You Can’t Say That on the Radio

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(Pictured: singer and songwriter Gayle on stage, earlier this month.)

(Do I need to do a language warning here? OK, you’re warned.)

Broadcasting is more profane now than it used to be. George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on television are down to five. (Is “tits” still forbidden? If not, then it’s four.) You even hear them in ads now and then: Frank’s Hot Sauce has been running a national campaign recently that concludes with the slogan, “I put that s**t on everything.” (The vowel sound is masked but the consonants are not.) As sportscaster Mike Florio observed recently, “real life is rated R,” and that’s fine.

Not everybody is on board with that R rating, however—and some who are not have sufficient time and motivation to file complaints with the FCC. As a result, “clean” radio versions of popular songs have been a thing for several years. Over a decade ago, Pink scored with a song she wrote as “Fuckin’ Perfect,” which was modified to “Perfect” for radio play. The line “Don’t you ever ever feel like you’re less than fuckin’ perfect” was re-recorded to “less than, less than perfect.” Last year, Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” was released in a version that removed the potentially offending adverbial intensifier from the line “I still fuckin’ love you babe.” On Pink’s 2012 hit “Blow Me (One Last Kiss),” its parenthetical got promoted to full title for radio, and its refrain was repeatedly blanked to cover “I’ve had a shit day / You’ve had a shit day / We’ve had a shit day”. “Stay” by the Kid LAROI and Justin Bieber has been in heavy rotation on adult-contemporary radio all year while blanking “fucked up” and “fuck.”

An elderly curmudgeon might point out that none of these songs really require profanity. They lose nothing without it; the clean versions get the point across just fine, and I say that as someone who does not get the fantods over naughty words. However, certain songs do lose something when they’re cleaned up. Take “abcedfu” by Gayle, which became a cross-format smash in recent months. The version you hear on my radio station begins as follows:

Forget you and your mom and your sister and your job
And your broke-down car and the things you call art
Forget you and your friends that I’ll never see again
Everybody but your dog, you can all get lost

But that’s not the song Gayle wrote. The original goes like this:

Fuck you and your mom and your sister and your job
And your broke-ass car and that shit you call art
Fuck you and your friends that I’ll never see again
Everybody but your dog, you can all fuck off

Gayle says that what she calls the “nicer” version doesn’t convey the full emotion of the “angry” version. And she’s right. Nobody says “forget you” when they mean “fuck you,” except maybe certain Christians, and children who can’t be sure their parents aren’t listening. “A-b-c-d-e forget you” doesn’t even make sense. And even though the title is already bowdlerized (“fu”), some radio stations have further truncated it to “abc.”

Lest we forget, “abecefu” is not the first record to substitute “forget” for “fuck.” A few years ago, CeeLo Green’s “Fuck You” got the same treatment. In its original form, “Fuck You” is glorious. As I wrote for Popdose in 2013, “The song is a tightrope walk—be too emphatic, sound too harsh, and it’ll come off vicious. Pull back from that edge and wink at the audience while you sing it and the epithet starts to seem funny in the way that overkill can be funny, like Wile E. Coyote getting smashed flat by an anvil in a Road Runner cartoon.” But turning it into “Forget You” ruined it, “because it fails to respect two writerly maxims: first, that one should always strive to put the right word in the right place, and second, that it’s possible to edit too much. When it’s perfect, stop messin’ with it.”

(It was fuckin’ perfect, actually.)

15 thoughts on “You Can’t Say That on the Radio

  1. Bean

    At my most recent radio job, all seven words were intact as no-nos, even tits. There was at least an eighth, piss, to describe urination but pissed-off was fine.

    1. mikehagerty

      Bean, “piss” was part of the Carlin “heavy seven.”

      “S**, p***, f***, c***, c***sucker, motherf***er and tits.”

  2. mikehagerty

    Fuckin’ great post, JB!

    “Tits” fell early—1990. Sharon Gless used the word in the premiere episode of “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill” on CBS, wondering aloud if she should “get them done.” SNL’s said it a few times, too.

    Radio’s different. In fact, the only time I can recall hearing the word on the radio, ever, was Frazer Smith on KLOS, who in the early 80s, kept referring to the movie “Clash of the Titans” as “Tits of the Clashons”.

    You kinda have to know Frazer’s act.

    “Shit” as a meaningless expletive is not unheard of on TV these days—usually in a drama or news program where they believe they can defend it.

    The rest of the list is unlikely to change.

    Just remember what legendary Los Angeles morning man Robert W. Morgan (KHJ, K-100, KMPC, KMGG, KRTH) always said:

    “You can say ANYTHING on the radio.


  3. Wesley

    I’m a free speech guy as long it’s not slander or bigotry or you know that, umm, yelling “Fire!” in a theater when there isn’t one kind of thing. The thing you have to remember as an artist though is having to weigh how much you want to express without inhibiting your creative freedom versus how much exposure you want from a mass audience. I think about this when I go grocery shopping and realize that hardly any songs they play are ones that have been hits this century. Sure, you may argue, “Well, that’s because they want to aim for primarily white Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who have more shopping power and like only their old music,” but I think it’s also due to the fact that anybody except the most conservative of Christians can hear most of what were pop hits during the 1960s through 1980s without being offended one whit.

    This could change of course if most listeners become more tolerant of profanity, or rather what they consider to be profane language. And when it does, corporate radio will be the last medium as always to adjust. The more things change, the more corporate radio remains the same.

    1. All good points, Wesley.

      I do think that in public places (banks, grocery stores), you’re always going to hear the least objectionable lyrics. We haven’t (yet) gotten to this bank/grocery store is liberal and this one is conservative.

      As for commercial radio, there’s always the FCC regs to worry about. And given the current state of the culture wars and the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, I don’t expect to see any changes relaxing the profanity/indecency standards, and, depending on the outcome of a few elections, could very well see it go the other way.

  4. porky

    I think the audience likes it (or used to, in the old days) when you get near what you think is coming and then pull away. Like Benny Bell’s “Shaving Cream” or April Wine’s “If You See Kay.”

    I found a record from 1973 by country artist Cal Smith called “Bleep You” which actually made the lower reaches of the country chart and was written by Bobby Braddock, who liked pushing the envelope.

    There was a pretty great take-off of “Forget You” in the Muppet Movie from 2011.

    I had to chuckle at the perverse thrill “Evangelicals” got when they could say “Let’s Go Brandon” and cuss without cussing. Fuck THEM.

    1. I used to always play “Jet Airliner” by the Steve Miller Band off the album because I always liked the long intro to it. There is also the line, “I don’t want to get caught up in that funky shit going down in the city.” (The 45 version is edited to say “funky kicks going down in the city.” I once mentioned to a manager of mine that I always played the album version with “funky shit” and he was just aghast, saying how terrible it was of me to do that.

  5. Back in college radio days we were told to self-edit any profanity that appeared in a record. (It was a Catholic university, after all.) We had a Gates board with the toggles, and you were supposed to just do a quick “swipe left” to miss the word in question. Many a DJ intentionally missed it by that much, leaving the “dirty” word going over the air and removing something innocuous a second later. I seem to recall the most missed one was John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Play Guitar” – “don’t gimme any of that macho shit, just shut up and” – and that’s where the silence usually occurred.

    1. mikehagerty

      I did that at my first station, KIBS in Bishop, playing Harry Nilsson’s “You’re Breakin’ My Heart”. Incredibly, I never slipped. A stupid, reckless thing for me to do, every night for six weeks. But I was 16.

    2. They’re years removed from Upsala College, but the great titan of freeform radio, WFMU in New Jersey, still has plenty of vinyl, and still has to occasionally *munge* songs for air!

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