July 30, 2006

On the taboo watch: The rock report

We're staying on the alert here at Language Log Plaza for the way taboo vocabulary is deployed, or avoided, in various settings, from the prim pages of the New York Times to the maximally immodest covers of gay porn magazines.  Today we're enjoying a musical interlude, a brief look at taboo language in rock music.

Language issues come up in four places: in lyrics, in song titles, in album titles, and in band names.  Song titles, album titles, and band names present some of the same problems as porn magazine covers, since they will be displayed in public, on album covers and on play lists. (All four are on display at concerts, of course).  Rock music is sturdily defiant, so you see people pushing the language line pretty hard in all four places, and eventually in visual materials as well (most famously, with the poster for the Dead Kennedys' album "Frankenchrist").

I'm hoping that somebody's done a more thorough study of taboo topics and language in popular music, because there's a whole lot there and I'm just giving a tiny sample here.  [Update 7/31/06: Greg Stump points us to the Sonic Breakdown entry for fuck, where the section "Notable fuck bands" gives a capsule history of this particular word in music.]  There's a long pre-rock history of suggestive lyrics: "It ain't the meat, it's the motion", "She got pinched in the As / tor Bar", all those versions of Cole Porter's "Let's Do It", and much much more.  Eventually the fuck hits the rock fan, obscenity laws are challenged, ratings systems are proposed, and Tipper Gore enters the arena.  Rap/hip-hop has been a scene of obscenity contention for twenty years now, with 2 Live Crew as the most famous early offenders.

Along the way we have people choosing band names that are right up against the line -- the Butthole Surfers -- and then over it, as with this Toronto band, as described by a fan:

Hell Yeah Fuck Yeah - Toronto's best, doing their worst! Toronto rockers HELL YEAH FUCK YEAH are set to unleash their furious brand of high voltage, punk-infused rock & roll on the unsuspecting masses. A band well versed in bullshit and disappointment, H.Y.F.Y. have individually left their mark on the world through highly successful past endeavors including; Project Wyze, Damn 13, Constable Brennan and Canadian punk legends The Almighty Trigger Happy. Despite only forming recently, this pack of rabble rousers have already left a huge impression on the people who have been fortunate enough to see them rip through their fast paced, high energy live show. Highlights include a sold out show at Toronto's legendary Bovine Sex Club, where H.Y.F.Y.'s massive buzz left an enormous line of disappointed fans out in the cold, lined up down the block. A must see? Hell yeah, fuck yeah!! Toronto's worst doin their best! HELL YEAH FUCK YEAH!

[Thanks to Tom Limoncelli for the pointer to the band.]  You'll note the initialism "H.Y.F.Y." -- usually given as "HYFY" -- which provides a way to refer to the band without being officially obscene.  [Update 7/31/06: A number of correspondents have now nominated the band Anal Cunt for the Bad Taste Palm.]

Album titles follow the same arc, with Gene Simmons's 2004 "Asshole" a recent entrant in the deliberate-offense sweepstakes.  (Well, it's Gene Fuckin' Simmons.)

Then there are the song titles.  Sometimes songs with taboo lyrics are given neutral titles: Nine Inch Nails's "Closer" and Pansy Division's "Anthem", for instance.  This works for public display, but fans often refer to these two songs via their central lines anyway, as "I want to fuck you like an animal" and "We're the buttfuckers of rock and roll", respectively, from:

I want to fuck you like an animal
I want to feel you from the inside

We're the buttfuckers of rock and roll
We wanna sock it to your hole

Pansy Division has also been known to take the route of avoidance by initialism, as in their song "C.S.F.", a gay male re-working of the defiant anthem "Colored Spade" from Hair, which begins:

I'm a cocksucking faggot, a flaming faggot
A fuck bunny, fruitcake, cum superdeli, homo

But mostly Pansy Division just puts those words right out there in the song titles: -- "Fuck Buddy", "Cocksucker Club", "Political Asshole", "He Whipped My Ass in Tennis, Then I Fucked His Ass in Bed" -- and prints them on their albums, presenting a problem for Apple's modest iTunes music store.  The iTunes store asterisks out the usual suspects: "The C********r Club" (yes, eight asterisks, all in a row), "Political A*****e", "...F****d His...".  Remarkably, iTunes also avoids "ass"  ("Two Way A*s" and "He Whipped My A*s in Tennis...") and even "slut" ("I'm Gonna Be a S**t").  You can see that their asterisking is systematic: preserve only the first and last letters.  But their choice of words to asterisk is puzzling; "ass" and "slut" are out, but "dick" gets by (in "Dick of Death"), and so does "jack off" (in Prince's "Jack U Off", covered by Pansy Division).  Once again, "dick" and "cock" seem to be on different sides of the offense boundary.

As for the words, sometimes they seem to be there primarily as a gesture of defiance (as in "C.S.F.") or insult [Update 7/31/06: A Bad Taste Palm to Jimi Lalumia and the Psychotic Frogs, for their thoroughly nasty cover of "Eleanor Rigby", with the refrain line "All you fuckin' people".], but in some cases they're pretty much intrinsic to the content.  A lot of rap/hip-hop is about sex, and virtually all of Pansy Division's energetic and cheery songs are, and both naturally use everyday vocabulary for talking about sex.  HYFY.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 30, 2006 03:00 PM