I’m not a prude. At least, I don’t think I am.
I do not curse regularly – If I should slam my foot into a wall, do I not shout “s***”? – but it’s not because I feel the words should never be used. Rather, how, when, and with what frequency should a word be deployed? (I feel the same way about the term “amazing,” by the way.) I believe that there are circumstances where the only “right” word is the “bad” word, but these instances are rarer than many others believe.
All of this brings to mind a conversation I had with my brother Dan, now a father of four. He lamented that it is impossible for him to share new music with his children because almost all of it contains themes and language unsuitable for children, unless you’re cool with your five-year-old casually dropping F-bombs in the grocery store.
I understand Dan’s dilemma. See, we Dunphys grew up on music. We were in it and around it. That’s how we related with each other. Donna and I had the pop-rock of the ’70s and ’80s, while Dan and John had metal. There was sufficient crossover to help the older siblings communicate with the younger siblings. For the most part, the language was tame, even if the themes occasionally were not. Besides, spicy language was a bit like the special secret you had hidden on albums between the squeakier hit songs. It was a wink and a nod. The Knack’s “My Sharona” was a bit risque, but “She’s So Selfish” was nasty extra that was just between you, the listener, and the band.
Later, said language was an act of rebellion. You grew to an age of disenchantment when the hormones are on fire, the world thinks you’re a freak, your parents only ever say “no,” and you feel like you’re the only human to have ever felt this. Accompanying the language were certain hand gestures and a hardened attitude. This was a natural state of change. It’s different today. There’s something very unnatural about tiny children making the leap from Santa Claus to “go f*** yourself” in the blink of an eye.
Today, you don’t get signed to a major label unless you can get that all-important Parental Advisory sticker. Here’s one of the biggest pop songs of last year from your tweenage daughter’s favorite singer, Ariana Grande:
Likewise, Enrique Iglesias released a track called “Tonight (I’m F****** You).” He can be your hero, baby.
In both cases, there’s no weight in using these words, no sense of purpose. It’s exactly like “amazing” again, to describe anything and everything. Enrique wanted shock value and he got it, but there’s nothing to unpack. There’s nothing extra to discover. It’s just another dance-love song given a pornographic tinge.
It is nowhere on the same level of Cee Lo Green’s “F*** You” (2010), released to terrestrial radio as “Forget You.” I’d argue the latter version is actually more pointless than the explicit former. Because of the song’s throwback vibe, like a ’60s Motown hit deposited in our century via timewarp, the joke is just how raw the words are. There is a purpose for the expletive. I have to believe this juxtaposition is the point, it is the joke.
To strangle an analogy to death, Iglesias saw the language like the shirt Cee Lo was wearing, and rather than grasping the reason why Green was wearing it, Iglesias just artlessly copied the style.
Such verbal shocks aren’t always in service to a joke. 2016’s F.E.A.R. from the band Marillion is a good example. F.E.A.R. stands for “f*** everyone and run,” and dares to examine the toxic worldwide power wielded through oligarchy and exclusion, with a long shadow cast from the band’s United Kingdom home. Even today, Brexit dominates England’s headlines and never fails to embarrass Parliament’s circular firing squad. When lead singer Steve Hogarth sings the line, “F*** everyone and run,” it’s not with defiance, bravado, swagger, or carelessness. It is mournful. It says, “This is who we are now. This is how we feel about the world and our leadership within it.” The actions that precipitated the word choices are ugly, so the use of the ugly word is completely pertinent.
But these examples of justifiable usage are few, and are usually of the Enrique Iglesias variety because, f*** it, that’s how everyone talks. We are subjected to the empty infliction of verbiage, offered for no reason other than to fill a syllable in a chorus.
And don’t start on me about it being all commerce and not art, and I am deluding myself, and yadda-yadda. I get all of that. I know that the primary driver of success is outraged curiosity, which spurs views on YouTube and streams on Spotify. The best way to get eyes and ears on you is to say the most stunning thing you can think of and the world will flock to judge what is wrong with you. The freak show reigns. Kanye West has built a very profitable career from boldly saying the worst thing he can think of and standing back in waiting for the gawkers to protest.
Protest all you want. You gave the almighty “click” that translates into the almighty “ka-ching.”
I’d have no fight to wage if this was merely a subset of the whole, but that’s not true. The s***talkers dominate the charts, and it wears at me. Like I said before, popular music dominated my young life. Further, I’m not entirely naive and recognize that language concerns dotted the landscape back then, too. “Rock and roll” is a euphemism for sex, not dancing. As a young listener, I was exposed to ideas I wasn’t ready for, explicit or otherwise.
Show biz kids making movies
Of themselves, you know they
Don’t give a f*** about anybody else
– Steely Dan
And I don’t want to get caught up in any-of-that
Funky s*** goin’ down in the city
– Steve Miller (by way of Paul Pena)
It’s a b****, girl, and it’s gone too far
‘Cause you know it don’t matter anyway
– Hall & Oates
I had a taste of the real world (Just a drop of it)
When I went down on you, girl, oh
– Jefferson Starship
Nonetheless, these were a fragment of a larger whole that you can pick and choose from…not the whole itself. You would find nearly any other song from these artists to pass by without an issue until you looked deeper into the lyrics. Steely Dan was expert at this. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker came to the conclusion that you could have a greater impact on the sly, without resorting to chainsaw surgeries.
I know that there’s nothing being said in these songs that isn’t being said around the corners of elementary schools. They were said when I was a kid, so why should now be different? The chicken-or-egg debate about that and causality is best left for another day. This is how the world talks, usually even harsher, and often in situations as disconnected as one’s picking up their morning cup of coffee.
Also, I know that now, as then, there are songs that are raw but powerful, and there are songs that are chaste but complete garbage.
I know that as long as a profitable career depends on the algorithm which records how many people hear your song, even if it is only for mere seconds of it, artists will do what it takes to get you there for those seconds. If it is just straight-up sex noise for no greater purpose, so be it. Get that money-click.
But what I also know is the powerful bond that music can offer between siblings, and between parents and children. Both my sister and I are deeply influenced by the pop music our mom played on the radio when we were kids. We sang along. We passed that to our brothers and they both accepted it and fought against it, but had access to it. It wasn’t toothless “kids music” loaded with audio saccharine, abstract platitudes, and cutesy, giggly nonsense.
My brother has to carefully monitor the new music he plays for his kids. He often must rely on the music of his (our) youth as a substitute out of an abundance of caution should the teen starlet start describing oral sex, or dropping benzos, or plunging a heroin needle in the midst of a feel-good hit song. This means that a kind of wonderful mutual discovery that a parent and child can experience at the same time, flowing through the speakers on an afternoon drive, is less likely to happen. It won’t happen extemporaneously. Serendipity is gone, even from this, and the moment must be carefully choreographed (like so much we used to just get for free).
Call me a prude. Call me an old mourner reflecting on a “better” time. I cannot help but feel like we’re denying a new generation a simple pleasure we once enjoyed freely. That doesn’t seem fair at all.