These days, broadcasters are happy to deny artists and songs access to airwaves for just about anything that displeases them. Their reasons range from taste to policy, and they'll cite anything from economic backlash to social propriety.
In January 2011, Dire Straits was the subject of broadcaster anxiety with the sudden realization, 26 years after the fact, that the band’s hit song “Money for Nothing” included a potentially denigrating lyric relating to sexual orientation. In 2001, a list of 160 songs to be banned from the airwaves was circulated by Clear Channel broadcasting network. It was deemed that airing these songs post-9/11 would be in poor taste. An Ottawa station, KISS FM, even banned the music of American country music star Carrie Underwood in February 2011 because her husband, Mike Fisher of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, had been traded to the Nashville Predators.
In 1939, the tides of fear turned on vocal icon Billie Holiday for the crime of singing the truth. The song “Strange Fruit” was first recorded and made popular by Holiday. Written by a white, Jewish school teacher named Abel Meeropol, the song exposes the racism prominent in pre-Second World War America. The practice of lynching black people, predominantly in the U.S. South, is depicted graphically yet poetically: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black body swinging in the Southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
For some, however, the sentiment was a little too much to take. Holiday’s record label at the time, Columbia, refused to record the song. Columbia did allow her to record it through another company, Commodore. It was virtually banned from the radio but did manage to reach number 16 on the charts. Nightclubs would often not allow Holiday to perform the song in her live sets.
As a black woman in the early 20th century, Holiday embraced an emotional connection to the important statement of “Strange Fruit.” She persevered, and the song became a regular part of her performances. Often it would be the last song of the set, performed as a solo, with all the lights in the club turned off, except for a single light on Holiday.
Considered by many to be the first protest song, “Strange Fruit” has become an important piece of music for many recording artists since Holiday. Nina Simone, Diana Ross, Tori Amos, Jeff Buckley, Mark Lanegan and Siouxsie and the Banshees, among others, have recorded the piece.
She may not have produced anything as important as Holiday has done with “Strange Fruit,” but even Madonna can attest that the attempt to stifle art can sometimes be the catalyst to its successful proliferation. It is lucky for us that Holiday had tenacity.
on Aug 01, 2012