During ESPN’s Sunday evening premiere of “Season On The Brink” – chronicling basketball coach Bob Knight’s embattled 1985-86 season at Indiana – actor Brian Dennehey as Knight dropped more F-bombs than Archie Bunker at a Village People gig. Meanwhile, on CBS, the network ran onsite footage from the 9/11 disaster with unedited audio. Finally, HBO continued its fine tradition of extreme cursing: The characters in “Six Feet Under” seemingly added the Darkest Expletive to each exchange of dialogue. Three different networks, three very different programs, unified by one word. However, the use of Fuck in “Six Feet Under” was not excessive; rather, it was realistic. This was proven by the frequency with which the word was uttered in real life, by firefighters, victims, and the filmmakers, during CBS’ 9/11 special. But Fuck’s appearance on ESPN is what’s at issue. It marks the debut of the F-word on an advertiser-supported broadcast or cable network. And it suggests that network television’s continued flirtation with rough language – “NYPD Blue”; “The West Wing” – will only inch further down the blue path. But don’t mistake Glorious Noise as a voice of concern for the gentle ears of impressionable children. What’s at stake here is far more important. If regular broadcast television takes a blasé attitude toward Fuck, what happens to the nature, enjoyment, and power of saying it in the first place?
“BABY BABY BABY YOU SURE LIKE TO FUCK!”
Jon Spencer swears creatively. Yelping the above line at the beginning of his sexified rocker “Full Grown” (from 1994’s Orange), Spencer’s observation is affirmed by bandmates Judah Bauer and Russell Simins’ off-mic hollering of the Infamous Cuss. The song even ends with one long scream of the word. “Full Grown” is a rollicking, sloe-eyed rant about Spencer’s desire for an experienced bedmate. There’s no pretense in what he’s suggesting – “Take a whiff of my pant leg, baby” – and saying Fuck so much illustrates his point. “Baby Baby Baby you sure like to get busy” just doesn’t have the same vitality. So that’s creative cussing. And that’s rock and roll. It’s part of what makes rock – even in this day and age – rebellious and cool. After all, until Sunday evening, you weren’t allowed to say Fuck on regular TV. You still can’t say it on the radio. (Just ask Howard Stern or Chicago’s Z-grade worm shock monkey Mancow Muller, who’s been fined over $30,000 by the FCC for language indiscretions). No matter what you think of Fred Durst and Limp Bizkit, their cover of “Faith” is a whole lot cooler with Fred’s “Get the Fuck out!” line left intact. Similarly, have you ever tried to listen to a “clean” version of your favorite hip-hop album? Get the fuck out, indeed.
This is what we’re in danger of losing – the power and pleasure of saying or singing the word Fuck. For the relationship of rock music and swearing will be forever changed if the taboo is removed from the F-word. And “crunk,” the emerging slang term favored by tastemakers such as Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, is NOT a valid replacement. Because replacement is impossible. Fuck is a non-renewable resource – it has continued to reverberate in human culture since the word’s inception, continually finding new ways to wend its way into the speech patterns of everyday life. (The late 20th century popularization of the multi-syllabic drop-in comes to mind – e.g., “Do I want another beer? Abso-fucking-lutely.”) To hear this most famous of invectives uttered with casual frequency on major network shows – “Everybody Fucking Loves Raymond!” – would destroy a forbidden currency that helps keep rock and roll alive.
As an impressionable teenager, I can remember buying a Guns N’ Roses single during the Appetite days – maybe it was “Paradise City” – which featured the album track “Mr Brownstone” as its B-side. Each night, I’d listen to that song, anxiously awaiting the part towards the end when Axl refers to Mr Brownstone as “that old man, he’s a mean motherfucker.” Of course I’d heard the term before. But it was boring when the right fielder on my little league team said it. Headphones on, sound turned to 11, to hear a rock and roller swear with such mirth on something that I could buy at the store was powerful to me. And it makes the music more powerful, as well. Parental Advisory labels have done nothing to hinder the sale of albums with curse words. For many artists, the stickers are worn as a badge of honor. And when swearing’s done correctly, by guys like Jon Spencer or Ice Cube, the word and song take on new resonance.
Rock and roll – the term itself – has never been made of candyfloss and pixie sticks. It encapsulates everything dirty and sexy about the music in a simple phrase, built from the ground up to piss off parents and priests. Throwing an F-bomb into the mix is the equivalent of lighting up in church. After all, what else can you say when you watch Jack White tear off power chords as Meg pounds the shit out of her kit? “Fuck.” What word are your lips going to form when you see footage of the Rolling Stones in their prime, diluting sexual chemistry into pure rock heaven? “Fuck.” In one syllable, it represents and summarizes the over 50 years of history behind the phrase Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll. And if it, as just another “jag off” or “damn” or “asshole,” becomes Andy Sipowiz’s new favorite epithet, rock’s in trouble. Signs are suggesting real rock and roll will again become a viable economy in Pop Music, 2002. If Fuck – in all its simplistic, gutteral, and rebel glory – isn’t in its arsenal, then we’re in trouble.
And somewhere, Billy Idol will retire his sneer in dejected sadness.