Parsing the profanity problem

09Nov10

Today, Cee-Lo Green dropped his third solo album, The Lady Killer. It’s his best record yet, with bits of R&B, 80s synths, disco strings, a strong Motown vibe, and the summer’s biggest viral hit. The song in question has all the makings of a crossover hit on the pop and R&B charts, with its soaring gospel choir, catchy piano hook, and of course, Cee-Lo punctuating each syllable with the trademark smoothness that made Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” such a hit in the summer of 2006.

One problem, though: You’ll never hear it on the radio. The title of the song is “Fuck You”, and that barely scratches the surface on how much profanity is in the song.

If you took the time to listen to the song, you’d know how fantastic it is. However, I can’t help but feel a little bit saddened by the fact that he uses so much foul language – even though that’s kind of the point. If you weren’t counting, he just dropped the F-Bomb 16 times, along with 9 “shit”s, 2 n-words, and 2 “ass”es. Removing the profanity from this song would strip it of a fairly high percentage of its lyrics, as well as most of its vitriol.

So how much is too much? At what point does the amount of profanity in the song render it unlistenable, no matter how great the song may be otherwise? I know many people who would say there’s no place for any profanity in music. It’s a reasonable viewpoint, to be sure. Most of the time, cursing shows a lack of imagination or intellect. It’s an easy way out. The more you hear, you’re more likely to become desensitized and consider it acceptable. You may even find yourself spouting that kind of language more frequently… possibly at a very inconvenient time.

Before the age of 13 or 14, I never intentionally listened to any music that had “bad words” in it. A big part of this was my parents’ influence, and the knowledge that I’d be in big trouble if I made a habit of it. Another large part of it, of course, was my own disposition and gut feelings. I never had been (and I’m still not) someone who curses frequently. I’ll admit, I let one slip here and there, but by and large, you aren’t going to hear a lot from me.

Anyway, I was going about my junior high business, listening to primarily Christian ska bands, when a friend invited me to stay the night. We stayed up until 4:00 AM playing Starcraft, talking about girls at our school, and listening to music. What I wasn’t counting on, though, is that I heard my first two “Parental Advisory” albums: Blink 182’s “Enema of the State” and Offspring’s “Americana”.

These records ended up becoming some sort of rite of passage in my mind. They were good. They opened a door for me into the world of “secular” rock music. They had vulgar language. They were dangerous. And I LOVED them. Not because of the language; that was an added bonus. No, these were solid pop-punk/rock records that just happened to not care about whether your mom was listening.

At that point, I turned a corner in my musical listening habits. Many more sleepovers would follow, and those two records were our soundtracks. I can’t say that I remember the first time I heard an f-bomb in a song, but I can say that it was shocking to me. Through junior high and high school, some of the music I listened to (but definitely not all or even most) desensitized me. You can debate until you’re blue in the face about the potential effects of that sort of desensitization, but the fact is, I came out of it okay. I consider myself decent and fairly articulate, and I know how to control myself in times when emotions run high. But for those who are still learning that kind of self-control, music that is full of obscenities might not be a step in the right direction.

The potentially-offending record.

So after all that… what to do with Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You”?

I’m not planning to stop listening to it anytime soon. As I’ve experienced, listening to songs with that kind of language isn’t my preference, but it doesn’t tend to affect my word choice. I think that most artists can find better ways to express themselves than cursing, but I understand the creative decision to feature the F-word in a song that, without vocals, would sound like such a happy song. It’s a juxtaposition that makes the song more than just a string of obscenities, and more than just a Motown revival. It’s a commentary on both, while telling a narrative about a “gold digger” who left Cee-Lo’s protagonist for a richer man. Bottom line: it’s a great song, no matter who the fuck you are.

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2 Responses to “Parsing the profanity problem”

  1. 1 Erik Lawson

    Love the post! Couldn’t agree more. I love that song.

  2. 2 leevs

    Good post, totally agree…
    The music video is very amusing as well.


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