(This post contains language that’s not safe for work. I recommend you quit your job.)
Explicit lyrics are more explicit than they used to be. One of the top songs on adult-contemporary radio last year was a song by Pink whose title was elided to “F**kin’ Perfect,” or just “Perfect” to remove the most forbidden of all forbidden words from its official title. In the radio version of the song, the word was blanked out, which is a common practice today. (Sometimes it gets way out of hand, however: the radio edit of Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” also a hit on AC radio, is rendered nearly unintelligible as a result of the blanks.) The old fashioned bleep is still used now and then, too.
Such bowdlerizing happened back in the day, but the bleeped words tended to be a lot less offensive than the big one. In 1969, the Johnny Cash hit “A Boy Named Sue” contained a famous edit: “Cuz I’m the bleep that named you Sue.” The offending content was “son of a bitch”; a stray “damn” was also removed from the song’s last line. It wasn’t until a CD reissue of At Folsom Prison years later that the unedited version was finally heard. In 1973, Pink Floyd’s “Money” contained the line “don’t give me that do-goody-good bullshit.” Edited versions were released that blanked out “bullshit” and just “shit,” your choice. That same year, the Charlie Daniels hit “Uneasy Rider” bleeped the potentially offensive word in the line “like their heads were on fire and their asses was catching.”
Daniels would alter one of his most famous songs six years later, changing the last line of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” on the 45 from “I done told you once, you son of a bitch, that I’m the best that’s ever been” to “I done told you once, you son of a gun,” which completely eviscerates the song’s emotional payoff. In 1977, Steve Miller had performed a similar alteration on “Jet Airliner,” changing “I don’t want to get caught up in any of that funky shit goin’ down in the city” to “funky kicks goin’ down in the city.” In that case, however, “funky kicks” is arguably a better, more poetic phrase—and way Miller sings it, with a double-tracked harmony line, is better than the original, too.
While “son of a bitch” remained beyond the pale in 1979, “bitch” had been accepted years before, conditionally. “Bitch,” the B-side of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” got a great deal of airplay in 1971. Elton John scored a top-10 hit with “The Bitch Is Back” in 1974, even as some radio stations refused to announce the title. A year later, Neil Sedaka sang “the bitch is in the smile” on “Bad Blood,” part of a song that has as unremittingly nasty a lyric as you could find on the radio in the 1970s.
But “bitch” was not acceptable every time. Thirty-five years ago this spring, “Rich Girl” by Hall and Oates generated a bit of controversy because of the line “it’s a bitch girl.” Why “bitch” in the form of a tossed-off adjective should be less acceptable than “bitch” as an epithet, as in “Bad Blood” or “The Bitch Is Back,” I don’t know, but to some radio stations, it was. A few got around the problem with a homemade edit, splicing in a repetition of the line “you’re a rich girl.” When Hall and Oates sang the song on The Midnight Special, something similar happened. But what I can’t tell is whether Daryl Hall sang it that way live, or if it was spliced in later.
I’m sure I’ve missed some other excellent examples of edited naughty language that you will provide in the comments.