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Off Key: Clampdown

 by Ben Horowitz
 published on Thursday, April 27, 2006

Horowitz/issues/arts/696884
Horowitz
 

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Last week in Northern England, a man was held for questioning after singing along to a song in a taxicab on the way to an airport.

Whether or not Harraj Mann, 24, was a good vocalist had nothing to do with it, although I'm sure after long days on the road, taxicab drivers would like to see plenty of their karaoke passengers held in confinement for indefinite periods of time.

Mann was detained because he had the misfortune of being born with brown skin, and for having an affinity for The Clash. The song he was singing along to was "London Calling," off of the 1979 album of the same title.

If you have the misfortune of having never heard one of the greatest albums of the 20th century, the song features iconic Clash front-man Joe Strummer painting a picture of Cold War life in England.

The specific line that worried the cab driver talks about the climax of a nuclear holocaust: "Now war is declared, and battle come down!"

This wasn't the first post-Sept. 11 police mishap caused by The Clash's songs. In 2004, a bassist in a Clash cover band sent a text message intended for the lead singer of the band with forgotten lyrics from the song "Tommy Gun."

A surprised woman in London received a text message which read, "How about this for Tommy Gun? OK -- so let's agree about the price and make it one jet airliner for 10 prisoners."

In both cases, after questioning, the prisoners were released -- but not before Mann missed his flight.

I have a feeling Strummer would've gotten a kick out of the trouble his band's lyrics were causing in his home country. What might have been less amusing is the way his band's music has been treated by the American music industry.

After Sept. 11, Clear Channel Communications circulated an unofficial list of songs that were recommended to be removed from the airwaves. Among those songs on the list was "Rock the Casbah," one of The Clash's biggest singles.

Ironically, the song is about censorship.

This reaction to The Clash's songs makes one question what we have come to view as dangerous music. The political viewpoints expressed in many of the band's lyrics criticize modern, democratic governance for its failings (and, in the case of "Rock the Casbah," they also hold Middle Eastern dictators accountable).

In the meantime, many critics of modern music also point at hip-hop artists, saying that their portrayal of life on the streets, which occasionally glorifies drug dealers or pimps, is a danger to our moral fabric as a society.

However, both of these genres, when practiced by skillful lyricists, offer a voice and a portrait of life for many Americans.

As media outlets in America are consolidated in the hands of fewer and fewer owners, it is crucial that we evaluate what makes a song dangerous, and what makes a song necessary. Should we start evaluating writers based on the political implications of their views rather than the political reality of their views?

After all, the members of the seemingly innocuous pop band Chumbawumba (the authors of "Tubthumping") were hardcore anarchists who threw red paint on Strummer when they thought The Clash had sold out. Should we pull "Tubthumping" from the airwaves (not that many people would really miss it)?

Perhaps Strummer summed up the modern dilemma of free speech best when he penned "Know Your Rights."

"You have the right to free speech," he bellows, before sarcastically finishing, "Unless, of course, you're dumb enough to actually try it!"

You can reach the reporter at benjamin.horowitz@asu.edu.



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