Film

A Crash Course in Fake Cursing

Through a kind of final detachment from any intended lexical meaning, fake cursing can constitute a natural progression of a word meaning very little to one indicating only emotional residue.

Oftentimes artists use a baseline of existing superficiality to make larger points. Lady Gaga’s dance-pop songs, for instance, are effective as music, and also as an interesting critique of the superficiality inherent to the genre. Comedians like Sacha Baron Cohen, Sarah Silverman, and Chris Rock have effectively appropriated racial stereotypes, both expanding upon their stilted thought processes and lampooning them as a means to containment.

The use of profanity in movie dialogue also works with a baseline of superficiality, as cursing is meant in cinema to superficially distinguish along class lines or difference of cultural or moral standards, this somewhat parallel to the use of accents in film, as well as provide a certain transgressive emphasis within those designations of difference. Of course, cursing is used most effectively in playing against such stereotypes, as when a character employs the emphasis of a curse without following through to say the actual word. Words like “frick” and “shoot” allude to curse words through likeness of sound; others like “crap” have the same meaning as the more typical bad words. This second type of fake cursing is a bit like spelling “W-A-L-K” in front of a dog, where one wants the meaning of a word without any of the heightened emotion attached.

Also, fake cursing is almost always funny. The comedy comes from a reversal of expectation, and from a certain pathos as attached to the fake curser. Like a 98 lb. weakling dressed like a medieval warrior, the lameness of a failed show of strength is highlighted through proximity to the real thing. Even more interestingly, fake cursing can linguistically illustrate what actual curse words over time have come to signify. Through a kind of final detachment from any intended lexical meaning, fake cursing can constitute a natural progression from a word meaning very little to one indicating only emotional residue. The word “shit” may have one time meant “excrement,” and in some contexts still does. But the use of “shoot” in the place of “shit” truly means nothing and even expands upon the most common use of “shit,” as only a thing to say to express raw emotion.

Here are a few notable examples of fake cursing in pop culture:

Almost Famous

In an early scene from Almost Famous, a character played by Zooey Deschanel confronts her mother about her draconian household rules. Deschanel’s character ends an argument by throwing up a pointed finger and screaming “Feck you!” before storming off to her bedroom. The camera lingers for a beat, while the audience wonders what exactly was just said. Then the younger brother says in his sister’s defense, “I think she said ‘Feck’” This is fake cursing at its most definitive. There is no more succinct way to bridge the gap between the Deschanel character’s emotional need to be heard and her unwillingness to follow through on this need than through the speech of a word that sounds like, but isn’t quite, “fuck.” She doesn’t mind incurring her mother’s wrath in one sense but isn’t quite ready to take on the punishment for saying a “bad word.” The comedy of the scene is also the ground floor upon which all fake cursing jokes are built: the expectation of something meant to shock and the delivery of something else entirely.

Napoleon Dynamite

In Napoleon Dynamite, the titular character’s fake cursing so distinctive as to suggest a rich back-story of frustrated emotional need. Napoleon’s outbursts of “frick” and “what the crap” are both hilarious and sad in their evocation of stronger dialogue. They also contribute to the characterization of his arrested development in the same vein as his obsession with kung-fu and “ligers.” He is an isolated innocent who can only dream of the epic battles he draws in his three-ring notebook. In one of the first scenes of the movie, Napoleon trails a plastic action figure with a string out of the school bus window, a direct lifeline to childhood. The dialogue following this visual cue adds to the moment: A little boy asks him what he’s going to do that day, and he answers with too-strong volume, “Whatever the crap I want! Gosh!”

Flight of the Conchords, “Drive By”

In an episode of The Flight of the Conchords called “Drive By,” Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie profoundly self edit their cursing in a rap send up, “Too Many Mother Uckers”. The edited profanity of the song alludes to urban culture, yet applies this would-be strong language to such small matters as annoying bank fees. Fake curse words are here less a parody of hip-hop than a self-effacing appraisal of the triviality of their own complaints. Hip-hop artists, whose subject matter typically involves real problems of a survivalist culture, have earned the right to vent their rage through profanity, while the Conchords’ use of fake cursing makes light of their own much less serious troubles.

The Sopranos, “A Hit is a Hit”

Sometimes actual cursing is so far removed from its correct usage that it can be said to be “fake” in the exact opposite sense as fake cursing. As cursing would superficially signify cultural or socio-economic difference, those represented as being in positions of prominence sometimes show how they are “of the people” by cursing. Of course, by assuming such postures they are also crassly reinforcing profanity as a designation of cultural ill. The hypocrisy of their position is usually the supposed joke.

One good example of this occurs in an episode of The Sopranos, where the mob family’s doctor and neighbor befriends Tony as a way to buddy up to his fellow country club members. In one scene, Dr. Cusumano’s wife remarks at a dinner party that whenever her husband hangs out with Tony Soprano, for a few days after he takes on the mobster’s trademark foul language: “Every time he comes back from there it’s “fucking this” and ‘fucking that.’” Dr. Cusumano’s vicarious enjoyment of Tony’s lifestyle is paralleled here with that of the show’s audience.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Wes Anderson’s films often portray a deeply flawed intelligentsia; his gifted but stunted characters offer deconstructions of cultural elitism. Cate Blanchett’s character, a magazine reporter, falls into the well-heeled cinematic trope of the muse/witness to a troubled genius. She wants to stop cursing because she’s having a baby and doesn’t want to pass on her bad habits, yet the actual strain of taking on this challenge itself causes her to curse. She constantly substitutes the word “effing” for “fucking,” and yet when asked why she doesn’t just curse like everyone else, she says she’s trying to stop “for her fucking baby.”

You Can Count On Me

Laura Linney's character, Sammy Prescott, in the gorgeously realized You Can Count On Me, seems like an only slightly older version of Blanchett’s character in Zissou. Also a mother, Sammy seems to have kicked the cursing habit a while ago, though in certain moments of stress some zingers get through. At one point in the movie she wakes up in a hotel bed next to her married boss, screaming “Oh, my gosh, what time is it?” He tells her, and she immediately screams, “Oh, my God!” Linney comes down hard on the word “God” in this line, emphasizing the difference between it and the just previously spoken fake curse word.

Battlestar Gallactica

The Battlestar Gallactica reboot included documentary-style cinematography and a realistic storytelling. However, because it was a network series, it couldn’t use the spicy language that would be most appropriate to the military culture it depicted. Show writers got around this restriction by supposing futuristic developments to commonly used curse words of the present. Hence, the birth of “frak,” a clever stand-in that has since made its way into the greater pop culture lexicon.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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