Warning, contains lots of swearing
A recent issue of the Rocking Vicar newsletter included a tale from one reader describing how the world is going to hell in a handcart: out shopping with a friend and the friend’s 10-year-old daughter, the reader was in a boutique where the in-house sound system played – at high volume – the uncensored versions of Eamon’s “Fuck It” followed by Khia’s “My Neck, My Back”. A firm fan of swearing, the reader nevertheless described it as the most excruciating eight minutes of his life.
If you’re unfamiliar with the songs, here’s the chorus of Eamon’s song:
Fuck what I said it dont mean shit now
Fuck the presents might as well throw em out
Fuck all those kisses, it didn’t mean jack
Fuck you, you ho, I dont want you back
And here’s an excerpt from the Khia song:
Lick it good suck this pussy, just like you should
Right now, Lick it good
suck this pussy just like you should
My Neck, my back
Lick my pussy and my crack
What’s significant about both of these songs – other than the context in which the Rocking Vicar contributor heard them – is that other than their “controversial” content, they’re notable by the complete lack of talent in their songwriting, production and performance. Eamon’s voice is a nasal, monotonous whine that’s reminiscent of a two-year-old demanding sweets, while Khia’s song has all the wit and style of lard. Compare that to Eminem’s The Real Slim Shady which manages to combine obscenity with comic timing to great effect: you’ve suffered from a major sense of humour bypass if you don’t spit beer through your nose the first time you hear the couplet
Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records
Well I do, so fuck him and fuck you too
Sadly Eminem is the exception (and even he’s patchy of late); these days, the obscenity is all that matters. Hence the “edgy” branding campaign for French Connection UK, which sticks the prefix “FCUK” on various phrases in a way that’s supposed to show cool, cutting-edge hyper-awareness of something or other, but whose purpose is simply to act as an idiot detector: if someone’s wearing a t-shirt that begins with FCUK, you can be confident that anything they say will be a fcuking waste of breath. Or the “edgy” campaign for Pot Noodle, which brands the barely edible gloop as “the slag of snacks” and portrays Pot Noodle consumption as a vice akin to visiting prostitutes for unspeakable perversions.
As a big fan of vulgarity, swearing doesn’t really bother me – other than irritation at the belief that vulgarity is in itself funny; it isn’t, it’s the timing and context that matters – but I do feel that it’s gone too far. For example, the rules used to be simple: if a song contained a sweary word, it wouldn’t be broadcast. That’s why Radiohead’s Creep had to substitute the line “you’re so very special” for the original, “you’re so fucking special”. But now there seems to be some wrong-headed pursuit of cool, of street, of authenticity, so obscenity-laden tracks aren’t banned from Radio 1, or from kiddie-targeted channels such as The Box; instead, the offending words are simply silenced (and in most cases, blatantly obvious despite the censorship). To be fair, that’s sometimes a bonus: for example, the Eamon song benefits dramatically from the removal of almost all of the whining sod’s whingeing.
The main problem I have, though, is that the increasing vulgarity of pretty much everything removes any shock value; it becomes a depressing background hum. An unexpected “fuck” in a literate pop lyric is like a bomb going off; it makes you jump up and go “whoa!” if it’s used for dramatic effect, or makes you shoot beer through your nose if it’s for comedic effect (see “Wrong About Bobby” by Eels for a great example of the latter). The “fucking” in Creep is a story in its own right, laced with self-loathing, envy and other unpleasant emotions. Compare that to chart-topping gurning chimp Eamon, who manages to use some of the most offensive words in the english language without any effect whatsoever. The impression is of someone desperately trying to be controversial, and failing dismally – but this is music aimed at teenagers and children, which inevitably means it becomes the soundtrack to all of our lives. Whether you think that such content is inappropriate for 10-year-olds is irrelevant: your sensibilities come second to the advertising aims of FCUK, or of record labels’ desire to make money.
As Adbusters magazine put it back in 1998:
It’s as if 75% of us are being forced to listen to the soundtrack of the world way louder than is comfortable for us because the volume has been calibrated to the damaged eardrums of the other 25%… What shocks us now? Maybe nothing. We can be titillated, still, we can be amused, but perhaps we can never really be shocked. To be shocked requires a measure of innocence you rarely find these days in people over five.