Censorship

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But the Rolling Stones Should Be Banned From Trader Joe's!

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Lyrics, schmyrics: That OUTFIT is a hate crime! |||

Today's not-The-Onion headline comes from AlterNet:

Trader Joe's NYC Store Defends 'Racist, Sexist, and Misogynistic' Songs on Playlist

Even after Elliot Rodger's killing spree, Trader Joe's manager says the store will keep playing a famous song that demeans women.

Even after Elliot Rodger's killing spree! The nerve of these supermarket managers, not policing their Muzak to weed out songs that no one besides an AlterNet contributor could dream of linking to the Isla Vista massacre! Author Lynn Stuart Parramore goes on to describe her confrontation with store management over the misogynistic classic "Under My Thumb":

Why should I have to hear about a guy comparing his girlfriend to a dog while I'm buying vegetables?

I decided to ask Trader Joe's this question. Just so they would know I wasn't making things up, I printed out the lyrics to "Under My Thumb" and brought them into the store with me. I was directed to a young man named Kyle Morrison at the manager's station, to whom I explained in friendly terms that I was a frequent shopper and that I had heard a song playing over the sound system which, in the wake of the Elliot Rodger killing spree, made me feel uncomfortable. I told him the name of the song, and offered him the paper with the lyrics. […]

Without looking at the page, Morrison's first response was to tell me rather smugly that art was a matter of interpretation. I asked him to read the lyrics, and let me know how he interpreted them. He said he didn't have time, so I read off a few for him.

"Do you think those lyrics are offensive to women?" I asked.

He looked uncomfortable. "It's just like the radio in your car," he argued. "There are all kinds of songs playing on different stations." […]

I did manage to reach Trader Joe's customer service department and spoke to someone named "Nicki" (she refused to give her last name), who told me robotically that the music lists were set and Trader Joe's would not change them.

"Even if they are offensive to women shopping in your stores?" I asked. "No one ever complains," she said curtly. "I'm complaining," I replied.

Why yes, Lynn, you are!

Misogyny being a regrettable part of life; romantic struggle being the single biggest subject of pop/rock music, and art being art, we will always have songs that fail the Parramore Test. For instance, the sainted John Lennon would rather see you dead, little girl:

This is just one of many acts of Beatle-on-female violence; see "Fixing a Hole," "Getting Better" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," for starters. Move it up a decade and you've got a whole melodic genre seemingly dedicated to statutory rape: Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Clair," Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night," any number of songs with "sixteen" in the title. The '80s gave us misogynistic hair metal, the '90s introduced us to bitches and hoes, and even the most anti-misogynist artists of the era were capable of screaming out "Rape Me!" from time to time. (Also, the objectifying/power-tripping pop songs don't always flow in a male-to-female direction.) If I had a conversation with every store manager who had "Blurred Lines" play over the sound system last summer, there would have been no time left to shop.

I mean, what kind of virgin child's inhibitions WOULDN'T run wild? |||

I find some of those songs (though not "Blurred Lines"!) grating precisely because of their lyrical P.O.V.; in other cases it's the seeming awfulness of the narrator that make a song more compellingly artistic. (Though I'm virtually alone in this assessment, I think Guns N' Roses' controversial "One in a Million" is a classic.) Point being, artistic taste is an individual thing, artistic intent is a slippery concept, and a world that's more willing to weed out potentially offensive songs is one that's going to protect people's ears from artists that Lynn Parramore, for one, actively likes.

Such as Lou Reed, whose death Parramore mourned in a Tweet last year ("You brought the soundtrack to my angst-ridden twenties"). "There She Goes Again," one of Reed's early hits, is about a guy taunting another guy about his loose girlfriend, climaxing in the memorable chorus-punchline of "You better hit her!" Or how about the truly brutal epic "Street Hassle," which revolves around the dilemma of what to do with the dead body of a young woman who overdoses on heroin after being penetrated by a "humpin' muscle":

Hey, that cunt's not breathing
I think she's had too much […]
 

But you know it could be a hassle
Trying to explain this all to a police officer
About how it was that your old lady got herself stiffed
And it's not like we could help
But there wasn't nothing no one could do
And if there was, man, you know I would have been the first
But when someone turns that blue
Well, it's a universal truth
And you just know that bitch will never fuck again […]

But why don't you grab your old lady by the feet
And just lay her out in the darkest street
And by morning, she's just another hit and run

Not for the faint of heart. |||

Ah, but that's art, Lou Reed was playing a character. Sure. But maybe the same could be said about the Rolling Stones?

There are infinitely worse expressions of the censorial instinct than asking a supermarket store manager to consider the misogynistic content of a 48-year-old xylophone marimba song. Who knows, maybe a particularly sensitive food chain will come to prominence on the promise of filtering its Muzak of any potentially upsetting lyrics. 

But I hope that day never comes to pass. The "trigger-warning" culture of seeking protection from unwelcome content experiences will never be sated by mere self-censorship; those sensitive ears will end up trying to re-write the rules of expression where they can. And while I therefore worry about the rest of us, I'm actually more concerned in this case about them. Shutting out discordant notes is no way go through either life or art–how can you change for the better if you're not exposed to something that challenges your existing values? And, well, the Stones were a pretty good rock band back in the day. Even when singing about rape and murder.

Hat tip to Mark Hemingway. Click here for a deconstructionist treatment of "Under My Thumb" that floats the possibility of a non-misogynist reading. Click here on my recent column, "When the Left Turned Against Free Speech." Reason TV on trigger warnings below: