Censorship on the radio today made me angry

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.

Finding My Way Back to Vinyl (and the redecorative consequences therein . . .)

Cool your jets. Not THAT kind of vinyl. Trust me, squeezing this body into anything not stretchy or cotton would be a huge mistake, at least without some tough foundation garments.

No, this is something that’s been coming for a while. I love my music, so much that I often watch TV shows or movies just to have the soundtrack in the background of my daily activities. (Reminder to self: burn the digital collection to disc soon, idiot!) My parents had a great sound system when I was growing up, and many LPs that I enjoyed playing and lip-synching to, especially with an audience. Or without, because it was just fun.

But by the time I was old enough to have my own record player, LPs were on their way out, cassette tapes were wavering, and CDs were picking up steam. As a teenager I really wanted the best of all worlds, but at that time it was expensive to have a stereo that played all three. My loving and well-meaning parents gave me a great shelf-size system that played LPs and cassettes, but my interest was waning in favour of the new-fangled and pricey CDs in their shiny jewel cases. The following year I received my first CD player, and my records and record player quickly gathered dust.

After a while, I started noticing that I was missing something. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I enjoyed my CDs, got pissed off when a whole book of them was stolen from my husband’s then-workplace in the late 1990s — after all, they were an investment of time and consideration, each disc and its compilation of songs loaded with memories — and as soon as I could start collecting digital singles, I was all over that. I love being able to get the songs I like at the touch of the button.

Still, something was off.

I watched movies like High Fidelity and it occurred to me that I really had enjoyed the look and feel of flat records. I’d always gotten a kick out of the way the needle moved gently across the player and settled into its spot, the little whisper of white noise and quiet flicks and snips of dust that I’d failed to brush away. But going back to vinyl seemed silly and pointless. After all, my music was all on my computer at that point. Why bother getting records when I already have what I want?

It wasn’t until my husband bought the property next door to us, and discovered a stash of records, that I knew I wanted to listen to LPs again. 35s. 45s. Give them to me!

Sadly, the record player he found with them was broken. And I wasn’t able to hook up the next one I located at a yard sale. So for months, our new record collection sat unplayed and forlorn, gathering dust. I needed shelf space for board games so I relocated them to a trunk and felt profoundly guilty, shutting them away in the dark.

Then Christmas rolled around and I noticed record players appearing in flyers. I went into a local electronics store that had just opened, and voila! There they were! Two record players, one with a sleek futuristic design and a clear plastic lid that could transfer record music to MP3 files, and the other a retro wooden look with cassette deck and CD burner, plus Bluetooth. (Actually, I think they both had Bluetooth . . .) I took a picture of both, noting that each was on sale, and texted my ever-loving, long-suffering spouse to see what he thought. He ended up giving me the latter as a gift, and I am loving it.

Right now, I’m listening to a slightly-scratched REO Speedwagon record. I have to rearrange our little living room again to accommodate our growing collection, one more reason to sell or give away our cumbersome TV cabinet and that massive antique glass cabinet sitting on the supremely ugly vintage dresser it came with as a stand, our mismatched filing cabinets and too-small computer desk (all #firstworldproblems, I know), in favour of building wall shelves that run the perimeter of the room and utilize all of the vertical storage space we have. This is especially important if we do end up adopting a bearded dragon currently in need of a new home . . .

I can see how it will be laid out: four or five rows of wide brown shelves, maybe a row of cabinets underneath for concealed storage (or just plain boxes that are covered with cushions for a cozy look, or against which large framed pictures rest), the middle spaced adequately to fit our TV against the wall, with rows of my books sectioned by my beloved’s collection of antique knickknacks. One shelf or row of boxes houses the bearded dragon’s tank, while another conveniently-located shelf is double-width to accommodate a properly-working filing cabinet and our desk chair, serving both as shelf and computer desk. And, of course, filling another side of the shelves, our record collection next to the stereo. I can see it all, my friends. I want to do this. I need to do this. In the summer, I went to the length of pricing out the planks and looking at DIY designs, but I lacked both the courage and the funds to make it happen. Now it’s midwinter, the weather is no longer suitable for moving large pieces of furniture outside to get them out of the way, and still, all I want to do is redecorate.

After all, how hard could it be, really? Just pack away all the knickknacks and board games, framed photos . . . measure twice and order the pieces (knowing that our walls are crooked and the shelves will have to be mightily reinforced to compensate) . . . Move the current furnishings away from the workspace, likely into the middle of the room . . .

I promise you, if I do this, I will document and blog the process for your enjoyment. Feel free to point and laugh. But wouldn’t it be amazing if I could have this done by spring? Such transformation, brought about all by the gift of a record player, sparked by the finding of a record collection, connecting to memories of a childhood listening to LPs . . .

Wishing for a do-over… A sonnet for a loss.

It’s bothered me for years. I know that it’s better to live without regrets, that it’s useless to worry about things we cannot change. When I graduated from high school, I was given a wonderful, and surprising gift: a surplus French horn from the music department of my high school. It was not in the best condition, but it played, and I was incredibly honoured and pleased to have it. However, over time, I stopped playing for a variety of reasons. And there came a point while I was in university when, while waiting for student loans to replenish my bank account, between the end of a summer job and the start of the fall work season, I made a decision that I wish I could go back and do differently. 

* * *

Sonnet for a Lost French Horn

Valued once for its brassy gleam and sound,
Beauty was not enough in poverty.
Though dusty, tarnished, dented coils still wound,
Sold on the street for a sum of money.
Immediate hit of regret, loss, despair;
A precious gift turned into cash for food.
The potential, the talent, gone somewhere
Has it helped another? I prayed it would.
Beloved tool, my heart’s mellow voice,
Practice daunted by time and bashful fear;
Lacking spine, still, my neglect was a choice.
It lay silent, slept, for over a year.
Entrusted to a new soul, my token.
Somewhere it sings, no longer broken.

* * *

I remember how wonderful it felt to be part of an ensemble, making music together. I remember the pain of swollen and chapped lips, aching wrists and dented skin on my thigh from resting the edge of the bell. Emptied the spit and oiled the valves. I loved its tone, how it could ring and wail, bellow and whisper. One day, I would like to have another for my own pleasure, to play when the house is empty and the time is mine.

Until then, I have the memories. And the man who bought my horn was an older gentleman. I have hope that he took care of it, restored it to a really good condition, and made it sing again.


Missing Stompin’ Tom Already

Gone but not forgotten -- a Canadian icon.

Gone but not forgotten — a Canadian icon.

As soon as I read of Stompin’ Tom Connor’s death today, my mind immediately took me back to when I was 8 or 9 years old, or maybe 10, and my dad singing along to “The Hockey Song”. I was mildly irritated, but secretly enjoying the serenade as he tapped his foot to the rollicking beat. I think my father still knows all the words by heart. And as an adult, of course I sing right along.

Raise your hand if you remember a family member singing this one when you were a kid! Or, recently!

Raise your hand if you remember a family member singing this one when you were a kid! Or, recently!


Stompin’ Tom Connors was really a voice of a certain generation of Canadians. There was something about his genuine nature, his kindness, his authenticity and his understanding of community that represented the generosity and fun of our nation. It seemed like he would always be around, an icon every bit as recognizable as Gordon Lightfoot, Ann Murray, Bryan Adams, and others. He wasn’t a pop star, and he didn’t make waves on the music scene; I can’t recall anything prodigal about him in the sense of Justin Bieber. Stompin’ Tom was just as you saw him, and heard him. His music evokes Tim Hortons’ coffee and doughnuts, Bob and Doug MacKenzie, hot dogs and cotton candy at fall fairs, driving across the Prairies and hitting the curves on the highway around Cape Breton Island.

Takes me back…one of the best parts of the 80s for me. Though I didn't know it at the time.

Takes me back…one of the best parts of the 80s for me. Though I didn’t know it at the time.


His is the music of my family trips when I was young, the steady beat livening up the car while the road passed beneath us. It was reliable, constant, and comforting when the country was experiencing tension and conflict. It’s nostalgic, but also hits the right tone when it’s time to relax and kick back at the cottage.

Stompin’ Tom Connors may have left us, but it will be a long time before his music loses its joy, at least for me. For the hard-working, flannel-wearing, cowboy hat-wearing, salt-of-the-earth Canadian in all of us, his music will keep him in our hearts.