Monday, May 21, 2007

Curses

Even though profanity is commonplace in the movies, I've never quite gotten the hang of hearing it in music. Though I rarely swear myself, I'm not intrinsically opposed to hearing others do it. After all, one of my favorite movies is Pulp Fiction, and one of my favorite comedians is Chris Rock. But whenever I hear it in songs, it almost invariably seems coarse to me. Why the double standard?

It may have something to do with my age and generation. Much of the music I heard growing up came through the radio and MTV, both of which censor offensive language. Movies, on the other hand, I was most likely to see through theaters, video, and premium cable stations, none of which are known to edit for content. In any case, before the 1990s swearing was not remotely as commonplace in popular music as it was in movies. When Ozzy Osbourne reinvented himself as a reality TV star in 2002, he quickly gained a reputation as a foul mouth. Yet I cannot recall ever hearing profanity in any of his songs, from Black Sabbath to his present solo records. He came from a generation of musicians where swearing was rare in any music that got wide radio play. That tendency continued well into the '80s, despite the prevalence of strong language even in family movies like Back to the Future.

Having never followed hip hop, I first noticed the change during the alternative rock boom of the early '90s. Pearl Jam used the f-word in two early hits, "Even Flow" and "Jeremy," though it was so mumbled it often got past the censors. In the mid-'90s, Alanis Morissette brought profanity into the mainstream with songs like "You Oughta Know" and "Hand in My Pocket." Bleeped out words became increasingly common on adult contemporary stations.

Although I am a fan of certain artists who use profanity in their music, I have rarely found that the practice adds anything of value to a song. In Johnny Cash's wonderful cover of Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt," for example, the line "I wear this crown of shit" is changed to "I wear this crown of thorns." Now doesn't the altered version sound so much nicer? Hey, I know it's a dark song, but that doesn't mean I want to be reminded of poop.

I realize that what I'm saying might just be a cultural prejudice. Swearing itself is a curious phenomenon, if you stop to think about it. There's nothing intrinsic to the meaning of swear words that makes people take offense at them. The way we designate them as out-of-bounds, while tolerating other words with the same meanings, is almost superstitious. Sociolinguists, in fact, liken both profanity and racial epithets to the magical words deemed unutterable in certain tribal societies.

There are times when it would almost be perverse not to swear. Even the normally wholesome Bill Cosby couldn't help indulging himself one time during his classic performance Bill Cosby Himself:
I said to a guy, "Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful?" and he said, "Because it intensifies your personality." I said, "Yes, but what if you're an asshole?"
If you replaced the word "asshole" with a more polite alternative, the joke would simply not work. This suggests that swear words occasionally convey nuances that milder language cannot achieve. Most of the time, however, people resort to swearing as a way of avoiding more descriptive language. In that sense, the real problem with swear words is not so much that they're crude as that they're clich├ęd. When overused, they begin to take on the quality of the word "smurf" in those old Smurf cartoons, just all-purpose expressions that make the language less varied.

Since movies aim to capture the dialogue of real people, swearing has a well-established place in the movies, even though it can be overdone--and often is. I have more trouble justifying the practice in music, because song lyrics, much more than dialogue, thrive on indirectness. That's one of the reasons that "Blowin' in the Wind" is such a better antiwar song than, say, "Eve of Destruction." In music, it seems, the last thing you want to do is get to the point. Or it could be that I'm just getting old.

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