Though Green Day isn’t my favorite band, it has produced a couple of gems that I listen to from time to time. That’s why a recent newspaper article about the band caught my attention. It quickly incited the sense of discontent I feel whenever I see something abjectly unjust. According to an Associated Press report, Wal-Mart, one of the largest and most influential music retailers in the U.S., is refusing to carry Green Day’s new album because the chain has a policy of selling only “clean” albums that don’t have a parental advisory rating (Green Day Lashes Out At Wal-Mart Policy, 05/21/2009). In other words, Wal-Mart requires that “unclean” music be censored if the artist and producer wish to sell music in its stores. Green Day has chosen not to comply, just as it shouldn’t.
As an undergraduate business student, I recognize Wal-Mart’s phenomenal economic achievements. But as a person who values free artistic expression, free speech and cultural pluralism, I find the firm’s policy on albums reprehensible on numerous grounds. Perhaps the most concerning effect of the policy is that it seriously inhibits artistic expression and achievement. Wal-Mart claims that artists can simply choose not to sell albums at its stores if they wish to avoid editing their original content. But as the second-largest music retailer in the U.S., the firm has more influence than it cares to admit. While Green Day can afford to snub Wal-Mart, a refusal by Wal-Mart to carry an album can easily make or break less commercially-viable artists.
It’s sad — but not surprising — that some artists self-censor and avoid topics and language that might get them barred from the stores of the world’s largest company. It’s sad because — like it or not — drugs, sex and violence are parts of the human experience and have inspired some of civilization’s most potent and popular works of art. What if anthems like “Stairway to Heaven,” “Hotel California,” “Comfortably Numb” and “Champagne Supernova” were scrapped simply because someone deemed them to contain inappropriate drug references? To me, this would represent a significant personal and cultural loss. This is an outcome that Wal-Mart’s short-sighted policy encourages.
The corporation can claim that its policy is in place to benefit its customers — notably, parents. But the truth is that it doesn’t benefit them. Customers are better-situated to determine what they wish to buy than corporate managers are. And parents can decide for themselves what they wish to allow their children to listen to. Stores check customers’ ages when they purchase R-rated movies, and they can easily do the same for parental advisory music. It probably doesn’t benefit the company’s bottom line, either, since top-selling albums like Green Day’s frequently carry a parental advisory rating.
What Wal-Mart’s policy does accomplish is unadulterated paternalism. By supporting some profitable albums and not others on the basis of advisory labels, the corporation is imposing cultural values on its customers, and the effect is significant. Many of the firm’s customers might like to walk into a store and purchase the original, uncensored version of an album. But this is a less viable option if Wal-Mart is the most prominent, and perhaps only, retailer in their local area. It seems to me that the company’s message is clear: Wal-Mart doesn’t support the customers who recognize sex, violence and drugs as legitimate topics of art and wish to purchase such art; it doesn’t condone albums that push cultural boundaries; it does support cultural conservatives who find parental advisory music morally offensive and think others should too; and it deems itself justified in demanding censorship on its suppliers and customers.
If you agree that Wal-Mart’s actions are contemptible, I hope you’ll join me in boycotting their stores and submitting a few sentences at the following website so that the company’s managers understand why you’re doing it: http://walmartstores.com/contactus/feedback.aspx. Corporate managers are free to be close-minded and to avoid particular music if they wish to. And Wal-Mart should be allowed to choose which products it wishes to sell. But that certainly doesn’t justify the company’s policy, and the policy will change if consumers take a stand against it.
Brian Flaherty is a Business senior.