Musical f-bombs

Jon Pareles on the music beat for the NYT (on-line today, presumably in print tomorrow): “On the Pop Charts, Singing the Unspeakable”:

It’s some kind of milestone: Three of the Top 10 hits on last week’s pop music chart have choruses that can’t be played uncensored on the radio and won’t have their original lyrics quoted in this family newspaper. All three use variations on a familiar, emphatic, percussive four-letter word.

Yeah, yeah, y’know, like fuck:

(“Poster Making” (2007) by Royal Art Lodge, from McSweeney’s 27)

(Hat tip to Ben Zimmer.)

The three are

Cee Lo Green, “Fuck You” [clean version: “Forget You”], which I’ve posted about several times

Pink (or P!nk), “Fuckin’ Perfect” [clean version: “Perfect”]

Enrique Iglesias, “Tonight (I’m Fuckin’ You)” [clean version: “I’m Lovin’ You”]

[Pareles gets a gold ring for identifying the fuckin’ of “Fuckin’ Perfect” as an “adverbial participle” (a present participle in adverbial function) and an honorable mention for identifying the fuck of “Fuck You” as an “imperative”. (It has the BSE-form verb fuck in a syntactic configuration that shares much with the ordinary subjectless imperative construction, but, as McCawley pointed out in some detail decades ago, differs from it in important ways.)]

What interests Pareles is the intrusion of fuck and its kin into mainstream pop (Enrique Iglesias wielding fuck?!):

Even if the original lyrics are off-limits to old media, it’s clear to everyone that the profane versions of the songs are going to be heard. The enforced innocence of broadcasting is no longer a cultural firewall; it’s barely an inconvenience.

… It’s all over books, movies, comedy, cable TV shows, Twitter feeds and schoolchildren’s conversations. Chalk it up to post-World War II realism, demographic changes, bravado, freedom, permissiveness, the Beats, the 1960s, hip-hop, the Internet, the decline of Western civilization or all of them at once. Cussing in public has become more the rule than the exception, sometimes even on formal occasions. Bono has done it at the Grammys and the Golden Globes; Melissa Leo did it at the Academy Awards. [Well, there’s formal and then there’s formal; the Grammy and Academy Award ceremonies are odd hybrids of formal and comic-vernacular.]

But Top 10 pop is a kind of last frontier.

I don’t doubt that taboo language appears in more public contexts than it once did, but I’m not sure whether that should be attributed to a coarsening of society or to a redefinition of what counts as informal contexts — in particular, to an extension of masculine informality to women and children, who were once believed (and by many, still are believed) to need “protection” from the harshness of the sphere of men.

Like many before him, Pareles focuses on taboo language as a powerful weapon (note the metaphor in f-bomb):

But to make its impact, swearing needs scarcity.

… Deploying the f-bomb also defuses it; give or take a few copycats in the months to come, it’s going to sound about as potent as a popgun.

But taboo vocabulary has more functions than shocking or assaulting. Just look at the three pop songs Pareles cites, so different in the way they deploy fuck (the Iglesias is the roughest of the three, but it’s just a classic male “I love you, baby, let’s do it!” song, remarkable only in that it doesn’t dance around the urgent appeal).

Moving away from these, fuck songs are all over the map, from assaultive rap songs (where the vocabulary comes with the attitude and the territory), to the celebratory subcultural playfulness of Pansy Division (“Fuck Buddy”, “He Whipped My Ass in Tennis, Then I Fucked His Ass in Bed”), to the sardonic “How Fucking Romantic” of The Magnetic Fields, to Johnny McGovern’s defiance (“The Wrong Fag to Fuck With”) and sassiness (“Girl, I Fucked Yo’ Boyfriend”).

There are many hundreds of songs with fuck just in their titles, not to mention in their lyrics. Yes, once you move away from mainstream pop, there’s a good bit of unpleasantness, but the language seems to me to be the least of the problems with this material. Otherwise, there’s quite of lot of youthful verbal flipping the bird — giving us groups named Holy Fuck and Fuck Buttons, for example — and some merely vernacular language and some actual celebrations of fucking. Life goes on.

And if fuck ceases to offend, I have no doubt that those who want to give offense will find other means; people are resourceful and ingenious. So I find the idea that rap music and the like are draining away the power of fuck wonderfully quaint.

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