Joe Rogan. (Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

When Artists Become the Censors

The new moral majority comes for Joe Rogan.

In 1984, of all years, rock bands in the Soviet Union were in a panic. The Ministry of Culture had decreed that, for these groups to keep performing and touring in the USSR, they would have to show that 80 percent of the songs in their live sets were not their own, but written by someone from the state-sanctioned Union of Composers.  

This crackdown was part of a Kremlin campaign to push back against what it viewed as the dangers of rock n’ roll—a Western concoction that turned young people against adults and made otherwise normal, law-abiding citizens question authority. 

The Soviet Union is long gone, but the impulse hasn’t died: More recently, Vladimir Putin’s subordinates smeared Viktor Tsoi, the Bob Dylan of the Soviet Union, claiming that Tsoi’s lyrics had been written by Americans seeking to destroy the Motherland. (For the full history of rock music in the Soviet Union read “BACK in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia, by Artemy Troitsky. It wasn’t long before Troitsky himself, a Muscovite rock critic, found himself banned like the blacklisted musicians he was writing about.) 

I’m not suggesting the music scene of the West today, or the creative industries more broadly, resembles this top-down authoritarian dystopia. There was a time when the censoriousness did come from on high: Moral majoritarians on the Christian Right and conservative organizations like the Parents Music Resource Center worked hard through the 1980s and ‘90s to censor artists. In Ice-T’s 1989 song “Freedom of  Speech,” he took Tipper Gore, a co-founder of the PMRC and the wife of future Vice President Al Gore, to task: 

“Yo, Tip, what’s the matter? You aint gettin’ no dick?/You’re bitchin’ about rock ’n’ roll - that’s censorship, dumb bitch /The Constitution says we all got a right to speak /Say what we want, Tip - your argument is weak” 

But in 2022, the censors are not in charge of governments. Something resembling a bottom-up authoritarianism has become the norm. Or perhaps one could call it lateral censorship. It’s artists shutting down other artists—or trying to. 

Last week, Canadian-American rock god Neil Young made a clarion call against free speech. Displeased by The Joe Rogan Experience’s Covidian contents, Young demanded that Spotify remove Rogan’s podcast—or remove him. Days later, Young’s music was off the platform, though you can still stream his songs on Apple (ignore their forced Uyghur labor in Xinjiang) and on Amazon (but don’t read about the company’s infamous working conditions in James Bloodworth’s book “Hired.”)

Keep on rocking in the free world, Neil.

Of course, Spotify is a private company; they’re under no obligation to platform anybody. So while this campaign doesn’t breach Rogan’s First Amendment rights, it is a clear stand against the cultural norm of free speech. And those standing passionately against speech—a growing list that includes Joni Mitchell, Harry and Megan, the comedian Stewart Lee, the singer India Arie, and Young’s old bandmates, Crosby, Stills and Nash—are all apparently liberals. Strange, that.

How can any artist possibly create without free speech? How are they supposed to be artists if they’re scared that making a mistake or taking a risk that another artist doesn’t like will get them kicked off the very platform that allows them to share their art in the first place?

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I found myself in such a tangle last year. I put out a tweet praising a book critical of far-left extremism in the United States. In doing so, I unwittingly broke with industry orthodoxy. Antifa—which was at the forefront of much nationwide violence throughout 2020—is not to be criticized. 

My bandmates in Mumford & Sons got a lot of flack for my tweet. Radio stations threatened to drop us, and I was canceled from DJ-ing a festival because the headliner had publicly condemned me.

I could have stayed in the band. But it would’ve meant self-censorship. Or lying. So I left.

I had experienced that kind of self-censorship before. A couple of years ago, I remember a meeting with BBC producers in London. Our band was due to play a show with an accompanying orchestra. The producer insisted that the orchestra be racially diverse. And so its players would be chosen by their immutable characteristics instead of their merit. 

Did the producers think the non-white musicians were not talented enough to make the grade with their own hard work and talent? I’ll never know. Because, to my shame, I self-censored. I knew that to challenge this progressive groupthink with liberal ideas—like judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin—would bring unnecessary trouble.  

All communities are prone to a degree of homogeneity. That’s forgivable, but not good. The music industry is no exception. With each new year and each new divisive issue, the creative industries quickly settle into a new orthodoxy. Oddly, that groupthink is often pro-establishment.

Take Brexit. It was an issue about which the British people were fairly evenly split. But among musicians, there was only one socially acceptable view. In October 2018, an open letter to then-Prime Minister Theresa May urging her to rethink withdrawal was backed by Ed Sheeran, Bob Geldof and Brian Eno, among many other powerful musicians. Those who were pro-Brexit—Morrissey, Sir Ringo Starr, Roger Daltry—were in a small minority, but, and this is an important but, there were very few without that level of global fame willing to speak out against the EU.

With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if you are a musician, you are expected to stand against Israel. Musicians For Palestine, launched in 2021, is an anti-Israel collective of over 600 musicians. Also last year, 1,524 artists signed the Artists’ Pledge for Palestine, vowing to boycott Israel. There have been some artists siding with Israel—notably, Gene Simmons of KISS, who is Jewish and was, in fact, born in the Jewish state—but the overwhelming majority have fallen into line. I’ve heard privately from Jews in the industry, even Jews critical of  Israel, that it’s a topic too dangerous to discuss. So they self-censor. British actress Tracy-Ann Oberman described this phenomenon in a piece for The Jewish Chronicle last year. 

Outliers on hot-button topics are notable by their scarcity. Those brave enough to peep over the parapet—think of Kanye on Trump or J.K. Rowling on the trans debate—are attacked viciously. Not so much by the powers that be, but by their contemporaries. Criticism is, of course, fine, but attempts to deplatform have gone too far. 

Under this sort of pressure, who can be surprised that artists are acting less like artists—the way they imagine themselves, anyway—and more like, well, Soviet drones? If artists at the top of their game face this kind of pressure, who can imagine what it’s like for those who dare to think differently and have far fewer resources and far less security? 

There is an often-cited correlation between being creative and being liberal, anti-traditionalist, anti-authority and anti-orthodoxy. So it’s hardly surprising that Soviet musicians opposed a system that was authoritarian and dogmatic. What is surprising is that their contemporary counterparts in the West today are queuing up to endorse and defend them.

So what’s the way out of this? 

By returning to good-faith discourse. By rejecting package-deal politics (a phenomenon that James Mumford explores in his book “Vexed”). By rejecting the fallacy that the world is divided into goodies and baddies. And by remembering that the line dividing good and evil “cuts right through every human heart,” as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in “The Gulag Archipelago.”

Perhaps a healthier response from Neil Young would’ve been for him to start his own Spotify podcast. More speech rather than less is the classical liberal tradition of getting closer to the truth. The new progressive tenet of less speech is a philosophy that shares a little too much in common with the darker societies of old. If Neil has the answers, let’s hear them.

Through my own experience over the past year, I have observed two types of artists: those who tried to silence me for breaking ranks, and the freethinkers who reached out to me privately in solidarity. I’ve been hopeful that, if enough of the freethinkers could be nudged out of the shadows, the culture would change.

That got a lot harder yesterday, when the White House encouraged Spotify to take further action on Joe Rogan: “There is more that can be done,” said the press secretary.

Maybe a return to Soviet-style censorship is well on its way. But this time supported by artists in favor of orthodox establishment thought.

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For 14 years, Winston Marshall was the banjo player and lead guitarist for Mumford & Sons. This past summer he quit, writing in part: “I could remain and continue to self-censor but it will erode my sense of integrity. Gnaw my conscience. I’ve already felt that beginning.” I spoke to Marshall just after he left about why he chose to walk away from the band he loved. If you missed our conversation, listen here:

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