Nov 1 2001

The New Blacklist

The nation's largest radio network's list of 'questionable' songs

As rescue workers tirelessly searched the rubble of the Pentagon and World Trade Center, one casualty went unnoticed: a nation’s freedom of speech. In later years, September 11 may also come to be seen as the day the music died.

In the wake of the tragedy, the doorway is open for opponents of free speech to trample dissident voices and narrow the parameters of what can be discussed in art and music. In the days following the terrorist attack, the media monopoly that is Clear Channel walked through this doorway.

Clear Channel is a multi-tentacled corporation that owns over a thousand radio stations in the United States–including 60 percent of the nation’s rock-format stations (Salon, 4/30/01). Clear Channel also controls hundreds of music performance venues, as well as companies that manage many of the artists at the top of the Billboard charts.

Following September 11, Clear Channel program directors put together a list of more than 150 “questionable” songs, and sent them via fax and email to their 1000+ stations and affiliates, with the not-so-subtle hint that these were songs to be steered clear of. These songs included everything from the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” to the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”

Several of the songs seemed to be included because of their pro-peace message–like Bruce Springsteen’s “War,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train”–as if being in favor of peace was a political point of view that was suddenly “questionable.” Along with the individual titles, the blacklist included “all songs” by my band, Rage Against the Machine, which suggests that our radical political beliefs rather than specific lyrical content rendered our work taboo.

When confronted about the list, in an Orwellian turn, Clear Channel first claimed that there was no list. After being presented with hard copies, they suggested that the list was not an official ban, just a list of songs that stations might want to avoid playing (Slate, 9/18/01).

Dissent under pressure

Rage Against the Machine’s free speech faced additional pressure following the attacks–this time, indirectly, from the U.S. government. The Rage Against the Machine website had a message board, hosted by a company called Infopop, for fans to post their thoughts and feelings on nearly any topic under the sun. On the day of the terrorist attacks, Infopop claimed that the Secret Service called them because of alleged threats on the message board. Seeking to avoid further trouble from the government, Infopop stopped hosting the Rage message board, and the cyber town meeting came to a screeching halt.

Other musicians have also felt their freedom of expression squeezed by an increasingly repressive climate. At the time of the terrorist attacks, the band System of a Down (whose song “Chop Suey” was on Clear Channel‘s blacklist) had the number one record in the country. System lead singer Serj Tankian posted a statement on his band’s website suggesting a connection between U.S. foreign policy and the September 11 terrorism–a statement he took down almost immediately in the face of vociferous attacks (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 9/30/01). While the backlash against System of a Down may in part be a xenophobic response to the band’s Armenian background, it was also clearly an attack on a particular political point of view.

There’s not much distance from making a list of banned songs and banned artists to drawing up lists of banned books or banned journalists. The variety of opinions that is “acceptable” right now has been narrowed by these tactics of intimidation. When the horrible attacks of September 11 are used as a pretext for squashing the opinions of dissident artists, people who are not beating the blood-lust drum feel alone and isolated. It’s in times like these when we most need intelligent, thoughtful discussion and debates about the issues of the day. Artists and fans, journalists and readers must stand together to ensure that our free speech rights are not lost.

Tom Morello is the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine. Thanks to Jake Sexton for his assistance on this piece.