December 2001   

Strange Times, Other Voices


I usually write Insider Audio about two months before it's published. So this month's column was supposed to be about the New York City AES convention, which, as I write, should have just ended. As we all know, things worked out very differently.

You may well be at the rescheduled convention as you read this. I hope you are. I hope I am. I hope life in New York City, and everywhere else, has managed to regain a measure of normalcy, and I hope that good things—like love, family, and productive and creative work—have again become the dominant forces in all our lives.

Today, as I finish the final draft of this column, the U.S. launched the first bombing attacks on Afghanistan. Unlike the Gulf War, where the opposition at least was clearly defined and visible, the enemy in this engagement is highly diffuse and difficult to find. I agree with the government voices who say that this is going to be a long struggle, but I believe that the outcome, despite their rhetoric, is far from certain. We are in a new era, and nobody knows where it's going to lead us, politically, militarily or economically. The world has always been a dangerous place, but now, for the first time in at least one generation, Americans—who have traditionally managed not to think about it too much—understand.

Besides the bombs and bullets in Asia, there are other little wars along the home front. The first casualty of war is truth, as goes the old saying, and we've already seen at least one casualty in that sphere: When Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher dared to label the perpetrators of the September 11 horror as “not cowards,” there were loud protests (primarily from people who didn't actually see the program) resulting in several sponsors pulling out of his show and several stations dropping it, and forcing Maher to sprint around the talk-show circuit and publicly eat crow. But truth can be told in many ways, and one of the ways that we in the audio industry are most familiar with is through song.

The core of this column consists of the words of others: song lyrics that I have recalled, or that have been brought to my attention, in the weeks following September 11. Some of them are sublime, some mundane; some I agree with, and some I don't. Some of them are immediately relevant, while others might have you scratching your head as to why I've included them. But besides coming into my field of view, they have something else in common, something very unsettling, which will be revealed at the end of the article.

* * * * * *

Oh I've been smiling lately, dreaming about the world as one
And I believe it could be, some day it's going to come
'Cause out on the edge of darkness, there rides a peace train
Oh peace train take this country, come take me home again

If you hear the song I sing
You will understand
You hold the key to love and fear
In your trembling hand
Just one key unlocks them both
It's there at your command
C'mon people, now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now

I wake up in the morning and I wonder
Why everything's the same as it was
I can't understand, no, I can't understand
How life goes on the way it does

I saw a film today oh boy
The English Army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book
I'd love to turn you on

Six o'clock — TV hour
Don't get caught in foreign towers.
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn.
Locking in, uniforming, book burning, blood letting.
Every motive escalate. Automotive incinerate.
Light a candle, light a votive. Step down, step down.
Watch your heel crush, crushed, uh-oh, this means no fear cavalier.
Renegade steer clear!
A tournament, tournament, a tournament of lies.
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline.
It's the end of the world as we know it…and I feel fine

Yo, this is the message to all that can hear it.
If you got secret information now's the time to share it.
Call your congresswoman, your senator, your Mayor.
It's time for all the scholars to unite with all the playas.
Rearrange and see, times is definitely changing.
They used to tap the phone, now they tapping while you paging me.
It's crazy yet it's plain to see who's the enemy. Who's left?
The NRA, the ATF, the AMA? OK, OK, it's all irrelevant.
'Cause in the new millennium there'll be no central intelligence

by order of the prophet
We ban that boogie sound
Degenerate the faithful
With that crazy Casbah sound
But the Bedouin they brought out
The electric camel drum
The local guitar picker
Got his guitar picking thumb
As soon as the shareef
Had cleared the square
They began to wail
The shareef don't like it

I close my eyes, only for a moment and the moment's gone.
All my dreams pass before my eyes in curiosity.
Dust in the wind

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
How many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
How many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind

I'm inferior? Who's inferior?
Yea, we need to check the interior
Of the system that cares about only one culture
And that is why
We gotta take the power back
To expose and close the doors on those who try
To strangle and mangle the truth
'Cause the circle of hatred continues unless we react
We gotta take the power back

Anyone perfect must be lying, anything easy has its cost
Anyone plain can be lovely, anyone loved can be lost
What if I lost my direction? What if I lost sense of time?
What if I nursed this infection? Maybe the worst is behind
It feels just like I'm falling for the first time

They say Spain is pretty though I've never been
Well Daniel says it's the best place that he's ever seen
Oh and he should know, he's been there enough
Lord I miss Daniel, oh I miss him so much
Daniel my brother you are older than me
Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won't heal
Your eyes have died but you see more than I
Daniel you're a star in the face of the sky

I wish that I could fly
Into the sky
So very high
Just like a dragonfly
I'd fly above the trees
Over the seas in all degrees
To anywhere I please

Won't you look down upon me, Jesus?
You've got to help me make a stand
You've just got to see me through another day
My body's aching and my time is at hand
And I won't make it any other way

When darkness comes
And pain is all around,
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died

Peace love and understanding
There must be some place for these things today
They say we must fight to keep our freedom
But Lord there's gotta be a better way
That's better than
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again

99 Decision Street,
99 ministers meet
To worry, worry, super-scurry
Call the troops out in a hurry
This is what we've waited for
This is it boys, this is war
The president is on the line
As 99 red balloons go by.
99 dreams I have had
In every one a red balloon
It's all over and I'm standin' pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here

* * * * * *

So what do these songs have in common? Just this: If a certain very powerful group of individuals had had their way, then in the days following the attacks on New York and Washington, you would not have heard any of these songs on the radio. Was it the FBI, thinking there were secret terrorist messages in the songs? Was it the Defense Department, worried that these songs would undermine morale? Was it the demagogues who dominate the talk-show airwaves frothing about the degenerate culture of pop music?

It was none of these. Clear Channel Communications, the largest owner of radio stations in the U.S., with almost 1,200 properties, or about one in 10 stations nationwide—including a presence in 247 of the 250 biggest markets—sent out a private memo advising their program directors not to play any of these, or more than a hundred other songs. And besides the songs, one band was mentioned without even bothering to list any of its titles: none of Rage Against the Machine's music should be played, period.

It wasn't a "banning"per se, and a number of Clear Channel stations reportedly ignored the list. When the story showed up on the front pages of newspapers around the country, the company quickly backpedaled, telling some news outlets that it was a "grassroots effort" by several program directors, while saying to others that the central office had indeed put out a small list of songs, and then other people within the organization added to it. But however it was created, a lot of the stations apparently quietly went along. "After all," said one wag, "these are the guys who sign the paychecks and will be looking at future job applications."

One of music's functions in any society is to unify. In America, whenever folks plan a fund-raising event, whether it's to send the varsity lacrosse team to the state semi-finals or to raise funds for the victims of disaster, the first thing they do is get a band. The telethon on September 21, which to date has raised some $150 million, was an amazing example of how music can help galvanize people to action. But music has another function, and that is—like art, poetry and other forms of creative expression—to make us think. Creative artists provide other ways to look at the world, and those alternate perspectives are particularly important during highly emotionally charged times.

Clear Channel is, for better or worse, one of the chief arbiters of the music we hear. Their decision to put a record on the air is based on taste, or record sales, or any of a number of criteria. They are entitled to their decisions. But for the largest radio chain in the country to decide that some music is too dangerous to play is an insult—both to their own program managers and to their audience. And to cast a net that snares everything from Rage Against the Machine to Neil Diamond to Simon & Garfunkel is ludicrous.

If the nation wants to use the power of music to unite and heal, then it also needs to acknowledge the power of music to disagree. Democracy is about making sure everyone's voice is heard, whether they support what their government is doing or not. At times of crisis, we need to hear many more voices, not fewer. If the voices of dissent—whether they're in speeches, in newspaper columns, on billboards, painted on the sides of highways, or sung or rapped—are stilled, then those who want to destroy this country—whoever and wherever they are—have won.

Here are the titles and authors of all of the lyrics quoted in this article:

Peace Train by Cat Stevens

Get Together by Chet Powers (Dino Valente), recorded by The Youngbloods

It's The End of the World by Sylvia Dee and Arthur Kent, recorded by Skeeter Davis

A Day in the Life by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, recorded by The Beatles

It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by William Thomas Berry, Peter Lawrence Buck, Michael E. Mills, and John Michael Stipe, recorded by REM

CIA (Criminals In Action) by Zack M. De La Rocha, J. Gray, Keith Everette Horne, and Lawrence Parker, recorded by Rage Against the Machine

Rock the Casbah by Nicholas Bowen Headon, Michael Geoffrey Jones, and John Mellor, recorded by The Clash

Dust in the Wind by Kerry Livgren, recorded by Kansas

Blowin' in the Wind by Bob Dylan

Take The Power Back by Timothy Commerford, Zack M. De La Rocha, Thomas B. Morello, and Brad J. Wilk, recorded by Rage Against the Machine

Falling for the First Time by Steven Jay Page and Lloyd Edward Elwyn Robertson, recorded by Barenaked Ladies

Daniel by Elton John and Bernard Taupin

Fly Away by Lenny Kravitz

Fire and Rain by James Taylor

Bridge Over Troubled Water by Paul Simon, recorded by Simon & Garfunkel

Imagine by John Lennon

American Pie by Don McLean

War by Barret Strong and Norman Jesse Whitfield, recorded by Edwin Starr

99 Red Balloons (99 Luftballons) by Joern Fahrenkrog-Petersen, Karlo Karges, and Kevin Joseph McAlea, recorded by Nena

These materials copyright ©2001 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing