The History of Pop Teaches Us That Censorship Isn’t Exclusive to China

Iron Maiden's concerts in China were a resounding success, despite the band's inability to do anything that might have displeased the Chinese government.

Iron Maiden’s concerts in China were a resounding success, despite the band’s inability to do anything that might have displeased the Chinese government.

Not only is swearing a whole lot of fun, but it’s also certifiably good for you and your vocabulary. That’s why it was sad to hear that the Chinese government instructed Iron Maiden not to swear during their April gigs in Shanghai and Beijing. To make matters worse, the heavy-metal legends were also ordered to change the lyrics to “Powerslave” and to refrain from using pyrotechnics, thereby leaving their Chinese fans in the unfortunate predicament of having to actually listen to their music. Understandably, a number of Western media outlets were aflutter at this instance of humorless censorship, which as a curtailment of freedom of expression adds Iron Maiden to the list of touring acts recently bowdlerized in the People’s Republic.

Admittedly, this list is pretty long, yet it raises interesting questions, because in placing Iron Maiden’s partial muting within a context of all the other performers who’ve been restricted in China (including the Rolling Stones, Harry Connick, Jr. and Bob Dylan), the media commentary on this episode has implied that what the band confronted is a decidedly Chinese problem. In fact, even though China certainly tops the international leaderboard for censorship of music and art, they’re certainly not the only nation that takes an all-too active interest in what exactly musicians are getting up to and saying. Aside from other ‘authoritarian’ states, they’re also joined by our own Western nations, which far from being the havens for free speech we like to think they are, have proved time and again that untrammelled artistic liberty is a mere figment of the West’s idealized image of itself.

That the Americas, Europe and Australasia sit on the same spectrum as China, Iran and Russia is evident in pop music’s long history of censorship. From the nationwide banning of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in 1965 to the doctoring of their Superbowl halftime show in 2006, the Rolling Stones have been a major fixture in this history, demonstrating how heavy-handed aural policing of their music isn’t exclusive to China. They and other performers have been censored whenever the messages of their songs have conflicted with prevailing norms, sentiments and political inclinations, such as when “Unknown Solider” by the Doors was taken out of radio circulation in 1968 by virtue of its apparent anti-Vietnam-War theme. More importantly, they will continue to be so censored if they cross similar lines, suggesting that freedom of expression is only ever the freedom to move within prescribed bounds.

This is why it’s foolish to think we’re fundamentally different from China, since even if these “prescribed bounds” are different and perhaps more spacious for the US, the UK or France, they still subject musicians to limits. They subjected American folk band the Weavers to blacklisting and the termination of their recording contract in 1951 for their supposedly communistic beliefs, and they subjected the lower half of Elvis Presley’s body to effacement when it gyrated its way through an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957. In neither case were the performers involved any freer than those recently ‘edited’ in China, and in neither case were the justifications for censorship — involving ‘un-American’ activities and ‘unwholesome’ bodily movements — any better than or different from those provided by the Chinese government.

And before anyone thinks that censorship in the US or elsewhere in the ‘Free World’ is a thing of the past, the 21st Century abounds in examples of bands and musicians being prevented from corrupting the general public. After 9/11, for example, the Texas-based Clear Channel Communications (now known as iHeartMedia) sent a memo to its 1,200+ radio stations in America prohibiting them from broadcasting 160 “potentially inappropriate songs.” While the removal of hits with such insensitive titles as “Free Fallin'” and “Crash Into Me” was undoubtedly a considerate gesture on their part, the same couldn’t quite be said for the banning of more political tracks like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2 and “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens, as well as the vetoing of every song ever recorded by Rage Against The Machine. Here, the intention of the conservative, pro-war broadcaster was clearly to prevent the public from even considering certain political ideas and policies, from even questioning an establishment that was quickly rallying itself around the possibility of reprisal attacks against Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern nations.

Even beyond the aftermath of 9/11, musicians regularly find that freedom of expression is more an ideal than a reality that can be taken for granted. In 2003, the Dixie Chicks infamously had their songs pulled from radio airplay and their CDs publicly destroyed after informing a London audience that they were ashamed to be from the same state — Texas — as the President then sending their country to war in Iraq. Outside of America, MTV Europe ridiculously banned the B52s in 2003 as part of their crusade to remove all and any war imagery from their programming, as if the mere reminder of the Iraq War would be enough to prod the European public towards an anti-war position. More recently, French rapper Orelsan marked 2009 by having his CDs excised from public libraries in France and by being kicked off a French festival because of his graphic, misogynistic lyrics, while a Norwegian band was forced in 2011 by their publisher to remove a song called “Free Palestine” from pressings of their album being sold in Germany.

Many more similar examples could be cited, all of which testify to how musicians — no matter where or when they are — can express themselves ‘freely’ only to the extent that they don’t conflict with the mores and politics of those who control the distribution and broadcasting of their art. If they do conflict with such mores and politics, then they will be opposed, with those who have the power and the will to suppress their music happily doing so. That the case of the West differs from the Chinese example insofar as most of the censorship is not being carried out by the central government doesn’t especially matter here, since the overall effect is much the same: the Orwellian deletion of uncongenial views, rather than their engagement by opposing views in rational, democratic debate. The ramifications of this deletion for public and political life aren’t pretty, since without a readiness to consider unorthodox beliefs we as a society become much less open to growth and to progress, to the consideration of opinions that might catalyze our evolution.

And yet, on a less pessimistic note, the very existence of censorship is itself a manifestation of an underlying struggle over what is morally and politically acceptable, a struggle that may eventually result in society’s norms being changed, so that what was once excluded from public life may one day be included. That musicians are often at the forefront of such struggles is an indication that it’s not only performing music that’s essential to their line of work but also challenging and reshaping society’s conventions. They will therefore nearly always confront censorship, since being provocative, experimental, nonconformist and unconventional is part and parcel of what it means to be an artist. As such, the occurrence of censorship isn’t quite the symptom of an unhealthy culture and politics as it’s generally made out to be, since at the very least it tells us that musicians are doing their jobs, and that there’s a certain level of dissent and difference beneath the inoffensive surface of things.

But one important questions remains. That is, if censorship affects musicians in the West just as it affects them in China, then why all the apprehensive focus on cases of Chinese censorship of non-Chinese acts? Surely we’re aware that censorship still occurs in the United States and Europe, and that it’s not as rare as we sometimes believe it to be? Well, assuming that the publications reporting on cases of Chinese censorship are indeed aware, it’s likely that their coverage is expressing a fear other than that of censorship alone. Given the dizzying ascent of China towards its predicted position as the world’s biggest economy, it’s arguable that what recent stories have really been expressing is the unarticulated fear that China’s economic importance will ultimately allow it to impose its values and conventions onto the West it will eventually eclipse. In other words, since Chinese audiences will form an increasingly pivotal market for American and European musicians, there’s a worry that these musicians will have to increasingly adapt the ‘message’ of their music to suit (the government of) their new fans. It’s precisely this anxiety that was being voiced in, for instance, The Guardian article reporting Iron Maiden’s censorship, and even if it remains at an entirely implicit level, it will be this anxiety that’s voiced in future reports on Chinese censorship.

This unease resides in the fact that, as well as having to avoid displeasing the powers that be in the West, musicians will have to avoid displeasing the powers that be in China (and in any other emerging BRIC nation in which they perform). This will potentially leave them with a little less room for maneuver, with a little less room to voice their selves without infringing on any of the rising number of no-go areas and taboo subjects that will prevail in an increasingly globalized music ‘scene.’ In doing this, their music could become safer and more inoffensive as a result, shedding much that made it interesting or provocative in a bid to conform to Chinese (or Russian, or Indian, or Brazilian) values. Not only would this be a loss for creativity and innovation, but it would involve a once-dominant Western cultural imperialism being counteracted and overturned by non-Western counterparts, a possibility that must seem galling for those who view American or European culture as ‘superior’ or more ‘advanced’ than any other.

Still, the future need not unfold in this way. The mere fact that China has allowed such acts as Iron Maiden, Megadeth, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan to even play in Beijing or Shanghai is already a victory of sorts, a suggestion that the seeds of a more liberal political and social culture in the Asian nation have been sown. The Communist Party might believe they can permit these performers to be heard in China while preventing the full import and significance of their music from reaching its citizens’ ears, yet once they’ve opened Pandora’s Box it’s hard to imagine how exactly they could stop this process of opening from reaching its logical conclusion. That Bruce Dickinson simply mouthed the words he was forbidden to utter aloud at Iron Maiden’s recent gigs in the country is in itself an indication of how Chinese music fans can often be aware of what their government officially hides from them, and of how they may already be aware of the ideas that one day might reform their government for the better.

However, just because China might conceivably have a democratic government one day doesn’t mean it will ever be free from censorship. That’s because censorship isn’t simply the product of autocratic states, but rather what happens when concentrations of power and vested interests encounter a message that appears to threaten their power and interests. It happens whenever an organization or entity has the means of stifling an expression and perceives that this same expression potentially threatens their position.

That’s why it will always be around for as long as the dissemination of music is in the hands of radio, television, record labels or Spotify, and that’s why musicians will, in the end, be able to communicate only what such outlets want them to communicate. Then again, they can always attempt to change what these outlets want, and in fact the very occurrence of censorship is itself a manifestation of a battle over what is or isn’t desirable to say in public. Every once in a while, this battle is won by musicians and the movements they represent, so that those who’ve been deprived a voice one day are able to speak their minds the next.

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