The F**kin’ Problem: Swear Words and Their Place in Music

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“F**kin’ Problems”, a posse cut by A$AP Rocky, 2 Chainz, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar, was one of my favorite songs of the past year:

Let’s think. Are all of those vulgar words okay? Do they add to the song or take away from it? It certainly wouldn’t be the same song without them.

That has got to be the most bizarrely epic clean version of any song ever. Hilfigerish? Genius. But why is there such a glut of swear words in this song anyway? Well, I once heard a very wise saying: the rebels wouldn’t exist without the prudes. Without someone to get offended by these words, they would cease to be offensive and they wouldn’t be “cool” anymore. And that is a major aspect of “F**kin’ Problems”: the cool factor. When I listen to the uncensored version of this song, I feel like a rebel. When I listen to the clean version, I feel like a prude. Without the curse words, it wouldn’t be nearly as cool of a song. But are the curse words excessive? When the writers sat down to create “F**kin’ Problems”, did they intentionally insert a ridiculous amount of swearing into the song in order to up the cool factor?

The short answer: I don’t think so.

The long answer: In this song, every single curse word and racial slur seems to fit perfectly. It feels very natural. The flow and the cadence are all very well-constructed and fit in perfectly with the beat. It doesn’t feel excessive simply because it’s so professionally done. To me, it honestly sounds like these rappers are expressing themselves in a very organic way. And this song ended up reaping an impressive amount of critical acclaim. Pitchfork even called it the 35th best song of the year.

Furthermore, we live in a world where the rebels are quickly overtaking the prudes, if they haven’t already. People nowadays are much more accepting of cursing in music than we used to be. Does that mean we are living in a desensitized, corrupted society? No. In my opinion, it just means we’re being more honest with ourselves.

Vulgarity has been a part of popular music for decades. It just used to be covered under veils of innuendo. The blues was a very dirty genre, and just because bluesmen didn’t say the F-word doesn’t mean that there wasn’t an inherent sexuality underneath it all. Take this song by one of the best blues players of all time, Robert Johnson, recorded way back in 1937:

At 2:16: Now you can squeeze my lemon till the juice run down my leg.

And how many sexual references can you spot in the 1971 song “Brown Sugar”, by the masters of innuendo themselves, The Rolling Stones (and take note of that album cover):

As music history progressed, artists became more open to including suggestive material in their songs. In 1985, Tipper Gore and some other Washington wives responded to these developments by founding the Parents Music Resource Center. This committee succeeded in its goal of forcing the music industry to attach parental advisory stickers to albums that held explicit music. They even created a list called the “Filthy Fifteen” which contained the songs that were most offensive to them. Included on this list were AC/DC’s “Let Me Put My Love into You” from their 1980 masterpiece Back in Black and the inexplicably chosen “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by hair metal act Twisted Sister.

Yeesh. I wonder how Tipper Gore would react to “F**kin’ Problems”. She might have a f**kin’ heart attack.

My question is: If it’s music made by adults, for adults, what’s the harm in using dirty words? It’s nothing that we haven’t heard before. It’s up to parents to protect their children from hearing these words. It’s not the duty of the musicians themselves. However, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of parental advisory stickers. In my mind, they might pique children’s curiosity and make them want to listen to that music even more. All I know is that to me, self-expression is much more important than political correctness. It is possible to go too far, but I don’t think that the sheer number of swear words in a song really means anything. It’s how they’re used.

Some songs that contain swear words aren’t even necessarily dirty. Take this Vampire Weekend song, “Oxford Comma”, from their 2008 self-titled debut:

It’s almost comedic to use the F-word in a song that is otherwise very baroque-sounding and full of esoteric literary and historical references. I think that’s the point. And how about “Say Yes”, a sweet, beautiful breakup ballad by one of my favorite artists, Elliott Smith. It contains multiple swear words, but they are perfectly placed and constitute pure self-expression without any posturing.

But there is a catch. It can be hard to discern, but if an artist uses swears solely to seem cool, then I might get offended. Not at the words, mind you, but at the artist for making lame music. Sloppy songwriting offends me much more than swearing does.

In the end, I believe that swear words can be somewhat liberating. Using a swear can show that one cares more about honest self-expression than appealing to the broadest subset of people. And that’s what music is truly about, isn’t it?

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2 Comments

  1. ” In my opinion, it just means we’re being more honest with ourselves.”- I think this is it.
    I try to make my songs conversational- pretending that I’m talking to friends, so there’s some cussing in my songs. I never really thought about whether anyone would get offended.

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