A couple months ago, we started playing a song on WFPK called Mr. Wright, from the super-pairing of Les Claypool of Primus and Sean Ono Lennon. Since we regularly play both artists, the announcement of their new project was instantly exciting. Being experimental artists, we werent expecting any kind of typical radio single, which is fine, as were a type of station that can get away with playing just about whatever we want. It seems this would be a case of testing the just-about part of that last sentence, though.
Mr. Wright on the surface is a weird little psychedelic funk pop song that advances with its repetition, giving you a rare moment to sing along on whats otherwise more of a jam. And, if thats all you notice, then youll have a good time with it. As it happens, things get weird when you start paying attention to the lyrics. The song unfolds to seemingly tell the story of a peeping Tom who goes from watching a girl from the shadows to spying on her as she showers, and, eventually, peeing. So yeah, thatd be a warped song to put on the radio, which is why we decided that maybe we should do an edit of the song, because wed probably get complaints, and its a debatable FCC violation. The FCC doesnt care for anyone singing about bodily functions, which is a really dumb thing sometimes, especially when we start to argue everything that technically could be a bodily function. That argument usually ends with a use-your-best-judgment line. We left the shower line in, though, even though it felt gross when we played it.
Now, I should say that this isnt a completely important song for us to play. In fact, it may be a cool project, but its not like anyones holding our feet to the fire to play it, so we could actually just not play it, and there would be no problem. But, its something that our audience would probably like to know about our music-obsessed listeners who were lucky to have so were trying to find a way to serve the moment. In a bigger picture, Im also careful not to step over any lines of censoring art, but if your (or my) kid is in the car when Claypool says he likes to watch her shower, thats potentially going to lead to an awkward moment, maybe even resulting in you changing the channel, which I dont want either.
But, we let it play for a few weeks to see how it would land. Our audience, for the most part, is pretty liberal, and if many folks did take issue, we didnt hear about it. Until we did. But just once, and right at the end of the songs cycle. A complaint came in that said playing that song went so far as to prop up rape culture, which isnt something I saw coming, but obviously took seriously. So conversations were had, and the song was pulled. We agreed that we doubt Claypool was headed in that direction more than likely he was just writing a third-person song about one of his usual oddball characters. He has a long history of these seedy types in his songs, and Mr. Wright was another one in a long line. And, also, what if hes not talking about spying? Its possible (though admittedly not likely) that its a fetish song, and shes a willing subject. Does that make a difference?
The conversation went on to other moments in rock history. If we were to not play this song, does that mean we cant play Dave Matthews Bands Crash, with its infamous bridge about a peeping Tom, a song thats been played on radio and TV millions of times? Or, even further down the line to songs that are less blatant, but no less creepy, when you concentrate on the lyrics like The Polices Every Breath You Take. I do see the difference between what Sting and Les Claypool are singing about and what Les Claypool is, though less so when it comes to whats in the Dave Matthews lyric. Its more of a question of: When does it become censorship in the worst way? And I dont have the answer for it. People seem to be OK with Crash, maybe because its sung with a sweet melody, while Mr. Wright isnt. So, for us, all we can do is send it out into the world and wait to see how its received. Art can be frustrating sometimes, but Im glad that Im in a space where its an open conversation.
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated The Speed of Sound. Hunting bears was never his strong point.