You Can’t Say That!
I was exited to John Lennon Live in New York City air on the VH1 Classic channel yesterday morning so I set my VCR (yes, I still use a VCR so don’t pick on me!) to record the hour and I looked forward all day to getting home and watching the show. The concert took place in 1972 and was a benefit for children with mental challenges. The controversy over the release of the album and video is interesting by itself but I’m not going to talk about that. I leave that up to you to check out if it’s something you’re interested in. Instead . . .
I start the tape and John, backed by Elephant’s Memory, starts rocking to New York City, but something’s wrong here. There are odd little audio drops in the song, barely noticeable, and rewinding back I realize that the line, “Have a marijuana if you can” has been changed to, “Have a ____ if you can”, and that’s not all. The next line, “The Pope smokes dope every day” has been changed to “The Pope ____ every day.”
Censorship? That seems odd.
Three songs in and John begins Woman is the Nigger of the World, a song about the oppression of woman, only there’s another strange audio drop and instead of the full lyric, John is singing, “Woman is the ____ of the world”.
What the fuck? What are you doing here VH1 Classic?
I’m not going to defend the word “nigger”. I can’t do that because I don’t like the word and I don’t like the meaning. The word is hurtful, but in the context of Lennon’s song, where I don’t think he’s using it as a racial slur, I question why it had to be censored. Are we not smart enough to take the lyrics in context? Are we so blind that we’re going to infer meaning where none exists? Are we so naïve and simple-minded and incapable of rational thought that we need to have decisions as to what we can and cannot hear made for us now? I guess according to the VH1 Classic channel, when it comes to a nearly 40 year old piece of musical history, the answers to those questions are ‘yes’. Someone please tell me that isn’t so.
I said that particular word, what we now, in political correctness, call the “N” word, which is not so very different than just saying the actual word, is hurtful and I stand by that, but I wonder why the word – why any word – is hurtful. It’s just a word, sticks and stones, you know, right? But is it hurtful enough to be considered taboo? Hurtful to the point where publishers should alter classic works of fiction like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – stories written nearly 140 years ago – because they contain racially insensitive language? And is the word hurtful because the word is really bad, or because we allow the word to be hurtful and bad. And so there’s no misunderstanding, I’m not arguing that it’s not a hurtful word, and I’m not getting ready to lobby that the word enter into the vernacular. I’m told by people closer to the issue than me that the word is hurtful and I accept that. This is just stuff I think about when I think about censorship and certain stuff in the world that keeps people separate and apart and distant and fearful of each other.
Lenny Bruce, you might have heard his name or seen the Dustin Hoffman movie, was a comedian and social critic. Despite going to jail on obscenity charges Bruce refused to censor himself and I admire that. That being his commitment to his beliefs not always what he said. He probably influenced every comic who came after him which is saying a lot. Here’s a bit of Lenny Bruce talking about that word and the power of words in general. Again, I’m not defending the word or condoning its use, I just think Bruce’s commentary on the power of words is interesting.
“What did he say? “Are there any niggers here tonight?” Jesus Christ, do you have to get that low for laughs? Have I ever told you about the schwartzer? Or spoke about the moulin john’s? Are there any niggers? I know that one nigger that works here I see him back there. Oh there’s two niggers, customers. Ah but between those two niggers there’s one kike. Thank god for the kike. And two kikes. That’s two kikes and three niggers and one spic. One spic, three spics and one mick. One mick one spic one hick, thick, funky, spunky boogie. And there’s another kike. Three kikes, three kikes one guinea, one greaseball three greaseballs, two guineas. One hunky funky lace-curtain Irish mick. Five more niggers. I pass with seven niggers, six spics, five micks, four kikes, three guineas, and one wop. Well, I was just trying to make a point and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig. If President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, “I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet,” and if he’d just say “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger” to every nigger he saw, “boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie,” “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger” ’til nigger didn’t mean anything any more, then you could never make some 6 year old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.”
Offensive? What do you think? Can emotion ever be totally removed from certain words? Is Bruce’s commentary valid and relevant or nothing more than a pipe dream? Does the suppression of a word give the word power or are certain words, by nature, bad?
Here’s the John Lennon song if you’re interested. And I’m always interested in your thoughts and comments.