Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Creative Censorship

In 1978, when the Cure and Chris Parry's Fiction Records made their move with a song called "Killing an Arab," they did it up right. The title was typical punk provocation and the harem-guitar intro typical post-punk filigree, but composer Robert Smith's inspiration was literary. So Fiction mailed out Albert Camus's The Stranger along with the single, in tone and content a remarkably faithful pop rendering of the unmotivated murder that is the linchpin of Camus's classic of undergraduate existentialism. In 1980 the song led off side two of the Cure's American debut on PVC, Boys Don't Cry. And in 1986 its first line provided the title of Elektra's Standing on a Beach, a singles compilation that has sold 450,000 pieces here (and two million internationally) since May, even though the Cure have never broken an American hit out of college cultdom.

Also in 1986, U.S. warplanes bombed Tripoli to the eager cheers of Americans who had fixed on Arabs as their ethnic scapegoats of choice in the wake of the Iran hostage debacle, the horrors of Lebanon, and a ceaseless barrage of anti-"terrorist" propaganda. Bigots who might have thought twice before slurring blacks or Hispanics or Jews or Poles feared no raised eyebrows when they turned their cretin wit on Middle Eastern people from Marrakech to Karachi, not to mention the Arab-American who owned the store down the street. So when Faris Bouhafa, formerly of Max's Kansas City and Columbia Records and now of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, came across the title "Killing an Arab" in a review of Standing on a Beach, he was understandably alarmed.

Given the song's intent and execution, however, it was also understandable that Elektra should balk at the ADC's request that "Killing an Arab" be excised from the album. ADC challenges to the gross stereotyping of such films as Delta Force and Under Siege had met with only limited success, so why should this more equivocal case be any different? According to Bouhafa, the turning point came in late October, when a student deejay at WPRB Princeton introduced the song by "gleefully" announcing, "here's a song about killing A-Rabs." The outrage that ensued as news of this spread in the Arab-American community was mobilized into a phone campaign directed at Warner Communications chairman Steve Ross, Elektra chairman Bob Krasnow, and WEA International chairman Nesuhi Ertegun, a Turkish diplomat's son with a reputation for decency and probity. After "60, 70, 80 phone calls," Bouhafa says, Elektra agreed to withdraw the track, but, apparently after rereading its contract with the Cure, failed to do so. Ertegun, however, came through, halting manufacture and distribution of the compilation in Australia and New Zealand until the dispute was resolved. Neither country has much of an Arab population, but since PolyGram controls the Cure's world distribution, those were the only markets where Ertegun was free to act. He later told his press representative that he would have withdrawn the record internationally if he'd had the power.

About a month later, on December 10, Bouhafa met with Krasnow and Chris Parry and an agreement was worked out. On December 17, Robert Smith released a statement explaining that "Killing an Arab" "was designed to illustrate the utter futility of the actual action of killing" and asserting that "the fact that it was an Arab who was shot seemed, to me, totally immaterial, as I imagine it did to Albert Camus." And on January 20, details were announced at a press conference. The song would remain on the album and the Cure would continue to perform it. But radio stations would be urged not to broadcast it, and every copy of both Standing on a Beach and a forthcoming concert video would bear a prominent legend written by Smith: "The song KILLING AN ARAB has absolutely no racist tones whatsoever. It is a song which decries the existence of all prejudice and consequent violence. The Cure condemn its use in furthering anti-Arab feelings." In addition, the Cure volunteered to do a benefit for Lebanese, Palestinian, and American orphanages.

In significant respects, this solution is, as both Bouhafa and Parry like to say, "creative." It avoids outright censorship of a song that in substance is guilty of no more than an outmoded confrontational style ("If it was called 'The Stranger' we couldn't have had this problem," Parry says) and a musical indiscretion (the broad oud-style guitar intro, which no one involved ever mentions, might reasonably be construed as a racial caricature). Although Bouhafa initially suggested banning the song, he was a music-business good guy himself before signing on at the ADC, and I believe him when he claims relief at having steered clear of "PMRC-type" action. Despite Smith's feeling that "the Cure has always been a group who believe absolutely in human rights, and the peaceful coexistence of all nationalities and creeds," this commitment has been difficult to discern amid his private romantic angst, so it's an up to see him come out squarely on the right side of an unpopular political issue. And in 1986 it's not a bad thing to make crystal clear that a song which repeats the phrase "killing an Arab" three times advocates no such thing.

The problem is, there's no indication that anybody outside the ADC network thinks it does. The Camus reference is quite explicit--the full refrain goes, "I'm alive, I'm dead, I'm the stranger, killing an Arab"--and the Cure do command an exceptionally collegiate audience, one liable not only to understand the song but to consider its absurdity-of-ultimate-choices thesis philosophical and profound. Although Bouhafa assumes college radio's concentration on the distasteful lead cut sold the album, the key factor was a U.S. tour--Standing on a Beach never cracked 25 on College Media Journal's airplay chart after its two Elektra predecessors went number one, and "Killing an Arab" wasn't a high-rotation track. Moreover, although Bouhafa and Smith's public statements leave the impression that Howard Sterns all across the land are distorting the song to their own racist ends, the Princeton incident is the only one yet reported, and sine the show wasn't taped, its details are murky.

The disc jockey denies making any racist comments, and the recollection of the young woman whose complaint triggered the controversy, confirmed by another listener, indicates that Bouhafa's version is inaccurate. The deejay sounded "mellow" and faintly "sadistic" rather than "gleeful," she recalls, and his comment, which followed rather than introduced the record, went something like "That was a song by the Cure called"--or "about"--"'Killing an A-Rab.'" "About" is obviously more incriminating than "called," but in either case it was the demeaningly jocular pronunciation of "A-Rab" that roused her ire, as well it should have.

But without in any way dismissing the fears and feelings of the Arab-Americans who heard or heard about the broadcast, and without denying that such a title is sure to give some young rock and roll asshole somewhere the wrong idea, I must interject that a single mispronunciation seems like mighty thin justification for corporate censorship. For despite the apparent good will of all parties to the eventual agreement, simple chronology indicates that corporate pressure made the difference. Although Parry knew of the dispute as early as August, he didn't respond to ADC until December, after Elektra had assured Bouhafa orally of its cooperation and--more significantly, because it's more concrete--after Nesuhi Ertegun had stopped the record in two markets. When Ertegun's name first came up, Parry betrayed his only rancor of the press conference; Ertegun, he said, "was jumping the gun a little bit," engaging in "a little bit of a quick reaction." Later he told me, "I'm not saying that they've got us on the run, but I will say that it's been an interesting meeting of a band that's had an upswing of popularity and a rise in anti-Arab prejudice."

All of which suggests that we do have a PMRC-type incident here after all. It's impossible to measure the extent to which Elektra and Parry are acting in response to a lobby rather than in solidarity with an oppressed ethnic group, a confusion that can only redound to the benefit of less savory interests seeking to sanitize popular music in an increasingly repressive media environment. And sanitization has definitely taken place. Smith's sticker distortion to the contrary, "Killing an Arab" is not "a song which decries the existence of all prejudice and consequent violence." It doesn't have a neat little socially redeeming message. For better or worse, it's an existentialist song about the meaninglessness of ultimate choices in which race is, as Smith said a month earlier, "immaterial" (more immaterial, I'd argue, than in the novel, which takes place against the implied background of French-ruled Algeria's endemic racism and makes the subliminal point that in moments of existential choice such injustices fade into nothing). I'm not an existentialist partly because I think existentialism is too private, placing too small and arbitrary an emphasis on the sociopolitical, but neither do I want to live in a sociopolitical environment where such a position can't be dramatized in a manner that offends some citizens. And that is definitely the society we're moving toward at this moment. Early in his correspondence with Elektra, Bouhafa argued: "Freedom of artistic expression is a freedom that must be protected only to the extent that the exercise of such freedom does not infringe on the rights of others." That's not what the First Amendment says, and creative though they may be, it's unfortunate that all parties to the great "Killing an Arab" compromise have chosen to imply otherwise.

Village Voice, Feb. 3, 1987