Sunday, September 11, 2016

Banned in the USA

I’ll never forget that day,” says C.J. Pierce, guitarist for Dallas metal band Drowning Pool, of the day no one can forget. “I was laying in my bunk on the bus — a little hungover from the night before, of course, this is rock ’n’ roll, I had a couple drinks, whatever — and Clint Lowery from Sevendust comes running on my bus: ‘They’re bombing our country!’ I just remember him yelling, ‘They’re bombing our country!’”

Their bands were scheduled to play a show in Wisconsin. “It was an arena. It was a big show. And a lot of people showed up. The fans showed up, so we’re gonna play. I remember, we did a moment of silence. Each band. We still played the show.”

It seemed obvious. Maybe it was. “What else can you do?”

The idea, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, was to do exactly what you’d done before, and listen to whatever you liked to listen to while you did it. Or the terrorists win.

For example. Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Real,” featuring Ja Rule, was the no. 1 song in America. Maxwell’s Now was the no. 1 album. Jay Z’s The Blueprint, Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft, and Slayer’s God Hates Us All came out that very day. If you’re inclined to view history through the prism of the music that inadvertently soundtracked it, 9/11 is unbeatable for tragedy, absurdity, and pitch-black comedy. But 15 years later, it’s the songs the radio wouldn’t play that tell you the most.

In the week after the attacks, Clear Channel Communications, the Texas-based radio empire then controlling nearly 1,200 radio stations reaching 110 million listeners nationwide, drew up an informal blacklist of sorts — more than 150 songs its DJs should avoid, so as not to upset or offend anyone. As a Snopes investigation subsequently revealed, adherence was voluntary, and many stations ignored it; at the time, sheepish anonymous employees described it to The New York Times as a corporate memo gone wrong, snowballing thanks to an “overzealous regional executive” who kept adding more songs and soliciting more input. A wayward reply-all email debacle made sentient.

And then the list leaked, and became an invaluable source of mild outrage and desperately needed comic relief.

“Imagine.” “Ruby Tuesday.” “Rocket Man.” Rage Against the Machine’s entire catalog. Seven AC/DC songs, from “TNT” to “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” “American Pie.” “Free Fallin’.” “Rock the Casbah.” “Dancing in the Streets.” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” The list is uncomfortably corporate and painfully human, as notable for what it omits (there’s very little country, and no rap) as what it includes. It’s usually presented in alphabetical order, but you can plot the stages, follow the bonkers logic.

Phase one: Contemporary hits from various rock and metal bands, some with violent imagery, some just with the wrong vibe. Metallica. Godsmack. Soundgarden. Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper.” Tool’s “Intolerance.”

Next, pop hits of any era with vaguely confrontational, or war-adjacent, or morbid imagery. Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “Love Is a Battlefield.” The Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb on Me.” “Great Balls of Fire.” “Dust in the Wind.” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” both the Bob Dylan and Guns N’ Roses versions.

Then, songs about aviation: Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away.” Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Aeroplane.” Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly.” Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner.” Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

Finally, and most hilariously, the irony tier: songs so peaceful and utopian they might scan now as oblique taunts. “What a Wonderful World.” “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” And just to be safe, Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.”

At the time, this story was an uneasy delight — in the teeth of the alleged Death of Irony, with Saturday Night Live and The Onion and all the late-night talk shows respectfully silent, you took your laughs where you could get them, and not much back then was funnier than “things are so bad out there they banned ‘Imagine.’”

But for the active artists who made the list, however unofficial and well-meaning it might’ve been, it had a profound effect. (The company, since rebranded iHeartMedia and still the medium’s dominant power, declined comment.) It bumped singles, stalled albums, derailed promising careers. And to listeners, to the American people, it was a whimsical interlude to the grim dystopia of George W. Bush’s war years, clearly signaling that the major corporations dominating the music industry were susceptible to panicked censorship and misguided patriotism.

It was a clumsy, confusing message to a shocked and thoroughly shook populace just when it needed music the most. Any music. Whatever you’re into. Whatever works. And it’s hard to interpret the act of banning every Rage Against the Machine song as anything but a quick and dirty attempt to manufacture a chilling effect on protest songs overall; indeed, with dismayingly few exceptions, prominent protest songs were sorely lacking as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq unfolded. Songs that did directly address the national mood tended toward the pandering, the jingoistic, the geopolitically disingenuous: Think Toby Keith’s alarmingly brazen “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” or Darryl Worley’s syrupy strawman broadside “Have You Forgotten?”

Music was hardly the biggest focal point or the hardest-hit entity after 9/11, but the ripple effect was profound and dismaying all the same. The Clear Channel list was mostly comic relief, but the mood had changed dramatically two years later, when the Dixie Chicks dissed George W. Bush onstage in London, and triggered an instant, near-total blacklist so thorough and visceral they made a movie about it. This list was the first indication that both fallible, well-meaning humans and at least slightly less benevolent megacorporations had enormous influence over who and what you heard and saw. And as the national mood got darker and heavier, that influence grew more sinister in turn.

Here, in their own words, are recollections from five of the artists whose songs made Clear Channel’s 9/11 memo.

by Rob Harvilla, The Ringer | Read more:
Image: Getty Images/Ringer illustration