When I first entered MIT as a freshman, it was back in the days when one could still tell “banned in Boston” jokes. However, by the time Boston and Cambridge had become hotbeds of student protests in the late Sixties, that joke had gone far out of fashion. Nevertheless, a recent action by the People’s Republic of China, reported by James C. McKinley, Jr. for the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times reminded me that these jokes will never go entirely out of style; only the geography will change.
In place of the straight-laced Puritanical thinking of the Brahmin class of Bostonians (a curious mix of metaphors), we now have the Ministry of Cultural Security (yes, that is really its name if McKinley is a reliable source) in the People’s Republic of China. As the name implies, this is a branch of the government specifically concerned with threats to “cultural national security;” and they have come up with a list of 100 popular songs that must be removed from Chinese Web sites by September 15 under threat of (unspecified) punishments. McKinley offered a few examples of such threatening content:
Six songs from Lady Gaga’s most recent album are on the list: “The Edge of Glory,” “Hair,” “Marry the Night,” “Americano,” “Judas” and “Bloody Mary.” Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” has also been banned as well as Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night,” which deals with a three-way sexual encounter. Oddly, the list also includes “I Want It That Way,” a Backstreet Boys song released more than a decade ago.
There is, of course, a somewhat elite club of creative artists who have had to contend with punitive forms of censorship. My guess is that Lady Gaga probably enjoys being in a category in which she can now rub shoulders with Robert Mapplethorpe, not to mention Henry Miller and James Joyce. Nevertheless, I believe that, when you travel, you have to play by the rules of the country you are visiting, however awkward those rules may be.
I still remember my surprise at finding Interzone on sale about a decade ago at a Tower Records in Singapore. This was James Grauerholz’ editing of early material for William Burrough’s Naked Lunch along with other writings. My guess was that the Singaporean censors gave little thought to what Tower was selling, assuming that their offerings only appealed to a minority of their own citizens. I certainly never proselytized Burrough’s work when I lived in Singapore, but I could not resist buying Interzone out of curiosity. At the time I was only briefly in Singapore on my way to Kuala Lumpur, and I figured it would make good plane reading.
That turned out to be a poor assumption. The book was incredibly raw, making it an intriguing insight into Burroughs’ origins. However, after checking into my hotel in Malaysia, I realized that this was not something I wanted lying around for the cleaning lady to see (even if she did not understand English). So I ended up locking up the book in my room safe! I would probably do the same today under the same circumstances and would think even more seriously about any literary or musical content I would take with me were I to visit China.