Sunday, July 7, 2013

Heaven 17: Popular '80s Synth-Pop Band Or "Terrorist Threat"?

This morning while jogging around Lumpini Park in Bangkok, I had one of those nagging notions that I always seem to get when I'm on the run. (What is it about the combination of music and my favorite physical activity that always seems to, um, jog these unexpected epiphanies?)

What if "Let's All Make a Bomb," a 1981 song by Heaven 17 (from the British trio's debut album Penthouse and Pavement) and the tune that was blaring through my headphones, had been released in 2013? Would the Canadian woman who reported Justin Carter of Austin, Texas, to the police for allegedly making terrorist threats on Facebook -- or some other hyper-vigilant pop-music fan -- have alerted the cops to the dangerous new song invading radio airwaves? Would Martyn Ware, Glenn Gregory and Ian Craig Marsh have been banned in the U.S.A., prohibited from entering the country lest they be detained and incarcerated for promoting anarchy in the U.S.A., too, 27 years after the Sex Pistols declared it in the U.K.?

It wouldn't have been the first time that the cult of fear in the U.S. banded against pop music for catering to the basest impulses and occasionally inspiring them, too. Eminem may have gotten away, astonishingly, with murdering his wife in front of their daughter and stuffing her body in a trunk in "'97 Bonnie & Clyde," and escaped being locked up for making a terrorist threat against unhappily married women everywhere, but Marilyn Manson wasn't so lucky, at least not in the court of Senatorial opinion.

In 1997, Raymond Kuntze of Burlington, North Dakota, charged Marilyn Manson with causing the 1996 suicide of his 15-year-old son Richard because Manson's Antichrist Superstar (the singer and his eponymous band's 1996 platinum breakthrough) was in the CD player next to Richard's body. In his testimony in front of  the U.S. Senate during hearings co-organized by future U.S. Vice-Presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) to condemn pernicious musical and cultural influences, Kuntze singled out the Antichrist album track "The Reflecting God."

"I would say that the lyrics to this song contributed directly to my son's death. Sirs, this music, because it glorifies intolerance and hate, and promotes suicide, contradicts all of the community values that people of good will, regardless of faith, ideology, race, economic or social position, share. From what my family has experienced, this music is a cancer on our society."

In other words, the devil's music made him do it. Over the years, similar accusations have been leveled against Slayer, Judas Priest and other hard rock and heavy metal acts, and without taking sides (I understand why a grieving father would have to place the blame somewhere when suicide is a far more complicated act with roots that go much deeper than the music that a suicidal person listens to), I have to ask, why does Hollywood get away with glorifying violence in a considerably more widespread and dramatic fashion every opening weekend? And if we can apply Freedom of Speech to protect, if not directly advocate, the oral and tweeted expression of racist and homophobic ideas (I'm talking about you, Melissa Reeves), why are musicians constantly being damned for exercising theirs?

Clearly Heaven 17 was making an anti-war statement with "Let's All Make a Bomb" (something I easily figured out the first time I heard the song as a tween), but in an environment of fear, suspicion and hysteria (such as the one many of us live in today), neither irony nor sarcasm play particularly well. Too bad -- used creatively, both can make for riveting pop. Hopefully, Justin Carter, unlike me, doesn't have the good taste to like Heaven 17. Who knows what the Austin police would make of "Lets All Make a Bomb" on his iPod?

My Other Favorite Heaven 17 Track (which has absolutely nothing to do with bombs bursting in air)

"Let Me Go!"

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