It’s so awkward. You’re sitting with family members, having a pleasant time with music gently playing in the background before you’re unexpectedly deluged by f-bombs as the singer launches into a mode that can only be described as ‘nuclear gutter-mouth’. When did singing and swearing become so hopelessly entwined? Indeed, a cursory glance (a term which seems oddly apt) at the popular hits of today confirms that many artists have a vocabulary consistent with having been raised at sea. It wasn’t always this way.
Radio was once an expletive-free zone. If John Denver’s house had a swear-jar, I’ll bet it was empty. Even artists who liked to shock would avoid swear words, for fear they’d get less airplay. But don’t think for a moment that the lack of curse words means older songs are genteel and overly polite. Not at all. Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ has a body count that would startle even the most hardened of gangster rappers but none of the cast stoop so far as to resort to using filthy language. Or, at least, I don’t think they do. (It’s in Italian, so I can’t be entirely sure.)
It used to be the same way for television. When screening movies with questionable language, networks would often mute the sound as the actor spoke the offending word. The effect was akin to having the line drop out for a just a moment. I have a vivid recollection of watching John Singleton’s ‘Boyz In the Hood’ starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube and marvelling at the vast stretches of silence. Some might consider this to be butchery, but I liked the expletive-free version.
As an uncle, I firmly believed it was my duty to ensure my nieces and nephews were exposed to a wide array of musical influences. There’s not a child alive that won’t respond with pure delight to the sound of ‘Tutti Fruitti’ by Little Richard. (Incidentally, I once planned to write an opera about Little Richard called ‘Cosi fan Tutti Fruitti’ but I struggled to attract investors.) But as they grew up, I started to give them more challenging things to listen to. I wrestled with all the big questions – like, what’s the best age to introduce a child to ‘Bad Motorfinger’ by Soundgarden? Probably seven.
Thinking back, the two words I struggled with most as an uncle were ‘age appropriate’. Not just with music, either; the tendency to go ‘too early’ extended to books and movies too. I let my enthusiasm get the better of me. On reflection, even I would agree that Hunter S Thompson’s tale of drug-fuelled debauchery and excess as depicted in ‘Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas’ are best suited to someone who is older than twelve. That said, the pre-pubescent recipient did go on to become a journalist so, perhaps, the book did its job. For the sake of completeness, I should add that being a journalist is where the similarities between Hunter S Thompson and my nephew both begin and end. But still.
I’d bought it as a gift. It was a CD, back when people used to buy CDs so they could listen to the music of their choice anytime they liked, before those same miraculous little discs were relegated to the status of novelty drink coaster. I’d picked up a copy of the latest album by the rap group, Beasties Boys, entitled ‘To The Five Boroughs’. The reviews I’d read described it as a mature reflection of the impact of September 11 on their hometown of New York. It sounded thoughtful. Mature, even. And it was. At least, it was in part.
For those unfamiliar with it, the opening track of ‘To The Five Boroughs’ by Beastie Boys is entitled ‘Ch-Check It Out’. But instead of an ode to stuttering, the song is in fact more of a promise to have a significant impact on a social occasion. This impression is best captured in a phrase that, in the interests of politeness, I’ll describe as ‘turn this parent f-bombing party out’. I’m paraphrasing, obviously. It occurred to me at that moment, that I probably should have listened to the thing first before handing it to an eight year old at a family function. The eight year old immediately put it on the stereo and turned it up as loud as he dared.
Soon the room was being showered in profanities. Unfortunately for me, the swearing wasn’t a ‘hit and run’ situation where a single expletive can be masked by a well timed cough or clattering cutlery. Rather, these words were the chorus and were repeated over and over and over again. By the time the song ended, my strategic coughing was so severe that my father offered to call me an ambulance. The eight year old – keen to distance himself from the ensuing controversy – loudly declared that the music was horrible and that this was the ‘worst gift of all time’. That’s a direct quote.
That eight year old is now an adult and I know for a fact that he really likes the Beastie Boys. And I’m confident that he’s heard if not used the words he encountered that day in a sentence. Many times. As for me, I regret nothing. And if you know nothing of Beastie Boys, I can only encourage you to ch-check them out. You could do a lot worse. I swear.