News that Wal-mart has been using its immense commercial power in an attempt to influence or control popular culture shouldn't come as a shock; the giant retail chain has been doing that all along. Nor should it come as a surprise that Green Day feel confident enough in their ability to move copies of their new album that they can afford to tell Wal-mart to go do something unprintable with themselves.
While I commend Green Day for sticking to their guns and insisting that their album be sold as it was intended to be heard, I don't go along with the notion that Wal-mart has some sort of obligation to sell records that deviate from their company policy. No matter how big and powerful they are, after all, they're still a private business, and as such, it's their privilege to sell or not sell whatever products they want. It's a shame that many people who live in the American hinterlands where Wal-mart is often the only record shopping option will have greater difficulty obtaining the new record, but hey, that's why God invented the internet.
No, what really bugs me about this brouhaha is the notion that somehow there is something wrong or obscene about Green Day's record whereas Wal-mart is, while perhaps a little old-fashioned, merely acting as the guardian of "decent" American values. Singer Billie Joe Armstrong put it best: "There's nothing dirty about our record," despite Wal-mart's attempts to brand it as such.
What exactly is wrong with 21st Century Breakdown in Wal-mart's view? Presumably, it's that it uses vulgar language, i.e., swear words, i.e., the exact same language that practically every American - no, wait, every human being - including, most likely, Wal-mart executives, uses from time to time. Swearing may not always be the most elegant or effective use of language, but it's nearly universal and sometimes the most powerful if not the only way to get a certain point of view across. To pretend otherwise is either blinkered or hypocritical.
America has a funny relationship with language: while most modern countries have little problem television programs or movies that portray people talking and acting as they normally talk and act, in this country a broadcaster can be removed from the airwaves or forced out of business by enormous fines for letting an errant expletive or nipple be heard or seen by the public. Yet most of those same countries would never dream of routinely executing criminals or allowing poor people to die for want of health insurance. Different strokes, you might say, but which, if any, is the greater obscenity?
I might be a bit more sympathetic to Wal-mart if their lyrical oversight were limited to those records - and there are quite a few - that promote or glorify violence or sexism or rape - but Green Day records don't even remotely fit that description. The sole objection to their content is that they use real language to talk about real feelings and situations. Some of their punk rock fans might bristle at the description, but it's art, just as surely as anything that hangs on the walls of a museum, and any attempt to bowdlerize the lyrical content is just as stupid as those religious fanatics who at one time insisted on fig leaves being placed over the "dirty" bits of classic paintings.
No, if anyone involved in this controversy is obscene - and I use that word in its true sense (from the dictionary: "disgusting to the senses, abhorrent to morality or virtue"), it's Wal-mart itself. This is a company that has laid waste to the economies and cultures of hundreds, if not thousands of American towns, forcing long-established local businesses into bankruptcy, turning downtowns into dead zones and promoting a suburban-sprawl, automobile-based design model that has littered the landscape surrounding nearly every town with mile upon mile of garish neon strip malls and fast food franchises.
No, of course Wal-mart is not solely responsible for this development, but its entire business model is one that promotes its continued spread. If, instead of its big box stores surrounded by hundreds of acres of parking, Wal-mart would locate new stores in the heart of town, accessible on foot and by public transit, it could single-handedly revitalize many moribund cities, but because that might slightly diminish profit margins, executives continue to insist on gobbling up farmland, creating endless traffic nightmares, and perpetuating the way of life that virtually guarantees continued oil shortages (and the wars that they provoke), destruction of the environment, and disastrous climate change. Compare that to a punk rocker saying a naughty word on a record and then tell me who's the real dirty bastard here.
I don't even need to get into the devastating effect Wal-mart's horribly hypocritical and phony "Buy American" policies have had on our economy; suffice it to say that by "Buy American," Wal-mart means, "Spend your money in our stores." They certainly don't mean it to apply to themselves, since even a cursory examination will reveal that almost everything Wal-mart sells is made in China or some other developing country. Yes, it produces cheap prices for the American consumer, but simultaneously destroys the industries that used to employ those consumers. Obscene, disgusting, or just not very nice? Do you think the guy who has been outsourced out of a job and can't earn a living wage or provide health insurance for his family is more upset about that, or the fact that Billie Joe said a "bad" word on a record album?
Perspective, people, perspective! We got the same crap that Wal-mart is dishing out all through the Bush years: obsessive concern with private morality, riling up the rubes over stem cells or birth control, while at the same time destroying our economy, waging idiotic and mindlessly destructive wars, and giving bankers and corporate executives carte blanche to loot our wealth and resources on a scale probably unprecedented in history. Oh, but at least our precious little children didn't hear anybody say "shit" on TV. No, for that they'd have to walk into the next room where Daddy is looking at his unpaid credit card bills, reading his pink slip, or just watching the home team blow another lead. As Yakov Smirnoff used to say, what a country!