Offensive/Un-PC songs: What should we do?

Addendum: Mike Ladano pointed out that in 1999 Axl himself promised to remove “One in a Million” from future reissues of G N’ R Lies. Thanks!

Music lyrics and political correctness is still a topic that people like to debate.

Last month, I made a video responding to a USA Today article talking about offensive lyrics in songs from the past. This time, I’ll follow up and write out my thoughts.

Today, ABC Austalia published an article talking about Guns n’ Roses removing controversial song “One in a Million” from a re-release of their fan-favourite 1987 album Appetite for Destruction and follow-up album, G N’ R Lies.

The ‘offensive’ One in a Million

Some lyrics in that song are xenophobic, racist, and homophobic, calling immigrants horrible names and perpetuating stereotypes.

Guns n’ Roses are one of my least favourite bands under the classic rock umbrella. One of their songs comes on the radio and I’m going to change the station.

In my opinion, those lyrics are in poor taste and it isn’t like Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” where it was clear that those attitudes were not celebrated and the lyrics were from the point of view of a character. Context and nuance is something to consider.

Is Axl Rose a bigot?

It’s well known that Axl Rose is not a very nice person. He’s nasty, rude, and unprofessional. His concerts start late – showing disrespect to fans. He’s a womaniser (aren’t a lot of rock stars like that though?). He’s treated his bandmates poorly. Is he bigoted though? Maybe. At the very least, he’s ignorant and has some bad ideas and I hope he’s changed in the past 30 years, but I don’t have much hope.

As for the song “One in a Million”, he wrote this song solo. In fact, that was one of his first songs he wrote solo, so that’s why I’m focusing the blame on him and not his bandmates.

In a 1989 Rolling Stone interview, he had no qualms about saying the n-word and doubled down. He also defends his stereotyping of immigrants as people who work in convenience stores. He uses a bad experience he had with a gay man and uses it as an excuse to not like gay people, while fetishising WLWs (women who love women, bi/lesbian women). He calls himself pro-heterosexual (what? you’re 90+% of the population, you don’t need a straight pride parade). Yet he says he left his hometown in Indiana because he didn’t like how closed minded people were there. 🤔 Doesn’t make much sense to me.

Is it fair to compare?

It is good that we as humans are progressing. Looking back a few years and thinking to yourself “wow, that belief I had was stupid” is a sign of growth. People are capable of changing over time and shedding bad views. Saying things like “once problematic, always problematic” isn’t helpful and it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. Why would someone with hateful views want to change if they think there’s no hope?

I remember being bullied 10 years ago when I came out of the closet. Now, no one really says anything or gives me trouble. Granted, I don’t live in the southern US anymore and when I visit my family I keep a low profile and I don’t run around with pride badges.

My first choice of major was history and one thing I remember is that it isn’t fair to hold figures of the past to present-day standards. Imagine what people will say about us in 50 years. Let’s learn from the past and be the best people we can be. So I do agree with the professor quoted in the ABC article.

Like I said before, consider context. If we look at “Lola” or “Walk on the Wild Side”, we might think the way those songs talk about trans people is a bit dated, but back then, a song that portrayed trans people in a positive light was huge. Also, language is very generational. Older trans people and younger trans people use different language to describe themselves and their transition journeys.

You can still enjoy media from the past that may seem a bit backwards, but that doesn’t mean that you are backwards and have those views.

Where do we go from here?

So onto the question: What should we do about old songs that are offensive? Censor and hide them? Pretend it doesn’t exist? Address it head on? Have a conversation?

Personally, I am pretty much a free speech absolutist. So long as you aren’t threatening anyone, say what you want. I may not like what you say, but I think you have every right to say it. If Ben Shapiro or Ann Coulter want to do a talk at a local university, fine, I won’t go.

I don’t like censorship. I think the answer to hate speech is more speech. Hateful people will use the censorship to call themselves victims. More than that, issues get swept under the rug. When we take the “more speech” approach, we are showing why what they are saying is wrong.

Personally, I like the approach Warner Bros. took when they re-released episodes of Tom & Jerry on DVD. They acknowledged that the cartoons have some racist humour that was not acceptable then or now. Disney on the other hand, made it hard to see Song of the South. Yes, that film is very racist (and really bad – not worth watching), but to hide it from the public is to act like it was never made and it only increases curiosity. However, you can easily find copies of the KKK glorifying Birth of a Nation and Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will.

Looking at music, there is an all Jewish Skrewdriver parody band called Jewdriver. Jewdriver took Skrewdriver’s neo nazi music, turning it on its head, and giving it a Jewish theme.

The first step to becoming a better person is to take ownership of your past and acknowledge the bad things you’ve done. And then, you learn from it.

If you don’t want to play an offensive song on your radio show, that is your prerogative. If you want to fire an employee because they say something racist, sexist, or homophobic, that’s your call. Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from criticism and it means you can’t get punished by the government.

If Guns ‘n’ Roses want to retire “One in a Million” from their setlist (it seems like they have since according to setlist.fm, they haven’t played it since 1992 and they’ve only played it live twice), that’s fair.

I wouldn’t play “One in a Million” on my show either (no Guns n’ Roses on my show generally), but where do we draw the line with what is acceptable? Who decides this?

Baby Boomers will remember when the previous generation called their music deviant, degenerate, devil worship – a bad influence on society.

Once upon a time songs as innocuous (by today’s standards) as “My Generation”, “Kick Out The Jams”, “Louie Louie”, “God Save The Queen”, and “Light My Fire” were censored on the radio or TV. Is the word “fuck” offensive? Is gibberish too much? Do references to drugs cross the line?

Simpsons - won't somebody please think of the children?

I know that racism, sexism, and homophobia isn’t the same thing as sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but I don’t think sweeping the songs under the rug is the way regardless.

Should we stop playing “The Mighty Quinn” or “I Saw Her Standing There”? I don’t think so.

Is The Who’s “Fiddle About” something that should be omitted from a 50th anniversary re-release of Tommy? No. The song has context and doesn’t cheer on Uncle Ernie abusing Tommy. While John Entwistle wrote that song, Pete Townshend is a child abuse survivor. If Pete Townshend was offended by it, he would have never allowed it to be on the album in the first place.

Should shadow castings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show skip over “Sweet Transvestite”? Language has changed since the 70s and at the time, RHPS was something that inspired trans people to come out and live as their true selves.

In short, we can have discussions about the lyrics, but I don’t think censorship is the way. We can enjoy music of yesteryear and recognise that it isn’t perfect. In my opinion, censoring old songs is like sweeping them under the rug. However, we need to be careful with criticising songs and take into account context. That USA Today article could have done a better job with that.

What is your opinion? Is censorship or discussion the way to go? Have your say in the comments section!

 

Advertisements