If you can't sing anything nice, don't sing at all

Some radio executives thought there might be songs Americans couldn't bear to hear. Give us a little credit.


September 23, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

Here's betting Shelley Fabares never figured she'd show up on a list of censurable music.

But that's where the actress and her sole Top-20 hit, 1962's "Johnny Angel," showed up last week. The love song, a sugary pop confection about a young girl with eyes for only one boy, was plopped right between The Drifters' "On Broadway" and Los Bravos' "Black Is Black" on a compilation of 162 songs that someone at Clear Channel Communications thought shouldn't be played on the radio.

Just what the list was supposed to accomplish has become an issue of some debate over the past week. Initial news reports were that the songs had been banned. Clear Channel, which owns about 1,000 radio stations nationwide, later said that the list was advisory, and had been put together by a single executive in response to concerns raised by local stations.

"It was always sent out with the caveat, 'Remember, these are just suggestions,'" said Clear Channel spokeswoman Pam Taylor. "It's one person's attempt to help people be sensitive to the market. We are not banning these songs."

Scattershot approach

Regardless of who put it together, the list itself is a scattershot approach to political correctness and patriotism that alternately is thoughtful and silly, earnest and laughable. It's also unnecessary and, in a very real sense, dangerous.

The songs were an eclectic bunch, ranging from Elvis Presley's "(You're the) Devil In Disguise" to Nena's "99 Luftballoons" and Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." Apparently, the fear was that the songs would be seen as inappropriate following the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York. Some decry war (Edwin Starr's "War"), while others seem a call to violence (Black Sabbath's "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath").

Songs that mentioned airplanes made the list (The Steve Miller Band's "Jet Airliner"), as did songs about New York (AC / DC's "Safe In New York City"). Songs of irony (R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"); poignancy (Kansas' "Dust In the Wind"); camaraderie (The Hollies' "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother") and longing (John Lennon's "Imagine").

And then there are songs whose inclusion defies rationalization:

Ricky Nelson's "Travelin' Man"? Guess we need to avoid songs about transportation. "Rocket Man," by Elton John? Hey folks, remember, it's about a guy who lives on Mars, not SCUDs.

The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian"? Egypt, you're apparently country non grata. (Guess they forgot about Steve Martin's "King Tut"). Cat Stevens' "Peace Train"? Songs by Muslims, are you kidding? All songs by Rage Against the Machine? Is this a list of potentially inappropriate music, or an aesthetic statement?

And why on earth is Neil Diamond's "America" included? That song even includes parts of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" in the lyrics.

Truth is, why is there a need to screen the music we hear on the radio? Why is it necessarily bad to play Sinatra's "New York, New York"? If it causes us to choke up, or pause and reflect, or maybe even get angry about what's been taken from us, so what? Let it.

If Peter, Paul and Mary singing "Blowin' In the Wind" reminds us of how horrible war is, and makes us think twice about using devastating force, and causes us to say a silent prayer that this scourge passes as quickly as possible, more power to it.

If "Stairway to Heaven" suggests that those who died are now at rest with God, isn't that the idea?

Flip side of censorship

Here's a cautionary tale about trying to censor what people see and hear for entertainment, even during wartime: In 1940, a British film called "Pastor Hall" was one of the first to use the German concentration camps as its subject matter. Because Americans were skittish about getting involved in the war, or ticking off Hitler -- who, after all, hadn't done anything to us directly - the film was censored in this country. Several minutes were cut from the film, and it was banned in some cities, including Chicago.

Sixty-one years later, it's impossible to say whether "Pastor Hall" might have made a difference in alerting Americans to the totality of Hitler's evil. But it might have, and innocent lives might have been saved as a result.

That's not to say keeping Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield" off the airwaves could have life-threatening repercussions. But suggesting Americans should be fed a steady diet of "acceptable" music is to begin a journey down a slippery slope that leads to values antithetical to everything this country is supposed to stand for.

If "Stairway to Heaven" suggests that those who died are now at rest with God, isn't that the idea?

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