Failed Censorship (Only The Good Die Young)

I am a huge fan of Billy Joel.  I have every single one of his albums (Okay, I don’t have them all.  I burned most of them from the public library, but whatever.…), and I never get tired of listening to his work.  One of my favorite Billy Joel stories is from an interview he gave when his album The Stranger was re-released as a 30th Anniversary special edition CD.  The album was first released in 1977 at a time when Joel was about to be dropped by his record label due to lack of success from previous releases.  The first two singles from The Stranger were huge successes, “Just the Way You Are,” and “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).”  However, the third single, “Only the Good Die Young” did not climb up the charts like the previous two hits. 

All that changed when a Catholic university got wind of the song lyrics to “Only the Good Die Young” and decided to ban the record from its college radio station.  As many of you probably know, the lyrics of this song are about trying to seduce a good, virtuous, Catholic girl, and it takes a good number of jabs at Billy Joel’s childhood faith.  Eventually, the Catholic  leadership across the country were banning the song.  From the Song Stories website:

Billy Joel recalls the incident himself, “The minute the kids found out it was banned, they ran out in droves and it became a huge hit. If you tell kids they can’t have something, that’s what they want.”

Soon after the New Jersey incident, a number of other church officials across the country openly condemned the song and persuaded a good number of radio stations to ban it as well. The sudden controversy that the song found itself in the middle of,was nothing more than terrific exposure for the track. A song that few people had heard at the time was now making headlines in newspapers and on the evening news, “Only the Good Die Young” obviously shot up the charts and was suddenly a Top 40 hit.

Thirty years later, the song seems nearly harmless in retrospect. It’s played on “soft rock” radio stations, and the lyrics that once caused a major fracas generally don’t even garner a seconds thought.

Recently Joel himself expounded on the lyrics he penned, “I don’t understand the problem with the song. It’s about a guy trying to seduce a girl but, at the end of the song, she’s still chaste and pure and he hasn’t got anything. So I never understood what the furor was about. But I did write a letter to the Archdiocese who’d banned it, asking them to ban my next record.”

It is probably very arguable that without this failed action by the Catholic Church leaders, Billy Joel may have never become the star that he is today.  From the bottom of my heart I say “Thank you, Catholics.”   

I thought of this story as I was reading the introduction to the second edition of “Mormon Enigma,” and although this information may be mentioned next month in the podcast, I thought it was worth noting here.  The authors (Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery) record that after the biography was released and enjoyed some success that the LDS church leadership was offended by the book, and in 1985 responded by restricting any address either of them may be invited to make in relation to the topic of religious or church history within the church.  The ban made national headlines.  And even though they successfully petitioned the church to lift the ban after 10 months, the church did not make the change public knowledge.  Therefore, the book still remained stimatized by the faithful of the church. 

A couple of points stick out to me: first, that the leadership of the church made their initial decision to restrict speaking by the authors without actually reading the book in its entirety.  Second, that after the ban gained publicity, sales of the book tripled.  And third, that it seems the church leaders felt no shame in causing emotional distress for these sisters and their families, just because it did not like a book they published.   

Why haven’t the church leadership figured out the simple idea expressed by Billy Joel – that trying to censor something ultimately just leads to even more exposure – yet?  Is it arrogance?  Or are the testimonies of the few, precious, obedient ones that much more valuable than the effects of negative press? 

These questions are of huge import, at least for me personally.  I had always heard of the difficult doctrinal questions – polygamy, Book of Mormon historicity, blacks and the priesthood, and others.  None of these issues really caused much concern for me.  But eventually for some reason curiosity got the better of me.  For example, I knew that the church had excommunicated Fawn Brodie for writing a history of Joseph Smith.  Eventually my fear of what might be contained in that volume transformed into a question – what could be so bad that they would have to kick Brodie out of the church?   

Subsequently I learned about the September Six.  As with Brodie, I wondered what things that group could have been teaching that would cause the church to have to deny them their membership?  Ditto with Sonia Johnson.  The list goes on.  Needless to say, I didn’t find the things these folks were saying as really threatening at all.  In the case of  Michael Quinn, for instance, it just seemed to me that he was just trying to tell the history the way it was recorded, for good or for ill.  And I always thought seeking out truth was an important part of our theology.

Eventually, the church’s actions in response to these ‘heretics’ became much more of a stumbling block for my testimony than what any of these individuals said or wrote ever could have been. 

Finally, this thought came to me again as I was listening to the Big Love podcast.  I believe it was Melissa who pointed out how the fact that the church PR people came out so forcefully against the HBO program made her curious to find out what was so bad about it.  I admit that my curiosity has been piqued as well, as I have not seen any Big Love shows as of yet.

You would think that the church would have learned these lessons a little better by now, just through experience.  Sometimes I think they are softening because so many of these issues have blown up in their faces.  But it seems like as soon as I start to relax, there’s the next Boyd Packer talk, or the Big Love denouncement.

I guess maybe it is just simple ignorance.  When you’re right, you’re right, no questions asked.  Returning to my affection for Billy Joel music, I know that there was a lot of music that I enjoyed listening to that my parents did not approve of.  Sure, a lot of that music talked about sex and drugs.  But so does Billy.  I never even really paid attention to the words when I was young, but when I got older, I was often suprised that my folks didn’t have a problem with Billy Joel.  But in the end it was a simple as my parents didn’t like Metallica, but they did like Billy Joel.  And I guess that was all that mattered. 

Whatever the reasoning, I think it would be extremely wise for the church to take a closer look at its attempts to censor different voices and information, because in my experience, those actions have done more to hurt than to help.  Even though it may be better late than never, I am afraid at least in my personal case, that the church (just like Catholic girls) will have started much too late.