No One Is Safe from Political Correctness - Even Lou Reed ; Art Shouldn't Be Censored Because of a Fashion, Even by the Work's Creator

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Where does this pop lyric come from: "And the colored girls say doo do oo do doo do do doo"? Dead easy; it's Lou Reed's classic song "Walk on the Wild Side". One doesn't have to be of a certain age to know the line and its subsequent, erotic female chant. The song has never gone out of fashion in three decades; and you can still hear the coloured girls sing on most radio stations and in most people's record collections.

The one place you won't hear the coloured girls say anything is at a Lou Reed concert. Reed, it has been reported in the pop press, now sings "And the girls say...". His original lyric, he has decided, might offend.

I had to rub my eyes at this. A song about a male prostitute and transvestite in a drug-crazed section of New York is a curious place to introduce political correctness. Perhaps it's a sign that the former wild man of Velvet Underground has turned 60 and become very literally censorious. Perhaps he is just another victim of the political correctness epidemic in America. Either way, there is something that makes me feel uncomfortable when a work of art is censored because of a fashion, even if that work of art is a pop song, and even if the censor is the work's creator.

I might, of course, be wrong, but I find it incredible that black women would be offended by that lyric. It seems much more likely that the fears of the lyric being deemed racist are all in Reed's mind. The lyric was not deemed remotely racist when it was written, and it is a dangerous game to start changing lyrics because a few decades on they appear unfashionable or even potentially offensive.

Should the Rolling Stones impose a ban on performing "Under My Thumb" at concerts? It hardly chimes in with feminist or post- feminist thinking, or even with civilised behaviour, but it was not untypical of how many young men thought about women in the mid- 1960s, when the song was written.

The dilemmas over this sort of censorship go way beyond pop. Many classic works make one feel uncomfortable, because either race relations, or class structures, or views of women have altered since the works were written. There are perennial debates about whether Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. Many directors including Sir Peter Hall say it is not. Personally, I think it is. However complex the portrayal of Shylock and the society in which he lives, this is a man prepared to take out a knife and cut a pound of flesh from the breast of someone in his debt. Nevertheless, it would be a crime to ban this play. We must judge it in the context of the time in which it was written.

There are many other writers who are neglected because their world view does not chime in with the zeitgeist. One National Theatre director told me he would not stage any plays by Somerset Maugham because his plays were snobbish. They are, but he was an important and successful British playwright, and I think audiences must be trusted to view his work in the context of the era in which they were written.

Sometimes, information about an author makes an objective consideration of his work extremely difficult. …