November 13, 2007

Music Review: ********

On Monday the New York Times ran a review of a punk rock concert by a band named, um, "********". How do you pronounce that, exactly? Is it anything like !!!, the almost unpronounceable dance-punk band out of Sacramento? No, as it turns out, that's just some heavy-handed taboo avoidance on the part of the Times, without even a single unasterisked letter to give the reader a clue of what the unexpurgated name might be.

The critic, Kelefa Sanneh, wryly addresses the newspaper's profanity policy early on in the review:

Pink Eyes is the lead roarer in a ferocious band from Toronto. What band? Well, the name won’t be printed in these pages, not unless an American president, or someone similar, says it by mistake. Suffice it to say that this is an unruly hardcore punk band with a name to match. (You can find out more at the official Web site,

Following that link will reveal that the name of the band is (gasp) "Fucked Up". So not only did the Times censor the entire band name, they didn't even give the proper spacing of "****** **". And certainly "F***ed Up" would have been sufficiently concealing?

Sanneh's comment that the name would only be printed by the Times if it were uttered by "an American president, or someone similar" is apparently a reference to editor Abe Rosenthal's famous dictum that the paper would "only take shit from the President." Neal Ungerleider of FishbowlNY was not convinced:

Except for one little problem... The New York Times had no problem putting "shit" in print, asteriskless, in a transcription of a phone call from Roger J. Stone to father-of-the-governor Bernard Spitzer.
So is profanity okay in some contexts but not in others? Is it only okay in transcripts? Does the Times need some sort of internal Lenny Bruce trial to sort out "good" profanity from "bad" profanity? Who the f***k knows.

Arnold Zwicky noted the groundbreaking appearance of non-presidential shit in the Stone-Spitzer article here, linking to a post by Patrick LaForge on the newspaper's "City Room" blog explaining the editorial decision. "We rarely permit the use of profanity in our columns, even in quotations," LaForge wrote. "We made a rare exception in this case because we felt that readers would more easily understand why the Spitzers were so upset about the message if they knew what the language was."

Even if the band name "Fucked Up" wasn't seen as significant enough to escape censorship, the blunt asterisking of "********" just seems like overkill. But perhaps the Times simply isn't accustomed to asterisking practices, since, as Arnold has observed, the paper usually eschews that form of taboo avoidance in favor of indirect allusion. Such an allusive style works fine in the body of Sanneh's review, but not in the "Music Review" header, where the band name is supposed to go.

The Times ran into the same problem last year when they tried to review the documentary Fuck, featuring appearances by everyone from Ice T to our own Geoff Nunberg. At the time of its theatrical release Geoff called it "the film that dare not speak its name," and the Times, naturally, reviewed the movie under the title "****". Film critic A.O. Scott provided whimsical metacommentary similar to Sanneh's:

Just to clear up any confusion: the four stars in the box accompanying this article do not represent a rave review, though I did quite enjoy the movie in question. Really, what sort of a critic do you think I am? Certainly not one who resorts to nonverbal, quantitative means of expressing opinions. This just isn’t that kind of newspaper.
Nor, however, is it the kind that will permit me to print the title of Steve Anderson’s rowdy and contentious new documentary, which consists of a single, highly versatile English word.

Based on these asterisked reviews, you might think the Times holds fuck to a more stringent standard than shit. But the F-word has in fact appeared at least once in the paper's history: on Sep. 12, 1998, when it printed the entire text of The Starr Report. Buried inside, the careful reader will find this passage:

So there you go. According to the Times, the F-bomb is acceptable in a transcribed snippet from a presidential intern, but not in a band name or a movie title. All clear?

[Update, 11/15: Daniel Helm notes that referring to a "ferocious band from Toronto" with eight asterisks is especially ambiguous because there's another Toronto band called Holy Fuck.

And for more discussion, see the comments on Languagehat.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 13, 2007 11:07 PM