In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, it was inevitable that a reaction would fix on that handy old scapegoat, the entertainment community. From Judas Priest being taken to court for encouraging teen suicides to Marilyn Manson serving as the whipping boy for the Columbine shootings, musicians--especially rock musicians, are often the first to be scrutinized after tragedies.
So it should come as no surprise that a "hit list" of 150 "banned" songs--supposedly handed down by entertainment giant Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio conglomerate--ran in newspapers nationwide.
The list, which, according to most accounts, first appeared on the industry site Hits Daily Double, sparked coverage by such venerable institutions as The New York Times and Variety. The most complete version of story appears in a Sept. 21 Variety piece that cites Denver DJ Bob Richards (at Clear Channel KRPI) as being the first to draft a list of songs he felt could be considered "troublesome." (Say, The Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me.") The list was then circulated among other Clear Channel affiliates (who added their own titles) and forwarded to Clear Channels' headquarters in San Antonio, Texas.
Clear Channel, in the wake of overwhelmingly bad publicity, alternately denied "the list" completely or copped to having originated a "voluntary" or "suggested" list that was never intended as a ban.
Clear Channel president Jack Hogan, quoted in The Atlanta Constitution-Journal, admits that the company originated the list but that it was "never intended as a policy or mandate," adding that the list "came out of exactly the right instincts." At this point, Clear Channel publicists refer journalists to a recorded message that denies a ban (true enough, it was voluntary) and ends with a patriotic spiel about each station deciding its own course of action.
But the damage had been done. Community stations, college radio DJs and more were infuriated by the list, as much for its suggestion of a freedom-of-expression clampdown as its asinine picks. Alongside the entire Rage Against the Machine catalog and songs by Megadeth and Slipknot are John Lennon's "Imagine," Elton John's "Benny & The Jets," Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" and Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
Influential New Jersey community station WFMU program director Ken Freedman reported that his message board was rife with debate on "the list," also saying there was a debate on whether the station should play The Cure's 1979 classic, "Killing an Arab," based on Camus' The Stranger (actually a statement on the senselessness of killing). Locally, WXYC program director Franz Kunst said that there are no suggested play lists, no bans, and was skeptical of the whole Clear Channel hit list brouhaha, pointing out that the event had already been picked up online as an urban legend on Snopes.com.
That's not to say that there haven't been real bans since the events of Sept. 11: Hip-hop label 75 Ark almost immediately decided to change the art on its upcoming Nov. 11 release for The Coup, which, eerily, was to feature a terrorist attack on the WTC towers. And BBC Radio 1 pulled ex-Spice Girl Geri Haliwell's version of "It's Raining Men."
While largely a tempest in a teapot, the fact that a ban seemed believable to so many Americans shows how we've come to expect--as a response to acts with tragic aftermaths--that at least a portion of the blame will land on the musical community. And that, in many ways, is the real story.