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Sounds Prohibited

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Issue: 2 Section: Arts Topics: music

June 26, 2003

Sounds Prohibited

Censorship rockin' in the free world

by Matt Brennan

For the first time in nearly three years, aging hip-hoppers the Beastie Boys recorded and released a new song. Called "In a World Gone Mad", the song was inspired by the overt militarism of U. S. President George W. Bush. But Mike D of the Beastie Boys also cited another motivation for the recording: the reports of artists being discouraged from mentioning the Iraq conflict during this year's Grammy Awards. In the months of March and April, it seemed that everywhere you turned there was a pop artist or activist complaining that dissenting voices were getting crushed by the powers above. Surely, you'd think, all the belly-aching was exaggerated -- but then again, you'd also think that if the Beastie Boys released much-anticipated new material, you might have had a chance of hearing it on the radio. Fat chance, apparently. The age-old debate on censorship in the so-called free world has returned to the headlines.

Artists ranging from Chumbawumba to Yo La Tengo released protest songs during the war, but according to The New York Times these tunes were "virtually absent from commercial radio stations, where most programmers wouldn't dream of dividing or alienating their listenership." And yet somehow corporate censorship didn't stop redneck-cum-country-megastar Toby Keith, who scored a huge #1 in America with "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue", featuring the stunning lyrics "This big dog will fight / When you rattle his cage / And you'll be sorry that you messed with The U. S. of A. / 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass / It's the American way."

The recent wave of music censorship in the West has led some journalists to discover that the corporations who control the entertainment industry have long been close buddies with the world's most powerful political leaders. The top management at Clear Channel, which owns over 1200 radio stations in the U. S., has well-established personal and financial ties to the Bush administration. A recent Village Voice article summarized how Clear Channel's vice chair, Tom Hicks, made George W. Bush a multimillionaire by buying the Texas Rangers from him, and chaired a state university board that steered most of its endowment to firms with Bush and GOP ties. Caught with their paws in each other's pockets. Is it at all shocking to hear, then, that Clear Channel stations sponsored pro-war rallies across America? (This included one in Louisiana where they rented a tractor to crush Dixie Chicks CDs and merchandise, on account of singer Natalie Maines having mentioned at a London concert that the band was "ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas".)

Meanwhile, President Bush has called rapper Eminem "the most dangerous threat to American children since polio". You can see how some musicians might be getting nervous about being listed in the music industry's axis of evil.

Here in Canada, there haven't been widely-publicized cases of music suppression, but that hardly means we're immune from the change in the censorship landscape that's occurred since the war on terror began. Martin Cloonan, chairperson of the censorship watch group Freemuse, says that the new climate in the west is not so much one of outright censorship as it is one of consensual control, where the listening public has voluntarily accepted the corporate mechanisms that restrict the free flow of musical ideas.

We're getting used to the idea that certain pop songs are inappropriate or -- a broadcasting public-relations favourite -- "insensitive" to such fragile times. You'll rarely hear of stations using ugly words like "banning"; instead, Clear Channel, BBC Radio 1, and MTV Europe have all recently circulated memos with "suggested guidelines" for playlists. Apparently, these broadcasters believe that listeners are incapable of handling subversive music, but are ready to swallow euphemisms.

So what exactly should we be watching out for in the future of this debate? Censorship under another name, perhaps. Goodbye to "censorship", then, and hello to policing pop.

Matt Brennan is finishing a master's degree on music and the media at Stirling University, U. K.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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