When everyone was looking in the other direction, one of the fiercest and longest running battles in popular culture edged towards something like endgame. The shackles have been quietly lifted. Swearing is everywhere in mainstream pop music. “The F-word, Father, the bad F-word,” Mrs Doyle would surely have noted in Father Ted. “Worse than ‘feck’. You know the one I mean.” About freaking time. About bothering time. About flipping time.
Nearly 40 years ago, Tipper Gore, wife of then US senator Al Gore, after hearing her daughter play Prince’s lubricious Darling Nikki, launched the unintentionally hilarious Parents Music Resource Center with a mind to monitoring explicit content in pop music.
The encounters with Dee Snider, hedge- haired vocalist for Twisted Sister, and Frank Zappa, articulate guitar strangler, are legendary. But it was the late John Denver, the least threatening of folk rockers, who delivered the most memorable retort: “That which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting.” Denver further argued that he was “strongly opposed to censorship of any kind”.
In the succeeding years the skirmishes mostly involved heavy metal and hip-hop. Though Madonna and (him again) Prince snuck the odd risque lyric into their hits, the pop charts, in thrall to middle-of-the road radio, rarely vibrated with the more nautical swearwords. Even Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s enthusiastically banned Relax, released two years before Tipper’s crusade, dealt largely in good old English innuendo. Away from the less ambiguous “when you want to come” the song invited the listener to “sock it to it” and “shoot it in the right direction”. The Liverpudlians could have been singing about their city’s then triumphant football club. Go farther back and we find The Who coyly singing “Why don’t you all f… f… fade away?” on their No 2 hit My Generation. I don’t think Roger Daltrey is saying quite what he means. Do you?
It has all changed. And nobody much noticed. As the Los Angeles Times observed last week, some of the current era’s biggest young stars have inveigled explicit sexual content and casual use of the bad f-word into a succession of huge hit records.
The signature song of early 2021 was surely Olivia Rodrigo’s sinuous, moving Drivers License. It was No 1 on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. It broke the Spotify record for most streams in a single week. Insofar as this means anything anymore, it topped the formal charts in Ireland, the UK, the US and all points north, west, east and south. “But I still f**king love you, babe,” Rodrigo sings as her character drives miserably “through the suburbs”.
Abcdefu, a rocky pop stomper by Taylor Gayle Rutherford (just “Gayle” on her record sleeves) was considerably more liberal with Mrs Doyle’s least favourite cuss. “F**k you and your mom and your sister and your job,” the 17-year-old yells. “And your broke-ass car and that s**t you call art. F**k you and your friends that I’ll never see again. Everybody but your dog, you can all f**k off.” (It’s nice that Gayle let the dog off the hook.) The song was a big hit in all the usual places.
The word appears in Billie Eilish’s plaintive Happier than Ever. It’s there somewhere in Taylor Swift’s recent, enormous, chart-topping revision of her 2012 song All Too Well. Ariana Grande drops it in her terrific 2019 hit thank u, next. It’s as if the Parents Music Resource Center never happened.
You will have noticed something linking the stars listed above. In that Los Angeles Times article, Mikael Wood writes of “young female artists whose speech has historically been far more tightly policed than that of their freewheeling male counterparts”. Younger women are making the best pop music of the current aeon and they are singing as their contemporaries speak – and most everyone else speaks, for that matter.
There is no great mystery as to why this shift happened. Our old friend the wireless has not gone away. But streaming services and social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram do not require record labels to supply bowdlerised “radio edits” of supposedly obscene songs. (Family-friendly edits do appear on Spotify, but nobody much listens to them.) Artists are able to celebrate the profane messiness of contemporary existence without shutting themselves off from mainstream success.
No doubt some will complain that Cole Porter didn’t need to use blue language to get his message across. “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking” and so on and so forth. True enough. But the option to be allusive and elusive still exists. Eilish and Rodrigo, both born in this century, are happy to also take less direct routes to their chosen destinations. Sometimes, however, only a good, healthy, Anglo-Saxon “[redacted]” does the trick.
Swearing is big and clever. The streaming figures don’t lie.