Manic Street Preachers in Cover Controversy… or Censorship?

I was rather astonished to read that the UK’s leading supermarket chains, Asda, Morrison’s, Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s have ‘banned’ the new Manic Street Preachers album on account of it’s ‘inappropriate’ artwork.

Well, ok, so further reading reveals that they haven’t actually banned it (as Kerrang reported, and supported with a quote from bassist Nicky Wire “Supermarkets won’t accept the album cover, which I am really startled at. You can have the Pussycat Dolls poledancing, but you can’t have our album cover.”) and aren’t refusing to stock it. They’re simply refusing to carry its original artwork, and will instead display the CD in a plain slipcase.
‘Journal for Plague Lovers’ features a painting by Jenny Saville of a boy, who may (or may not, depending on your interpretation) have a bloodied face. Whether or not I think it’s a ‘good’ painting isn’t the point. But does the fact it doesn’t shock me in any way make me desensitized?

I can’t help but agree with the band’s bewilderment at the decision, and the point made by James Dean Bradfield: “You can have lovely shiny buttocks and guns everywhere in the supermarket on covers of magazines and CDs, but you show a piece of art and people just freak out”

While the Guardian ran a music blog by Jonathan Jones that contended that this ‘raises the interesting possibility that hand-made, painterly images now have more power to shock than conceptual artworks’ (and he may have a point), I would also say that it reinforces the depressing – rather than interesting – possibility that the world’s gone mad and is riddled with hypocrisy.

To unpack this a little, the supermarkets in question aren’t making any kind of judgement regarding the contents of the CD. Fair enough, it’s certainly innocuous and harmless enough compared to the wall-to-wall misogyny and glorifications of violence that proliferate across many of the rap albums in the charts, but then, by the same token, if the problem with the cover is that it’s thought-provoking and hints at darker aspects of life, then surely the album should be subject to the same kind of scrutiny. But that, of course, would require some actual interrogation, rather than an immediate and not very rational knee-jerk reaction that surrounds anything to do with children, the likes of which saw Chris Morris’ truly brilliant ‘Brasseye’ and Channel 4 subject to a mass of moral outrage for daring to parody a subject as grave as paedophilia. And, more saliently, I believe, to refuse to stock an album that’s guaranteed to be a top 10 hit and probable number 1 on the week of release won’t send a message to anyone and will simply mean that the supermarkets won’t be getting a cut of the sales profits. And that would never do: the shareholders would have a fit. I daresay the record company might have something to say too. As it stands, however, the controversy is more likely than not to boost sales, for all sorts of reasons.

Ironically, the supermarkets that are, by their actions, giving the band some free promotion (there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? Just ask Jonathon Ross: a furore, a few weeks of vilification and a three-months suspension and a BAFTA at the end of it all) are the kind of corporate giants that the Manics railed against at the start of their career, back when they were full of bile and were all about political sloganeering against the system rather than being a part of it.

Are these supermarket chains guilty of uneven censorship, or simply reactionary hypersensitivity in a climate already rife with moral indignation over the most trivial of things? Either way, the end result is the same, and the latter leads to censorship however you look at it. It’s a slippery slope, alright, and people need to speak up and to take action. Because if you tolerate this, your children will be next….

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