Judging Songs by Their Titles

Radio list of 'questionable' recordings insults pop music and its listeners.
September 19, 2001
Los Angeles Times

Memo to program directors of the nation's 1,200 Clear Channel-owned pop and rock radio stations, including KIIS-FM and KOST-FM in Los Angeles:

Far from being distasteful, many of the 150 songs on that long list of "lyrically questionable" recordings sent to you by the home office are exactly what you should be playing in the aftermath of last week's terrorist attacks.

The list includes some of the most acclaimed songs of the modern pop era--songs that have been providing comfort and inspiration for years. Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was written for times like these:

When you're weary

Feeling small

When tears are in your eyes

I will dry them all.

And John Lennon's "Imagine" might even draw tears in the right context:

You may say I'm a dreamer

But I'm not the only one

I hope someday you'll join us

And the world will live as one.

How could anyone ever find these songs "lyrically questionable"?

The same could be asked about the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," which is also on the Clear Channel list. Is the song--with its "life goes on" sentiment--too cheery in view of last week's horror?

Is Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" too idealistic in view of the looming conflict?

Is Elton John's "Bennie & the Jets" too ... well, you tell me.

The Clear Channel list is apparently not a flat prohibition against these songs by the nation's largest chain of radio stations. They are simply recordings whose appropriateness has been questioned by individual program directors.

You can see why several of the song titles--including Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young," Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and James Taylor's "Fire and Rain"--might cause a program director to give pause. The titles do sound insensitive.

But the songs themselves aren't.

They possess the inherent qualities of the best pop music: They examine life from different perspectives, trying to make sense of things when disillusionment has chased away our dreams.

Over the years, these songs have always helped in the healing process by reminding listeners that others go through the same uncertainties and struggles.

"Fire and Rain," for instance, was one of the loveliest recordings of the 1970s, an almost therapeutic reaction to the social and political turbulence of the previous decade. It was an anthem as powerful in its understated way as many of the classic, explosive recordings of Jimi Hendrix and the Who:

I've seen fire and I've seen rain

I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end

I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend

But I always thought that I'd see you again.

It's the "fire" in the title, certainly, that landed the song on the Clear Channel list--just as red flags were raised by any reference to aircraft (the Steve Miller Band's "Jet Airliner"), New York City (Frank Sinatra's "Theme From New York, New York") or even the day of the attacks (the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday").

Similarly, songs with "falling," "dust," "doctor" or "heaven" in the title found spots on the Clear Channel list.

The most chilling entry on the list is the one that states, "All Rage Against the Machine." That seems more a strike at dissent than questionable taste. Rage is the great Los Angeles band whose highly charged, radical politics caused an uproar when it played its protest music outside Staples Center on the night last year that then-President Clinton addressed the Democratic National Convention.

But while the list is generally more misguided than sinister, it does underscore larger issues.

If radio program directors, who deal every day with music, can make such shaky judgments based on song titles, no wonder it's scary when politicians, who have little understanding of music, start trying to judge songs.

When the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee said in June that it was concerned over the marketing of violent material to children, one couldn't help but feel that the real goal of the lawmakers was to see recording companies stop distributing this type of music to anyone.

The most dramatic moment was when a committee member dared a music industry lobbyist to read aloud profane lyrics by controversial rapper Eminem--as if any slice of lyrics, out of context, would divulge all we need to know about the worth of an artist or a piece of music.

The lure of pop music is its simplicity, but its value as an art form is in how it deals with complex issues in challenging and provocative ways.

By underestimating the ability of audiences to separate the superficial imagery of songs from the underlying emotion, Clear Channel does pop music a disservice. These are the songs we need at these times, not songs we should be shielded from.


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