Some songs seem like they've always just existed. I know who performed "Wipe Out" and "Dancing in the Street," sure, but on a visceral level, it's hard to believe tunes so ingrained in the collective consciousness were created relatively recently. I remember being five years old and hearing "American Pie," and already knowing it was corny. Who could possibly remember when they first heard "Great Balls of Fire," or imagine a time before they knew "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye"?
For many Americans who grew up listening to FM radio in the 80s and 90s, these songs are our canon. Their soundtracks evoke times and people and places; the first chords of a song like Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" might bring back memories of riding in my dad's truck, while hearing Limp Bizkit's "Break Stuff" reminds me of being powerless and 12 and watching TRL. Your own attachments will be different, obviously, but there is one thing these songs probably don't make you think of, and that is 9/11.
In the immediate aftermath of the largest terror attack on American soil, the radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartMedia) sent its roughly 1,200 stations a list of 150 songs that are "lyrically questionable" and that they maybe shouldn't play. The 2001 Clear Channel memorandum wasn't a binding proclamation, just a strong suggestion. In addition to the aforementioned classics, it includes songs by everyone from AC/DC to the Zombies. If, upon learning about the memo, you turn it into a Spotify playlist and put it on shuffle, a few things might strike you: It's a very good random selection of well-known songs that you somehow rarely hear. In the era of streaming, an active process of selecting exactly what you want has replaced the passive experience of radio, and you probably never think you want to hear "99 Luftballons," but you do. (Though the playlist could stand to have some rap besides two Beastie Boys tracks and "all songs" by Rage Against the Machine.)
There are, in general, a surprising number of hit songs dealing with air travel. ("Aeroplane" by Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Learn to Fly" by Foo Fighters, "Fly" by Sugar Ray, both "Rocket Man" and "Bennie and the Jets" by Elton John, "Travelin' Band" by CCR, etc.)
It's impossible to listen to the playlist without trying to figure out why a given song was selected, which in most instances results in a sort of mortified, guilty laughter. (Though a few songs, like "Have You Seen Her?" by Chi-Lites, are made devastating.) That someone linked Van Halen's "Jump" and Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" with 9/11 is both mind-boggling and inevitable. That this person turned out to be a radio executive and not a schoolchild is all the more absurd.
It's not difficult to guess the impulse behind the memorandum. After the unthinkable happened, maybe Clear Channel, like so many other companies, sensed that the national mood was one of fear and panic and sadness. It didn't want to make things worse. Of course, program directors didn't think DJs should be playing "Theme from New York New York" or a song called "Tuesday's Gone" by Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band that lost a few members in a plane crash, or "Worst That Could Happen" by Brooklyn Bridge. And while it's hard for me to imagine that hearing Fuel's "Bad Day" after 9/11 could somehow have made anyone's day even worse, I can understand the impulse not to risk it. I see the memorandum not as a nefarious bit of corporate malfeasance so much as a well-intentioned, misguided artifact.
While I realize that it's fun to laugh at the face-saving efforts of brands, I can empathize with the people who made these decisions, however wrongheaded in hindsight. I was the social media editor running VICE's Twitter when the Bataclan terrorist attack happened in France. Earlier that day, the site had published an article headlined "We'll Always Have Paris, Texas," about the Wim Wenders film. When the shootings happened, I hurried to delete scheduled tweets about the article, fearing that someone might think we were making a joke in extremely poor taste.
That said, I'm inclined to look at this sort of public-relations hedge less generously. It functions as a sort of soft censorship, presupposing that everyone involved will react to situations in the least rational way. A DJ probably shouldn't need to be told not to play Drowning Pool's "Bodies" after 9/11, just as a listener should be able to figure out that, if a DJ had played that song, he or she surely didn't mean it in reference to the attack. It is this kind of thinking—bad-faith assumptions on all sides—that has become standard in the ensuing 16 years. In 2001, a radio station that made a bad decision could expect a few angry phones calls, with some local news coverage at worst. Social media has turned the world into a letters-to-the-editor forum, and a middle-market mix-up can quickly spiral into thousands of angry tweets from around the globe. Today, it's not just corporations that fear they'll accidentally say the wrong thing. Anyone with a bit of internet savvy knows to triple-check that every public utterance can't be misinterpreted—after all, everyone's a brand now. Most of the things that we ultimately choose not to say probably should remain quiet, but in a few cases, something important is lost. Certainly there are times when hearing "What a Wonderful World"—or even "War Pigs/Luke's Wall"—might help.
Hanson O'Haver is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.
This essay is part of a special series we put together for the Music Issue called Musings on Music: Four Writers Reflect on the State of Music Today. Read the other three essays: z
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