Sometimes an idea is so good that it's hard to believe how long it took for someone to come up with it. This is certainly the case with the book and CD package on censored music just released by the international human rights magazine Index on Censorship. In a world filled with, say, Boston-based altrock Van Halen tribute albums and yet another punk rock Christmas album, finally: a compilation CD worth getting into.
Not that it's easy to get into. The CD's accompanying book raises nearly as many questions about the nature and meaning of censorship as it dispels. Across its 42 essays covering international topics, the issue grows increasingly complex: Are all the examples of censorship really the same sort of thing? What principles lie at the heart of the issue? In short: What is censorship?
But unlike the book, the CD offers a coherent -- if simplistic -- answer. Censorship, it tells us, is bad, whether it's of Hawkwind, Fela Kuti, or the Tibetan Singing Nuns. That simple answer is easy to swallow when the music is top-notch: marvelous reggae like Eric Donaldson's "Stand Up" (banned on South African radio), or Fela Kuti's "Sorrow, Tears, and Blood" (one of the many songs that got the late Nigerian star jailed repeatedly), which also drive home the point that American soul music didn't just disappear into a vat of syrup by the late '70s. It had, by that point, moved its spiritual capital overseas, to dozens of Detroits and Philadelphias in the Third World. Also included are Ian Dury's "Spasticus Autisticus," pulled by the BBC, and the "agitpop" band Flannel's parody of Oasis' "Wonderwall"; something big and dancey by the sound-system collective Exodus (not the thrash-metal band); and a song by the North African chanteuse Malouma. And, again, Hawkwind.
I think the world would undoubtedly be a better place if most of Hawkwind's records were banned, instead of just 1972's "Urban Guerilla," yanked by the BBC for fear of IRA incitement. The band was actually pretty good at that point, being as they were a roaring proto-punk group cleverly disguised as a tribe of silly hippies. The world would also have benefited from seeing Crass -- whose best song, "Bata Motel," also appears here -- thrown squealing into some horrible prison for being a tribe of silly hippies impersonating an anarcho-punk band.
But see, that's how it starts: The urge toward suppression is seductive. It can also be -- as we should all know without having to be told -- a dangerous sort of thing. In recent history, that urge helped empower such absurdities as Anthony Comstock and J. Edgar "Bessie" Hoover; in the past, it's given us Stalinist art, the Fascist pastoral novel, and similar trivialities created on the backs of the far worthier forms that were squashed to make room for them. Still, the impulse to police culture sneaks up on you. It's infernally tempting to consider how things would be if you had enough power to make bad, troublesome stuff just ... go away.
Violinist Yehudi Menuhin contributes a fairly convincing argument for that viewpoint to the Smashed Hits book. He wants to ban Muzak: "Commercial interests and tyrants," Menuhin writes, "both attempt the censorship of music, the former by harnessing its potency for financial gain, the latter for the consolidation of their own power." He also writes, "Today we regulate drugs, food, films, and think it right to do so. Why can there not exist similar proscriptions on the infliction of ersatz music, which is no less open to abuse?"
Well, yeah: Certain claims by Jello Biafra aside (whose lyric "Ban Everything" is included in the book), what's wrong with wanting to rate, label, or otherwise monitor the outpourings of corporate "entertainment" culture, Muzak or otherwise? But if Muzak is a form of environmental pollution, then would the corporate-funded Marilyn Manson represent a simple case of "free expression"? You have to accept Menuhin's main point: Commercial speech and cultural speech have to be regarded, somehow, as different things. After that, it becomes impossible to conflate the free expression of political dissidents (such as Chile's perpetual shame Victor Jara, a folk singer who fell victim to state-sanctioned murder) with that of such corporatist attention-grabbing schemes as TV ads, foulmouthed kiddie cartoons, and transgressive pop celebrities. Damn good thing, too.
But if Menuhin would concede that Marilyn Manson and his corporate handlers are also "harnessing the potency of music for financial gain," and perhaps hardening youth against music (and life) in the process, then what's the difference between Manson's shtick and Hawkwind's "transgressive" radical-chic posturing in 1972? "Urban Guerilla" was suppressed because of its casual, and undoubtedly self-serving, treatment of terrorism during an IRA campaign on the British mainland. Could it have been justifiable to ban radio play of "Urban Guerilla" because of its label's (United Artists) willingness to profit from the deaths of innocent civilians? Once you start down Menuhin's path, you find yourself forced to question and consider all sorts of ideas that, elsewhere in the book, are condemned in no uncertain terms.
No less troublesome in that regard are Helene Lssw's essay "White Noise," on neo-Nazi rock bands in Scandinavia, and Ahmed Buric's expose "Marriage Made in Hell," on "Balkan hate music" -- a factional, rock-based form that's popular in the former Yugoslavia. Are the pieces included as a sort of goading -- to say to the reader, "Would you ban hate rock, you squishy liberal?" Or are they included as "topics of concern" -- to show that while Fela Kuti got clapped into jail every time he sneezed, essentially for being an honorable man, scores of Scandinavian welfare-state skinheads and Balkan microjingoists must be allowed to celebrate their badness with impunity? The only thing that becomes clear is that there are more conflicting axes of oppression, empowerment, liberty, and restriction just in these cases than it is possible to account for. If you support the underdog, which is a pretty good rule of thumb in any case, essays like these will have you stalking the floor with your thumb in your mouth.
The crucial difference between "good" and "bad" expression, in the booklet as well as in life, seems to be a matter of good faith -- and, no less crucially, one of who controls the balance of power. In America, we're ruled by a loose and fractious oligarchy of business interests, locked in ceaseless competition for the patronage of the Chump Consumer who'll pay mad dollars for anything that'll hold his attention or feed his baser instincts more efficiently than the majority of the crap that clogs our airwaves, shopping districts, and cultural geography.
But elsewhere, specifically in the Third World but also (as Lssw's piece suggests) in such real, earthly paradises as modern Sweden, it's generally the State that controls who gets away with what, and on whose terms. Credit Smashed Hits for pointing out the difference, but it doesn't answer the pivotal question: Should we support the power of the State against the evil corporations (and nasty, sometimes fascistic rock bands), or should we support the free expression of the people, fighting against the evil State? Can we do both at once? Is it even possible to see capitalistic pop culture, including rock 'n' roll, as a means of free expression? Is Marilyn Manson on our side, fucking shit up for the other team, or is it the opposite way around?
Smashed Hits doesn't answer any of those questions, but at least it poses them. If you're an absolutist in any of these regards, you've got something to learn from the set. There must be principles, somewhere, that will allow us to distinguish between fraud and small-scale heroism (e.g., Marilyn Manson vs. Victor Jara), as well as between fraud and heroism on a grander, governmental scale (well-meaning Sweden vs. bloody Nigeria).
Let's ban Muzak, first off -- and use the silence to help think things over.
Index on Censorship: www.indexoncensorship.org.