Green Day to Wal-Mart: Fuck Censorship

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Moral Crusaders? Green Day
Looks like everyone who called Green Day sell-outs owes the band an apology. After releasing 21st Century Breakdown, their most ambitious album ever, the band followed up by doing the most punk thing they've ever done: refuse to sell a clean version in Wal-Mart, America's largest retailer, and the #2 retail outlet for music (behind iTunes).

As reported by the Associated Press last Thursday (and picked up by outlets coast-to-coast, including the Chron and the Washington Post), Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong said the band decided to "just say no" to Wal-Mart's policy of not selling any CD with a Parental Advisory sticker (signifying explicit lyrical content).

In the past, Wal-Mart has required popular artists to submit edited versions of their albums, sometimes completely altering their context, as in the case of Nirvana, whose social commentary "Rape Me" because the somewhat more innocuous "Waif Me."

"You feel like you're in 1953 or something," Armstrong remarked - a reference to the McCarthy era, when the House Unamerican Activities Committee engaged in witchhunts against liberals, suspected Communists, and anyone else who didn't pass muster with the Morality Police.

So what is the controversial content, exactly? According to the AP, it's "curses and some references considered adult," which Armstrong said he doesn't consider "dirty."

In saying no to Wal-Mart, Green Day could be setting a trend in more ways than one. In its first week of release, 21st Century Breakdown sold 215,000 units--a healthy figure, especially in this economy. With a major American tour planned for the summer, that figure will almost certainly rise exponentially, yet Wal-Mart won't profit from Green Day's popularity. In fact, fans in heartland areas who normally go to Wal-Mart for their music needs may turn in large numbers to the Internet to purchase their copy of 21st Century Breakdown -- or they could just go to another chain-store retailer without a censorship policy, like Target.

In addition, in refusing to play by Wal-Mart's rules, Green Day are setting a major precedent for artists and making a huge statement against censorship in any way, shape or form. Parental Advisory stickers became part of the pop culture landscape due to the efforts of the PMRC back in the late '80s, ostensibly to help parents shield children from offensive lyrics and questionable content. Campaigning against offensive lyrics became a common practice of family value crusaders with conservative political agendas. But PA stickers didn't prevent the Colombine tragedy from happening, and may have actually spurred the sales of gangsta rap. "Dirty" versions of albums generally sell much more units than "clean" versions, and indie labels have been known to affix PA stickers on their product for this reason.

This move by Green Day attacks the "American Idiot" mentality which has allowed for hypocrisy on an ideological basis; despite their Christian sensibilities, Wal-Mart is the nation's largest seller of guns. And it's been somewhat of a PR coup for the band, drawing viral attention to the album, and in doing so forcing the mainstream media and the blogosphere to question Wal-Mart's practices.

While Green Day appears to be doing just fine without Wal-Mart--last week they appeared on David Letterman, the Colbert Report, Good Morning America, and CBS Sunday AM, with upcoming appearances on the Tonight Show and Carson Daly--the real beneficiaries of their anti-censorship middle finger may be smaller bands who might be encouraged to speak their minds rather than muzzle their thoughts--especially if they happen to be political. Score another one for freedom of expression.

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