When Cee Lo Threw the F-Bomb, Whom Did He Hit?

by Ben Rubenstein

28 September 2010

The F-word has been used in pretty much any way possible. I would’ve thought that by now we’d all be inured to the 'F-Bomb'. Then along came Cee Lo...

In the wake of Cee Lo’s recent hit single, “Fuck You”, there was a flurry of writing about the problems such a profane song presents. The New York Times discussed the challenges for radio promotion and for the record company behind the song. Then The Village Voice and The New Yorker poked fun at the ways the New York Times managed not to use the two words in the song’s title. There was also a brief post on this magazine, mounting a kind of preemptive defense of the track.

At the risk of irrevocably linking my name with the words “Fuck You” in Google searches (right now, the worst phrase is “I’ve Still Got Both My Nuts”, the title of a cancer survivor’s blog) I’m going to go ahead and tackle the issue myself. Because someone’s gotta say it: Big fuckin’ deal.

Honestly, while Cee Lo’s song may be the biggest hit to highlight swearing, it’s certainly not the most egregious offender I can think of. From N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police” to Dr. Dre’s “Fuck You” to any 2 Live Crew song, the F-word has been used in pretty much any way possible. I would’ve thought that by now we’d all be inured to the ‘F-Bomb’.

The story was much different when I was a kid. To the 12-year-old me, roaming the aisles of my local Coconuts with a $20 gift coin in my hand, those “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” stickers might as well have read “Buy Me Now!” At a certain point, I began to question my purchase choice if the sticker wasn’t present. Without some kind of swearing in it, music just didn’t seem as exciting. Why else would we have changed the lyrics of “Mony Mony” to “Fuckin’ Horny” during Bar Mitzvah parties?

That doesn’t mean I always got the stuff I wanted, as it wasn’t always easy to convince my parents of the essential harmlessness of profane music. You’d think they would have some sympathy, as I’m sure they had to defend the “dangerous” sounds of their youth. But The Beatles, for all their counterculture leanings, rarely dropped an F-bomb. Calls for revolution and oblique drug references were more palatable (and more easily disguised) than blatant profanity, it seems.

At a recent wedding, a 28-year-old friend of the bride announced, to much ridicule, that she didn’t like when the DJ played hip-hop because it had too much swearing. Though this was obviously more about personal taste than a sense of propriety (I think the most questionable stuff we heard all night was the Native American lampooning on Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache”), the statement was pretty surprising. How, in a time when you can hear pretty much any bad word possible on basic cable (and the rest on HBO), could you really find a way to get offended when it’s done in the name of rhyme scheme?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating for an onslaught of Clipse and Wu-Tang tracks at my own wedding. There is a time and a place for that sort of thing (like family reunions). But the new Cee Lo song? I’d definitely consider it for its catchy beat. Of course, I’d probably be encouraged to use the radio edit, which changes the chorus to “Forget You!” Cee Lo begrudgingly accepted the change (along with all the money that likely came from it), while maintaining in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times that the song was meant “for the internet – the people’s radio.”

While the word choice is not ideal, it could’ve been worse. Just think of some of the horrendous overdubs that surface when a particularly colorful movie is edited for television. Honestly, a movie like Pulp Fiction probably shouldn’t be shown in its compromised form (Samuel L. Jackson would never say “Mother Fletcher” or “maggot farmer”); nor is The Big Lebowski quite the same when Walter Sobchak warns Larry Sellers that “this is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps!”. Let’s not even get into how badly “Scarface” typically gets butchered. Often, such overdubs will do little but draw more attention to the words they replace.

Bleeping out or simply omitting the offending item can be even worse. Need a reminder of how such censoring can affect a great song? Watch Eminem, Drake and Lil’ Wayne perform “Forever” at the 2010 Grammy Awards; listen for the number of times the sound dropped out. As for radio edits, Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” is one annoying transformation that immediately comes to mind. Meanwhile, New York Magazine offers a somewhat tongue-in-cheek list of songs that benefited from their radio edits, including Big Pun’s “Still Not a Player” and Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started”. 

Obviously, censorship does have its place, and part of its purpose, I think, is to rein in some of our more potty-mouthed instincts. It’d probably be pretty hard for many of us to quit swearing completely; those words exist for a reason. Where problems arise is when that occasional, warranted profanity turns gratuitous. It’s a good thing social rules are in place to make sure we don’t all turn into Lenny Bruce. Still, I’d like to believe people are able to separate what’s appropriate in a pop song from what’s appropriate in other settings.

Let’s face it, appropriate or not, every one of us occasionally has a need to unleash a good “fuck you” on the world, now and then – isn’t it better if you can dance to it?

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