, would certainly raise his voice at such a time -- and understanding that only made Neil Young's performance of "Imagine" on September 21's America: A Tribute to Heroes (a better-than-anticipated telethon for terrorist victims) all the more satisfying. It hardly matters if Young chose the song for its aptness or as a protest against looming thought control. Far more important was the fact that untold thousands, perhaps millions, heard it, and were comforted by it, over Clear Channel radio stations from coast to coast. Imagine that.

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