Kick Out the Jams, Brothers and Sisters

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(Pictured: a completely spontaneous and not-at-all-orchestrated demonstration of support for Tipper Gore and the PMRC during congressional hearings in 1985.)

Thanks to all for your comments on naughty language in radio songs last Friday.

Mike helpfully linked to Ultimate Classic Rock’s list of songs with cuss words. A lot of the songs were never radio staples, however—in some cases, such as “Star Star,” precisely because the language was so far beyond the pale. Some of the obscenities are barely understandable (the supposed “I wanna fuck you” in the middle of “Do You Feel Like We Do”) or even audible (Paul’s expletive on a missed note in “Hey Jude.”) And many were edited for radio, with edits often more widely heard than the originals: “Who Are You,” “Jet Airliner,” “Kick Out the Jams,” “Hurricane.” As is the case with songs I mentioned in my earlier post, none of these lose very much for being edited. In fact, the radio edit of “Jet Airliner,” which replaces the line “funky shit going down in the city” with “funky kicks going down in the city” and adds a vocal harmony line to the replacement, represents an improvement.

But not all of the bad words got snipped. I think I can remember hearing “don’t give me that do-goody-good bullshit” in “Money” on AM radio back in the day, but I am not sure I trust the memory. (The blanked version sounds quite odd and foreign to me, however.) While many radio stations edited the line “haven’t seen a goddamn thing” from “Life in the Fast Lane,” it’s my understanding that the Eagles’ label never put out an official edit. “I’m so awful goddamn glad I’m not in your shoes,” from the Guess Who’s “Bus Rider,” was even printed in one of those song-lyric magazines I used to buy when I was a kid.

Album-rock radio always had a greater tolerance for rough language than Top 40. Neither programmers nor listeners seemed to care much. A certain level of maturity was assumed, and nobody made much of it. Today, so-called “active rock” stations are playing songs with obscenity-filled lyrics that glorify violence. Their audience accepts it, and life goes on.

As a culture, our grip on bad words in pop songs has always been kinda slippery. Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” ended up a Top-10 hit in 1974. A year later, on “Bad Blood,” Neil Sedaka sang “the bitch is in the smile.” But in 1977, radio stations went out of their way to edit “it’s a bitch, girl” out of “Rich Girl.” Two years after that, nobody looked sideways at “go on and cry in your coffee but don’t come bitchin’ to me” in Billy Joel’s “Big Shot.”

The ebb and flow of naughty language in pop songs and on pop radio would be a good subject for further study, albeit maybe by somebody who doesn’t have the attention span of a goldfish and the work ethic of a hobo. To the extent that there’s a difference today in how people react to such language, it started back in the mid-80s with Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Council, and their campaign to warn parents about music with explicit lyrics. (That campaign, however, was focused on songs that didn’t get any radio play, and eventually jumped the shark when a Frank Zappa album got the “explicit lyrics” sticker despite being entirely intrumental.) But the ethos that fueled Mrs. Gore’s campaign—“who will save the children?”—remains today, fortified by a media superstructure that enables the weaponization of outrage, leaving little room for nuance, and certainly not for arguments about artistic freedom, personal choice, or the First Amendment. People getting amped about the content of a song in 1975 (for example) could make noise in their local community or with their local radio station. Today, some mom in West Overshoe who’s Big Mad about “abedefu” can write about it on WorldNetDaily today and be on Newsmax tomorrow, and the day after that, a whole segment of the country will be aflame with godly indignation, the kind that launches political careers.

In a nation where half of the electorate is drunk on weaponized outrage and going out of its way looking for stuff to be offended by, blanked and edited pop songs are likely to remain a part of the scene. And it’s not hard to imagine the lyric content of pop songs becoming a political issue again, eventually. But that’s a topic for another day, or maybe for The Sidepiece.

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