The Use of Profanity in Music

Parental AdvisoryA warning to the furious…

This post is about the use of profanity in music.

It is likely to use words that some people may find offensive; such offence is not intentional, albeit such offence is possible considering the potential demographic of my readership.

If you find the use of profanity offensive or even just distasteful, you may want to skip this post.  There are plenty of other posts that I have written without the use of profanity but this isn’t one of them.

Still here?

Good!

Hopefully, like me, you aren’t turned off by so called “bad” language.

Some people say that the use of profanity, in conversation, is a sign of a poor education or an unimaginative mind – these people have obviously not encountered some of the profanity that I have.  In my opinion, profanity can be an artform; not least the use of profanity itself.

From the choice of profanity to the timing and delivery, there is a lot of skill to the proper use of profanity.  Waiting to the count of three or four before appending the word “cock” or even “cunt” to a final statement is the verbal equivalent of delivering the killing blow to an argument – or at least teabagging an already defeated opponent.

I appreciate that some people don’t want to hear profanity and I am careful to curb my language around children but I have to admit, I can and do make use of profanity in day to day speech an awful lot.

I was going to title this Top X Uses of Profanity in Popular Music but I realised that I am discovering new profane tracks all the time and that my musical taste isn’t necessarily what you would class as “popular”.

There are a number of topics on the internet dealing with this subject and even groups supporting people who are against it.

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, music is important to me.  Equally as important to me, for a variety of different reasons, is freedom of speech.

I remember being introduced to the concept of music censorship through the introduction of the Parental Advisory stickers in the eighties.

It was almost a decade later, when access to the internet broadened all of our horizons, that I discovered censorship had gone much further than adhering black and white stickers to obscure an album’s artwork.

I remember listening to an old favourite album, So Far So Good So What by Megadeth, in particular Hook In Mouth (2004 Digital Remaster). The track had this enigmatic lyric, repeated throughout:

F is for Fighting,
R is for Red, ancestor’s blood in battle’s they shed,
E we elect them,
E we Eject them, in the land of the free and the home of the brave,
D for your dying,
O your overture,
M is for Money, you know what that cures;
This spells out FREEDOM,
it means nothing to me,
as long as there’s a P.M.R.C.

That last M was also sung as “M they will cover your grave with manure” earlier in the song but I prefer the second, less scatological, rendition. Now I love a good acrostic or acronym as much as the next person but for years I was baffled as to what the song meant by the phrase “as long as there’s a P.M.R.C.”.

Access to the internet taught me that the P.M.R.C. was the Parents Music Research Centre.  These were the douches that instigated the practice of ruining awesome album artwork with those tedious black and white stickers!

The "Filthy Fifteen"

Wikipedia cites this as the so called "Filthy Fifteen", originally demonised by the PMRC

These members of America’s political right claimed to be “frightened” by the graphical violent and sexual content they perceived in some of the music of the day.

When the debate eventually hit the courts the P.M.R.C. cited a handful of albums whose lyrical content they interpreted as having an inappropriate content.

Whilst a number of the musicians of the day defended the proposal, using a defence along the lines of “Beauty” or in this case “Profanity is in the Eye of the Beholder”, the P.M.R.C. won out and we have those little black and white warnings on albums to this day.

I guess this explains why Tipper Gore gets the abuse she does in so many tracks through the eighties and nineties.

What surprises me though, is the lack of parental advisory labels on just any old profane track.

Maybe I am listening to music that predates the labelling motion but I’m fairly sure that some of my favourite instances of profanity in music are not labelled.  Maybe the track has to be made up of truly diabolical content to be labelled.

Certainly the label seems to be mainly awarded mainly to hip-hop, rap and death metal these days.

Ghost in the MachineThe track that jumps to mind predominantly is, Rehumanize Yourself by The Police (from Ghost In The Machine).  As a minor I never noticed the word but as an adult the profanity leapt out at me:

Billy’s joined the National Front,

He Always was a little runt,

Got his hands in the air with the other cunts,

You gotta humanize yourself…

Now to my mind this is a perfectly acceptable use of the “C” word.  It certainly wasn’t hidden from me in my youth, although I’ll accept that I had a good enough upbringing to not notice the word in common day parlance – let alone the works of one of the world’s greatest musical institutions.

This isn’t the only Police track to contain the “C” word and to be fair, I haven’t picked up on any of the other classic musical profanities.

Over the next week or so, I would like to list some of my favourite “profane” tracks.  I may do so in one large post or I may break it up into smaller single posts.

Honestly, I have an almost childish appreciation of profanity; that being said, many of these tracks stand on their own merit – both lyrically and musically.

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13 thoughts on “The Use of Profanity in Music

  1. I don’t mind the swearing by some artists as its part of ‘their image’, what I don’t like is when a ‘clean’ artist throws the odd word in, Avril Lavigne for example, its ‘out of context’ she may be getting older but it still doesn’t fit in with her music. You’d never hear Taylor Swift swear now would you?

    • I kind of see what you mean Rob.

      You expect swearing when listening to Eminem or Ice-T but a golden girl like Taylor Swift would shock her audience by swearing.

      I tend to disagree with you when it comes to Lavigne (and not just when it comes to her image 😉 ). I actually expect her to swear, like a naught child.

      Whilst researching this post I listened to a chap claiming that P!nk was profane… outside of “U and Ur Hand” I can’t think of a P!nk track that overtly swears… can you?

  2. References aside I think you could have wrote this article without the use of profanity, there is still something about written profanity that seems coarse. Like I said before its surprising when its out of character for the author or artist, unless the article was supposed to shock rather than be informative?

    • I am neither looking to shock or inform.

      I only wish to share my opinions on profanity through music.

      It is more than possible to write about the subject without using profanity – only making inferences to the words used. However, I personally prefer to use profanity, in this case in context; with fair warning given to those who would be offended by reading it.

      Profanity can be a controversial issue and I have met many people with many varied opinions on its use both in writing and in music.

      I’ll re-read in the morning but outside of references to tracks and the example of timing/delivery, I don’t think I’ve used profanity out of those contexts.

  3. Surely it was written primarily to amuse?

    There is no power in profanity beyond that which we give it ourselves. It is the greatest irony that ‘these people’, either the feted PMRC or the more current ‘ParentPort’ actually invest the emotional charge and taboo status of ‘obscene’ words. If ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’, ‘shit’ and Carling’s other seven were not constantly restocked onto the top shelf as it were they would quickly lose their visceral power.

    Interestingly so much of our ‘obscene dictionary’ is derived from perfectly good Anglo-Saxon stock. Maybe that says something itself!!!

    • I think the crux of the argument against profanity in music will always fall when confronted with the counter-argument that profanity is often perceived by the individual rather than directly implied by the artist.

      Of course that argument doesn’t stand for the use of profane words – although the radio interview I link to in this post has a chap claiming that the words “Forget You” are profane by virtue of their misinterpretation by others.

      • With music you can also make the valid argument that it is art – that ‘obscenity’ is used SPECIFICALLY for it considered visceral impact to cause a desired effect in the reader.

        But then… You could also claim profanity in daily use is also ‘performance art’!!!

  4. Pingback: Easy Day – Bananafishbones (Profanity in Music) « Armaitus on…

  5. Great job A!

    I’m in your camp when it comes to swearing. I can’t believe what a hot topic it is. I’ve been debating it more than I ever expected. I really do see both sides. One’s freedom to smoke in a restaurant inhibits another’s freedom to enjoy only the smells of food. I’m working on a device that will allow Internet audiences to flip a “profanity switch” so that they have the option of reading the “unedited version” or “clean version.” Another thing about censoring swearing, is that they edit out “words” but allow the profane meaning or ideas to remain. Sometimes, swearing can “back up” good and wholesome truths.

    I thought it was wrong to edit Alanis Morrisette’s “You ought to know:”

    “Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?”

    There is no way to change out the “F” word in this case, without destroying the powerful emotion and ideas behind that line. It’s like screwing up good poetry.

    • Thanks for your comment Kevin.

      I think your profanity switch is a great idea, I know at least one of my readers is unhappy with my open use of certain swear words within this post – although I am unsure how I could discuss profanity in music without citing the profanity.

      I agree entirely, by censoring the lyrics to a powerful and emotive song you are changing the mood and feel of that self same song. I fond myself getting frustrated with songs on the radio where an unimaginative edit or bleep has occluded the original lyrics.

      In some rare cases, however, you find that an artist has put thought to a radio-clean version of their song. In those cases though, I find that the lyrics are less evocative with or without the profanity – often seeking for a cheap thrill on the profane album version.

      By and large I stand by the idea that indirect profanity is absolutely in the mind of the reader/listener – whether intended by the author/singer or not. And thank goodness for that, without profanity being in the eye of the beholder we wouldn’t have “Double Entendre” – and that is a staple of the style of humour I love.

  6. True. The profanity switch I’m working on will, for our content, clean it up without just “bleeping.” As you pointed out with some song writers, we want to put some effort into rewording over the cussing. You can’t blame folks for getting offended. It’s important for writers to have range, don’t you think? Shel Silverstein is a good example of that range. He wrote humorous as well as poignant poems and stories for children, and at the same time, wrote funny songs for adult’s like “Freaker’s Ball” for adults…and meaningful songs for them as well, like “Sylvia’s Mother” and “Carry me Carrie” I want to please a large audience. Don’t we all? 🙂

    Thanks for the lesson! I learned the word “scatological” just a few years ago to describe the humor I’ve enjoyed since I can remember…”Potty humor”

    This was the first time I’ve heard of “Double Entendre” even though I was about 14 when I “got the joke” of the sign over my Uncle’s basement-bar:

    Liquor in the front, Poker in the back.

    Or, is “liqueur” funnier?

    -Kevin

  7. Pingback: Why Are Certain Words Profane?

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