AC/DC, Slipknot... Elton John? Chris Willman says Clear Channel's list of insensitive songs may be misguided, but it's not a crime against freedom

By Chris Willman
September 24, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Angus Young: Michael Putland/Retna

Is the ”banned” songs list a form of censorship?

In the days and weeks after the loss of many thousands of lives in terrorist attacks on America, you might have thought that it wasn’t possible to be too sensitive. If so, you thought wrong. A few days after the tragedies, Clear Channel, a massive corporation that owns hundreds of radio stations, circulated an in-house advisory list of ”songs with questionable lyrics” that programmers and DJs might want to avoid playing for fear of upsetting listeners in these trying times. What’d they get for their trouble? The immediate ire of a lot of rock journalists and music industry gadflies, some of whom tend to throw around harsh words like ”censorship,” ”banning,” and ”anti-First Amendment right-wingers” any time anyone merely suggests a piece of music might be inappropriate.

Clear Channel’s list — which they probably never imagined would get leaked and go public — included a lot of pretty painfully obvious choices. Probably not many stations are rushing to play AC/DC’s ”Hell’s Bells,” Soundgarden’s ”Blow Up the Outside World,” the Dave Matthews Band’s ”Crash Into Me,” Oingo Boingo’s ”Dead Man’s Party,” the Gap Band’s ”You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” or Slipknot’s ”Left Behind, Wait and Bleed.”

On the other hand, consider the median intelligence level for disc jockeys in America today. Most of the smart ones who flourished during the reign of free-form rock radio in the ’70s have been driven into public radio or other careers, thanks to the corporatization of radio and its emphasis on ever-tightening playlists. A lot of the DJs who enter the business these days are in it just because they love to hear themselves talk, or to provoke, and you just know there are smart-alecks out there who WOULD think it’s a clever idea to segue from a news report about possible retaliation into, say, Blue Oyster Cult’s ”Cities on Flame” or Judas Priest’s ”Some Heads Are Gonna Roll,” unless warned otherwise. Think nobody would be that stupid? I just got an e-mail from somebody who’d heard ”Hell Awaits” on his local alternative station. In light of that, this list seems pretty proactive.

The Clear Channel advisory also piqued people’s interests by including a lot of seemingly harmless songs with no mention of burning cities or the fiery pits of Hades in their titles. I wondered aloud about Elton John’s ”Daniel.” A colleague with a better memory than mine said the song opens with the image of the title character on a plane. Oh. And a lot of the tunes have similar flying or burning imagery buried somewhere within. But what about uplifting numbers like Louis Armstrong’s ”What a Wonderful World,” which, ever since it was used in the film ”Good Morning, Vietnam” seems to have become the universal sign for ”It’s time to heal”? My best guess is that Clear Channel, by putting this and other ”up” songs like ”Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” on the list, thought that some listeners might feel patronized and insulted by the suggestion that it’s already time to forget your troubles and get happy. ”La-la, how the life goes on”? Not for a lot of people, it doesn’t. Wonderful world? Maybe two months or more from now, but for the time being, those of us who haven’t gotten over it may want to tell people where they can stuff the ”closure” they might already want to be forcing on us.

This would hardly qualify as censorship even if Clear Channel were forcing all its stations to block these songs — which they aren’t — since freedom of speech includes the freedom NOT to program certain material, last time we checked. But that hasn’t stopped a lot of people from redirecting their outrage at the company. You remember the slogan ”ban the bomb”? There are some free-speech watchdogs who reserve all of their passion for trying to bomb the ban, as it were; and worthy a cause as protecting the First Amendment is, it crosses over into unhealthy zealotry when we lobby these charges at people who merely exercise their equally constitutional right to refrain from causing offense. There are other reasons to argue with Clear Channel — like their monopoly over the concert business, and the troubling issue that raises in tandem with their radio station ownership — but this isn’t one of them.

A lot of us are walking a fine line right now. Putting together our latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, us writers found our words undergoing an unusual amount of scrutiny from editors, just in terms of tone. Seemingly harmless copy was sent back to us with notes like ”Too flip.” A couple of weeks ago, of course, it wouldn’t even have been possible to be too flip within the pages of EW. Now, it’s imperative that whatever little levity we might still have not be viewed as suggesting we don’t understand the gravity of what happened, or adding to the pain of the victims with needless irreverence. Are we being too sensitive, too? Possibly. But right now, that shouldn’t be a crime.

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