Last Friday night, while at my metaphorical day job, I found myself distracted by a cacophony of noise. My newsroom, like most, has several television sets mounted on the walls that tend to be any combination of noisy, flashy and liable to fall at any moment. And when it’s not that, it’s the ubiquitous police scanner. Usually, I’m able to tune them out with the mental skills and discipline I learned from years of dating.
But on this particular night, the TV blared what I consider to be one of the most annoying sounds known to humankind. One that wasn’t even loud enough in theory for me to hear, yet one that my ears draw to because they hate me.
Mumblemumble [BEEP] mumblemumble [BEEP] mumblemumble [BEEP] mumblemumble [BEEP] mumblemumble [BEEP]...etc.
Fed up, I trotted over to the TV to turn it off. And as I figured, the constant bleeping I heard was the work of a very busy NBC censor punctuating a live Eminem performance. I wondered if it was tape-delayed by a few seconds (common these days) or if it was live and the censor just pressed the button repeatedly and figured that would do the trick, but by then I’d already given the TV a rest.
Eminem annoys me. It’s not that I think he lacks talent, but that he squanders that talent on trying to be outrageous. Same goes for acts like Marilyn Manson and, to a lesser extent, Lady Gaga. Or Insane Clown Posse, if you remove the talent factor. Seeing each of these artists for the first time piqued my interest, if strictly in the rubbernecking sense.
I’m also not impressed by the trend on reality TV and shows like South Park to bleep every other word. I guess I should be happy that these shows are taking on the overly censorious nature of FCC-regulated airwaves, but mostly I find it makes these shows unwatchable. Especially as the years go by and the soundtrack remains the same.
Shock is like fire; it isn’t going to burn the same thing repeatedly. When a shock-rocker does the same shtick in 2010 that he did in 1996, I’m going to start questioning his, and his fans’, intelligence. Likewise, eventually Lady Gaga’s going to have to wear Mom jeans. Probably on her hair.
The whole point of shock, it seems to me, is to do something so tremendously unexpected that pop culture and even society will never be the same again.
To go on an inappropriate tangent here: Bush apologists often frame the 9/11 attacks as something that never happened again because of the president’s resolve and our aggressive actions overseas. They’ll say Bush kept us safe in the subsequent seven years because another attack like that did not happen on U.S. soil. But such a sentiment completely misses the point of terrorism. Terrorism is about shock. The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon accomplished exactly what they were meant to do, which was to frighten the bejeezus out of Americans and break us from the comforting illusion that we are safe from the consequences of our political actions abroad. The attack worked perfectly in the short term by force of its immediacy, and its effects have lingered because we’re still flinching over the prospect of a next one. But if they kept attacking our shores, we’d be on to them and the jig would be up. As it is, the U.S. has taken some pretty extreme measures in a pre-emptive attack on civil liberties, as if that will get the bad guys to stop hating our freedoms. The terrorists know all this, which is why they don’t need another 9/11. As far as shock goes, mission accomplished.
But I digress.
I like a shock to the societal dynamic as much as any maladjusted person (in terms of pop culture, not terrorism, which I hope is obvious). But I don’t think most artists these days are creative enough to truly pull it off. Granted, it’s not as if we have a whole lot of taboos remaining — I think at last count we had nine, and most of what’s left are things that will get piss poured on you in prison. Add to that the notion that most Americans pretty much expect everything to be double-entendred or sacrilegious nowadays, and it’s an uphill trek for the would-be shocker.
But there is one area in which traditional conventions remain in effect, and it requires no imagination to make work: cursing.
It’s nearly impossible to find a conversation not punctuated by at least casual dirty words. Literally every sentient American curses at one point or another, and those who don’t still know the words and their meanings. And unlike other practices that description could apply to, cursing is something we do regularly in front of other people. It’s not a secret and, in everyday conversation, not even shunned all that much. But for whatever reason, cursing in music remains an easy, and cheap, shock.
Profanity-laden music has a stigma that movies and comedy albums do not. When was the last time a movie’s DVD case had an explicit-script warning? Joe Pesci spews more F-bombs in most movies than Eminem does on any given album, but no one singles Pesci out as a threat to the children. It’s weird how that works.
And it does, even on me. While I own some of the most profane comedy albums and movies ever, none of my music CDs have that “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” scarlet decal. For whatever reason, I’ve never liked songs that feature excessive cursing.
I’m no prude when it comes to bad words, though my use of them has been spotty. I cursed like I had Tourette’s in my earliest years, but I didn’t curse all through my teens. I finally started back up in college after about the 35th time cool people stuttered around me, because they thought I had virgin ears that were also Amish. Nowadays, I curse mainly when I’m nervous or in the heat of passion, which is to say I curse when I’m nervous.
I don’t mind a smattering of profanity, or even a torrent when it’s done well — Steve Martin’s F-bomb tirade in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” is a hilariously jarring interlude in what is otherwise a heartwarming holiday film — but in the wrong hands, it’s just a substitute for substance.
And that might be why I don’t like profanity in music. Not just because it takes up space reserved for substance (a silly notion considering I like ’80s New Wave), but because I like hearing notes and being able to sing lyrics. And so much profanity-laden music seems aimed at teenagers and preteens enjoying a little suburban rebellion. Which, to me, cheapens the deeper applications that make free speech worthwhile. And is also hard to justify liking when you’re 30.
I was never into gangsta rap for this reason, probably because I’ve known a few actual gang members, none of whom had the time or talent to rap. I lived most of my early life in a racially mixed, low-income neighborhood at its absolute nadir, with old Buick Regals passing through the streets at all hours blaring music seemingly for the exclusive purpose of freaking out the neighbors with the nastiness of the lyrics. But mostly, I equated gangsta rap with white suburban wannabes. I knew guys who thought black people shouldn’t be allowed within 100 feet of their septic tanks who listened to nothing else. Those two groups are more alike than often presumed, though it’s too bad it’s for this reason.
Early in his career, Eminem told SPIN magazine that hip-hop might be the key to ending racism. He might be right, but if the key to that is sharing a love for mindless cursing, violence and bling, then maybe this is the least of our problems.
At this point, the most shocking thing I can imagine happening in America is everyone coming together over a mutual understanding of humanity. A genuine rebellion over our hyper-capitalistic attitude, us-versus-them mentality and lust for shallow, foul things like pissing off mommy and daddy. That, and Lady Gaga looking human.