This afternoon, while I was driving my son home from archery practice, I heard “Pumped-Up Kicks” come on the radio. If you’re not familiar with the song, it’s by Foster the People and it’s about getting into the mind of a teenager with mental illness who finds his father’s gun.
My familiarity with the song comes from two fronts: I remember hearing it when it first started making the rounds in 2011/2012, and it was used as a reference when my students performed the award-winning play Lockdown (Douglas Craven) last year. It has a good beat, satisfying metallic sound that feels a little influenced by Green Day, and it tackles a tough topic: the songwriter, Mark Foster, has said that he’s glad it sparked conversations about teen mental health.
So it really pissed me off that two words were blanked out of the song: “gun” and “bullet”.
I get it. I understand the desire for censorship, the need to protect young people from trouble, to avoid offending survivors of violence and families of victims. After the Sandy Hook shooting, the song was pulled from most radio stations for a while, just as the Tragically Hip’s “New Orleans is Sinking” stopped being played for a while after Hurricane Katrina.
What upsets me is continued censorship after a crisis has passed. If a song, a book, or a painting doesn’t past public muster for sensitivity, why bother airing it at all? When you delete, erase, cover-up, or block out part of an image — particularly one that is meant to investigate and make a statement — you’re altering the message and changing the vision of the artist. That’s not to say that there are not pieces out there undeserving of censoring: anything derived from directly harming vulnerable individuals is off-limits. Art should come from consent and seeking to understand. It’s just too bad that so many of our species are so quick to leap to judgment and bias when given the face value of something designed to initiate thought.
The first instance I found online of “Pumped-Up Kicks” being censored is detailed on http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=22941 — it was done on MTVU, and has been carried on since then. Whereas many songs with extremely foul language also have words blanked out, it’s surprising how this one’s reference to weapons and ammunition within the context of mental illness was targeted also. There’s an astounding double-standard in the music and entertainment industry, one that my daughter is now picking up on. We continued to listen to the radio after I’d gotten home with the boy, and a song came on with the word “sexy” in it. She was horrified, although it didn’t bother me at all. But I know there are other songs I’ve heard her singing along to, including that one about whips and chains exciting the singer, and I have to admit, that does make me a little uncomfortable.
So guess what my solution is?
If I hear that song, or any other that I don’t really want my kids listening to or singing along with because I don’t think it’s appropriate, I turn it off. And when they ask me why I did that, I explain my actions and we discuss the lyrics, the subtext, and its overall place as a representation of society’s current views and values. And sometimes I’ll turn the song back on, or find it on YouTube, so they can hear the example again and we can deconstruct it further. I don’t sugar-coat it, but I get them to examine the why and what-for, because it’s still someone’s work. It’s still a vision, whether I think it’s effectively carried out or poorly done.
So that’s what I did this afternoon, when I noticed the words missing from the song. And the discussion didn’t take very long, either; we digressed into other topics, one idea branching into another. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I enjoy controversies, you see. I like digging into difficult ideas and trying to see them from as many sides as I can.
And as a writer, I know damned well that someone out there is going to read my next book and have some strong words for my approach to different, still-controversial issues. I didn’t write in Crystal and Wand about school shootings, but — without spoiling things — there are some events that I suspect will raise a few eyebrows or hackles. I’m wringing my hands a little for when the book is released, wondering whether the spit’s going to hit the fan. (Side note: one of my colleagues who has read the first and second books in the trilogy, Wind and Shadow and Blood and Fire said to me that she’d also read 50 Shades of Grey and she thought my books were smuttier. I didn’t know whether to be shocked or horrified!) But I had to be true to the way I thought the characters would handle the situation, telling the story that needed to be told. That meant accepting more than ever before that there will be readers who won’t like my work. Negative feedback always hurts at first, so maybe it’s not a bad thing to expect to receive it. But neither should a writer or an artist hold back on their vision for fear that the audience will want to censor it out of preconceived ideas on how the formula should look.
That being said, I am utterly grateful to my publisher and editors for their support, as my edits continue on Crystal and Wand. Some days it feels like I’m afraid of everything going wrong in my work — that my best efforts will unleash a tide of negativity I won’t be able to handle. The fact that I have such incredible friends standing with me and not telling me to cut the controversy out of my novel means a lot. A hell of a lot.
I hope I won’t have to hear the censored version of “Pumped-Up Kicks” again anytime soon, but if I do, I already have the original on my iTunes to listen to instead.