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The Limits of Political Correctness

September 7, 2009

It's well known that here in the Bay Area, people have a habit of taking political correctness too far.

I was gratingly reminded of this fact a few days ago during a singing rehearsal. I am part of a group of singers that is preparing to perform a bunch of a cappella songs for the patients on the cancer wards of the University of California San Francisco Medical Campus. At the inaugural rehearsal last week, we were working on a trio of new arrangements of old folk songs, one of which was about a mother scolding her daughter for not behaving herself. The song mentioned the word "gypsy" a couple of times in a vaguely derogatory fashion. Almost everyone in the room, except me and one other person who seemed in two minds about the issue, thought we should excise the word "gypsy" from the song lest it cause offense to our audience.

I was instantly appalled at the suggestion. On the one hand I understand that we are supposed to perform a therapeutic function by singing at the hospital and want to uplift and soothe audiences rather than anger or upset them.

On the other hand, changing the lyrics of a song on the grounds of political correctness seems ridiculous to me. The song isn't meant to reflect modern sensibilities. And surely audiences will not think that we as performers have something against Romany people. To replace "gypsy" -- the use of which is pretty mild in the song -- with something else seems pedantic, arcane and completely lacking in any kind of artistic sensibility, not to mention showing disrespect for the integrity of the composer's work.

When the motion was tabled, I guffawed. "How about this for an idea," I suggested, laying on the sarcasm a bit thick. "Let's just say a loud 'beep' every time the word "gypsy" comes up in the song. Just like on NPR when someone says "fuck." That'll do the trick, won't it?"

My idea wasn't met with wild enthusiasm. To be honest, I think it went over most of the singers' heads.


  • Were you singing "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves," a key song in the Cher repertoire? It's a song with which your audience probably would have been totally familiar. Some of them may even have heard Cher sing it live in Vegas. You can even get it as a ring tone on your cell phone. Guess the vocal group will never do the old American folk song with the line, "Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching." Let alone the score from "The Thief of Baghdad." And better be careful with any songs whose lyrics include "I stole a kiss..."

    Someone needs to take a deep breath before they get ideas like, I dunno, banning Huckelberry Finn.

    By Anonymous Gary Carr, At September 7, 2009 at 8:41 PM  

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