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Did the Nation’s Biggest Radio Company Really Ban Songs After 9/11?


In the days and weeks after the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many Americans turned to music for comfort or to help them make sense of the incomprehensible violence that struck so suddenly and tragically in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. Some artists wrote songs in response to 9/11 (see a short list here), and a handful of classic tracks became newly poignant. But were some songs too inappropriate for our sensitive ears?

The nation's biggest radio network thought so. Clear Channel Communications circulated an internal memo listing approximately 150 "lyrically questionable" tunes programmers should avoid dropping on their estimated 110 million weekly listeners. The New York Times and other reputable outlets reported on the list even as Clear Channel attempted to distance itself from it -- the company maintained no songs were "banned" and explained, "Each program director and general manager must take the pulse of his or her market to determine if play lists should be altered, and if so, for how long." In a statement to the Times, Clear Channel alleged the list wasn't a corporate mandate but "a grass-roots effort that was apparently circulated among program directors."

Visit Yahoo!'s special page devoted to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. 

The existence of the Clear Channel list wasn't terribly puzzling -- with the culture reeling and unsure how to react to 9/11, Vanity Fair's editor proclaimed the Death of Irony, a violent Spider-Man movie trailer featuring the Twin Towers was yanked, and a few album covers underwent serious revision, especially the artwork for the Coup's Party Music, which eerily portrayed explosions rocking the World Trade Center. But the contents of the list were especially mystifying.

In addition to songs with clear references to aircraft, fire, war, and crashes were tracks that flat-out had no clear connection to 9/11, like Alien Ant Farm's cover of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal," Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets," Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" (perhaps the Clear Channel folks had read Graydon Carter's essay?). Would hearing the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" trigger a dangerous emotional response? Wouldn't a DJ be able to figure out for him or herself that the Doors' "The End" would be an unwise selection? The list seemed birthed in good intentions but ultimately poorly executed and overly patronizing.

Clear Channel didn't bother to specify which songs by Rage Against the Machine should be avoided, by the way -- the directive included all of them. In response, guitarist Tom Morello had told the Times, "If our songs are 'questionable' in any way, it is that they encourage people to question the kind of ignorance that breeds intolerance -- intolerance which can lead to censorship and the extinguishing of our civil liberties, or at its extremes can lead to the kind of violence we witnessed."

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