How great is the power of music? To fans, it can inspire, invigorate and inform. It can motivate social change, break through social and economic barriers and define or criticize cultures and politics.
To those of us who have music for breakfast, lunch and dinner, these are cherished attributes of the art form we love. To political, religious and self-appointed guardians of social order and morality, these are the very things that make music a threat to their vision of how the world ought to be.
In Peter Blecha's Taboo Tunes: Banned Bands and Censored Songs [Backbeat Books], the author points a defiant finger at those who decry free expression in popular culture in order to advance their racist, classist and religious agendas. Blecha makes clear the idea that attempts to censor music are not the sole property of rock and roll, but a practice which can be traced back to the age of Plato.
Throughout history, every new musical idea or innovation has brought an onslaught of vehement criticism which predicts the corruption of youth and the ripping apart of social fabric to the point of anarchy. In actuality, such criticisms have proven to be self-serving rhetoric to maintain the status quo and marginalize "undesirable" elements of society.
The author deftly notes that the tried-and-true subject matter of rock and roll songs (sex, violence, rebellion, drugs, etc.) have very real counterparts in classical, jazz and folk music, which in turn have counterparts in works of art and literature which have been studied and revered by the denizens of high culture. With every passing page, the odor of a closet full of red herrings becomes particularly pungent as one sees historical trends played out ad infinitum--different eras, different music, same tired old arguments.
To assert that music can act as a political and cultural motivator while simultaneously claiming that it cannot affect behavior is a difficult argument to make, but Blecha is up to the task. Music may be a reflection of culture and politics, but can also influence them to a marked degree. Music can foster a raising of social and political consciousness, but is highly unlikely to cause Johnny to attempt suicide. Johnny probably has lots of other problems going on in his environment.
The author unleashes his most potent venom and ire for conservative pundits in the U.S. and repressive governments around the world who believe that music is the source of all moral, cultural and spiritual ills. His occasional rants are both thrilling and coherent.
The examples and ideas presented in this tome send chills up the spine, anger up the blood and prod the reader into some serious reflection. But Blecha also has a disarming sense of humor and zeal for laying out the facts which make Taboo Tunes a compelling and eminently readable work by a man who knows his musical history and serves up prime examples of works which have been singled out for scornful scrutiny and the stories behind the attempts at their suppression.
A companion CD would have been nice, but the truly curious can seek out most of this music on their own. Many examples are quite well known and part of our collective musical unconscious ("Louie, Louie", "Rocky Mountain High", and "Puff the Magic Dragon" have all been dragged through the dirt, as well as some lesser-known but equally important songs).
Peter Blecha has written a fine book, and the timing of its publication could not be more prescient as the American political climate veers ever more perilously closer towards policies which restrict free speech (the current battle of the FCC against so-called "indecency" and "obscenity" in broadcasting--terms which still have no tangible legal definitions or parameters) and threaten privacy (The PATRIOT Act) in the name of morality and security.
Lovers of free speech and music fans in particular should take this book to heart and consider its implications carefully. This book is an important piece of musical scholarship peppered with a wry wit and perceptiveness that demands attention.