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Don’t Run With Those Expletives

February 19, 2010

Profanity in music.  Frankly, I don’t see its purpose.  It’s base and crude, and is usually avoidable.  It’s lazy writing, and I am most disappointed when my favourite bands, with marvellous lyricists, resort to the effs.  I know many people consider profanity’s usage to be valid in different circumstances, so it’s only fair that I look at why I dislike cursing in songs where the usage varies.

Just to be clear, the songs I’m going to be looking at are all from artists I really admire.  Their music and their lyrics usually astound me, but the few exceptions here and there do irk me – particularly since the music itself in the following songs is fantastic.  Also, fair warning, all the videos I link to will obviously contain coarse language.  So here we go:

Pointless Usage: Walcott, Vampire Weekend

Walcott, fish the women from Wellfleet
Fish the bears out in Provincetown
Heed my words and take flight.

 There is not a single reason I can think of to qualify the use of profanity in this song.  The lyrics are a plea to a character named Walcott to flee Cape Cod and escape the impending, eponymous weekend of vampiric mayhem.  Despite this, it’s a quite upbeat, energetic piece, and such coarse language is jarringly out of place.  It is quite clear from the preceeding lyrics that Walcott really needs to get out of Cape Cod – resorting to such crude instructions is unnecessary.

And that’s omitting the inherent violence in the phrasing.  This is the only time that people are referenced as something to leave behind, and the choice to use profanity certainly has some questionable undertones.  Obviously, the song isn’t using the eff word literally, but in its more figurative sense, but that doesn’t entirely excuse it.  The word is harsh and purposefully derogatory, and is at its most unpleasant in the “eff you” context.  Using it so blatantly, and so casually, in this song completely undermines it – or at least, makes it unpleasant to listen to until that stanza has passed.

Contradictory Usage: Grace Under Pressure, Elbow

We’re in love, so fish you.

This is yet another song where the use of profanity baffles me.  The song is a sweet love ditty with musical glory that lends an epic, uplifting quality.  It is simple and yet elegant, calming yet empowering.  And then it reaches the chorus.  A recording of the crowd at an Elbow concert shout in unison, “We’re in love, so fish you.”  The unity and power of hundreds of voices gives the repeating mantra an anthemic tone and influence.  I want to join in – I feel compelled to add my voice to the army of chanting fans.  But then I check myself, and the words themselves, and it turns the uplifting song into an awkward experience.

It is the context, though, that really puzzles me.  To pair one of the nicest phrases in the English language (“We’re in love”) with one of the most unpleasant (“So fish you”) is bizarre.  The sweetness of the declaration of adoration is erased by the curse.  Instead of elevating the love song to a level of transcendence, it debases it to the place of those upstart ‘punks’ who hate society and all that it stands for.  It puts the song in the mouths of the ungrateful, which leaves a bitter taste on my tongue.

I’ve seen comments on the interwebs discussing how liberating the chorus is.  It exemplifies the freedom bequeathed by love – no matter what you may think, I love this person and I always will.  I have no objection to this concept.  It’s a tried and true narrative trope – we have it in Shakespeare, in fairy tales, in modern literature.  It is a vaild and usually applaudable statement.  Yet surely Guy Garvey (the band’s lyricist) could have found a more poetic way to say this.

Glorified Usage: Little Lion Man, Mumford & Sons

It was not your fault but mine.
And it was your heart on the line.
I really fished it up this time,
Didn’t I, my dear?

By far the most aggressive usage of the word on my brief list, I again found it uncomfortable to listen to the song.  Yet again I wanted to chant the chorus, but I was even more turned off by the sharpness of the phrase.  Musically engaging and inherently catchy (yet heavy and dark), Mumford & Sons’ angsty song of frustration certainly creates an appropriate mood for the use of the word.  In contrast to the decidedly upbeat nature of Walcott and the whistful dreaminess of Grace Under Pressure, Little Lion Man suits the ferocity of the eff.  It almost seems appropriate.

Yet the more I think about it, the more I feel that the song glorifies the word.  Its prominent placement in the chorus and the emphasis imparted on it musically make it clear that the songwriter wants you to notice it.  The folk-influenced melody locks in your brain and the stressed phrase sticks.  Instead of mulling on the overarching concept of the song – remorse at a relationship-endangering error – the listener focuses on the phrase of utter self-hatred.

The word is turned upon the narrator – he uses it to describe his own actions.  It’s harsh and brutal – perhaps apt for the emotion.  But the overt emphasis on the word makes it the centrepiece.  It detracts from the overall impact of the song by being too powerful in itself, and yet with every repetition of the chorus, the listener becomes desensitised to the curse and it becomes just another word.  Perhaps if it had been used sparingly in a verse it may have had the desired effect of showing just how furious the narrator is at his own stupidity, without turning the chorus into a near-celebration of the profanity itself.

‘Last Resort’ Usage: Some Riot, Elbow

‘Cause it’s breaking my heart, it’s breaking my heart,
And it’s breaking my heart to pour like the rain.
Brother of mine, don’t run with those fishers,
When will my friend start singing again?

Of the songs I’ve discussed, this is the one which I feel most appropriately uses the eff word, although I still ardently wish it didn’t.  This song of angst over a dear friend’s succumb to alcoholism is an elegy of despair.  It’s the last call, and hope dwindles.  Whereas Little Lion Man uses profanity to emphasise the angst, Some Riot seems to include the word almost as an afterthought, buried in a breath in the middle of the verse.  It doesn’t place the word as the pinnacle of the emotion that is expressed bombastically.  It is an anguished last resort – I’ve tried and tried to reason with you, but I’ve run out of things to say.

I personally feel that if profanity is ever to be given into, it should be used sparingly.  Only then does it retain its purpose.  If a curse comes from the mouth of a clean-lipped person, it has all the more effect.  And this is the sensation I get from this song – the melancholy music and the quiet lyrics give the impression that the word is deserved.  Perhaps it helps that it only appears once.

And yet, I still think the song would be just as effective, if not more, with the exclusion of cussing.  The song is one of the most lyrical of Elbow’s songs and contains one of the most beautifully poetic lines I have ever come across: Beautiful, quivering, chivalrous shambles.  The words just flow off the tongue, and in context of the opening verse, paint the tone of the song in an instant.  If such poetry can appear at the beginning, why can’t it continue?  With the establishment of metaphor, surely a more poetic phrase could have been devised to beg the dear friend to turn away from the drink and the drunkards.

In Conclusion…

In all four of these songs, the reasoning behind the usage of profanity is clear.  They are all logical arguments.  Yet they do not convince me that the intention justifies the means.  In all of these cases, I believe the omission of the eff word would not harm the meaning of the song.  Surely there are some less attention-seeking, less shock-value synonyms out there.

But what do you think?  Does profanity have its place in music?  Does it achieve what other phrases in the thesaurus can not?  Do you believe Mumford & Sons, Elbow and Vampire Weekend have made appropriate use of cusses?  Swear by your opinions in the comments!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Becki permalink
    February 19, 2010 8:35 PM

    I *knew* you would quote Grace Under Pressure in this, so I came to defend its honour 😛

    The line you wrote is actually not entirely the right lyrics, and with the way you wrote it I totally get why you’d find it annoying. The actual line is “We still believe in love, so f*** you”, which I think makes more sense. It’s a stand against the people/powers/circumstances/etc. that come in the way of us loving. It’s saying that we’ll believe in and strive for love despite them. And I’m pretty sure that for anyone who’s ever been in love, there’s nothing you’d rather say to those people/barriers/circumstances of shiteness than “f***you”. If love is the highest and best thing, then any barriers to it are pretty low and base. A dirty word is all they deserve. It’s not supposed to be ‘poetic’, in the sense of making terrible things sound tasteful or pretty. The things that separate us from genuine love aren’t at all good. I guess you could say the real poetry is in the contrast between those things which deserve no more than an FU and the singer’s constant faith in what’s good and true.
    It sounds really idealistic, but I guess that’s kind’ve the point of the song.

  2. February 19, 2010 9:40 PM

    I feel incredibly sheepish for misinterpreting the lyrics, and I do find your analysis to be very convincing. However, I still find it to be unnecessarily crude. Poetically speaking, I think you’re right on the money (contrast is almost certainly what they’re utilising), but the shadow that the eff casts on the narrative of the song is vast.

    The song’s speaker, let’s call him Elmer, resorts to a profane remark towards The Powers That Be Stopping Him From Loving. By using gutter-words, he doesn’t rise above the conflict, holding his head high. He puts up his middle finger, baiting a fight. Elmer doesn’t take the high road by using diplomatic language. His adoption of base terminology turns him into a hedonistic anarchist (I’ll do whatever I want and you can’t do anything about it), and makes you wonder whether the objections raised by TPTBSHFL have some legitimacy. Why should they respect his love, if he won’t respect them?

  3. February 19, 2010 9:54 PM

    To take a slightly alternative stance on the argument – I think a lot of song writers don’t actually consider said swear words to be crude or powerful. I think to most of them the words are desensitised and they are just words like any others. So I’d argue that they aren’t using them to the same effect you’ve described (at least thats not their intention). Personally I have absolutely no problem with swearing in songs and the words don’t strike me as at all overt – but of course it comes down to personal interpretation.

    I think really this comes down to a discussion of swearing in general and its place in society. I am strongly of the opinion that a swear word is like any other word and I see no problem in the use of a swear word. There is no magical reason why some words should be worse than others and the definition of what a swear word is changes over time anyway.

  4. February 19, 2010 9:55 PM

    Hmm, I think it must come down to a song-by-song sort of thing… Because I find I agree with you fully in some instances, and not so in others.

    First of all, you’re completely right about Some Riot. It’s a wonderfully poetic song, and when I first heard it and it reached the line featuring the ‘fishers’, I was slightly taken aback. The shock woke me from whatever weird trance the music had put me into, so I found it a bit uncomfortable.

    BUT, Vampire Weekend is a different story. Possibly just because they can do no wrong by me, I am THAT in love with them. I find the inclusion of the cusses in Walcott somewhat suitable. Whether it’s because it emphasises exactly to what extent Walcott must ‘take flight’, or just because it’s Ezra’s lovely voice, I’m not sure. Also, I think that ‘who gives a fish about an Oxford comma?’ is such a wonderfully absurd sentence. I don’t think it would’ve sounded anywhere near as effective if it had’ve been ‘who gives two hoots about an Oxford comma?’ or similar. The juxtaposition between the concept of a somewhat snooty grammatical instrument and some serious cursing just makes me smile!

    That said, the ‘fish’ in Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa (if one exists, much debate about whether the first chorus features one…) DOES disturb me. I think that is because I really dislike ‘fish’ being used as a verb.

    That’s my rant complete. Excellent and insightful post, as per usual! : )

  5. February 21, 2010 4:58 PM

    RE: Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa and the Fish Misconception. I’m pretty sure it *is* there – I vaguely remember looking at the liner notes and seeing it printed there in all-caps. And frankly, whilst at least VW makes use of the word’s actual definition, it’s unnecessarily confronting. There are enough seedy winks in the first part of the chorus – you don’t have to go and spell it out. Gosh, whatever happened to subtlety?

    RE: Oxford Comma. I didn’t address this one in the main post because I saw its usage as being similar to other circumstances I looked at. The way it is used so off-handedly, and its emphasis (as in Little Lion Man), are the main reasons I, personally, don’t like it in the song. Whilst the juxtaposition is clever in one sense, and it certainly snatches your attention, I simply don’t like the blasé use. It’s a harsh word, and not treating it as such is what bothers me. As my college music teacher said of the eff word, “It’s like using the word ‘table’ nine times out of context.”

    RE: The Eff Word as a Word. And that leads me to Myles’ point. I’m not going to deny or rebuke the evolution of language – it happens. Without a doubt, the public acceptance of cussing has increased hundredfold to the point where the vast majority of society, like you, considers ‘fish’ to be just another word. But every word has a meaning.

    I was reading something by C. S. Lewis recently in which he discussed the evolution of the word ‘gentleman’ and how it changed from being a word to describe fact (a man of wealth and property) to a vague, airy description (an adjective for a man who behaves like a man of wealth and property). As such, the word itself became ‘useless’ – it could not exclusively define truth (that man there owns property), and instead became another term of approval of which the English language already had several (polite, chivalrous, etc.). “It has been spoiled for [its original] purpose.”

    The eff word is undoubtedly the most offensive word in the English language. Bill Bryson, in his commentary on the English language Mother Tongue, briefly mentions the two types of swearing: “relatively mild” vs. “highly profane”. The eff word certainly falls in the latter category, and as such, is suited for uttering “only in circumstance of high emotion.” If the eff word has become ‘just another word’, it has entirely lost its purpose (to express extraordinary negative emotion). It joins gentleman as a useless word. It loses all its impact, so when used in a circumstance that would deserve the obscenity, the frustrated man might just as well have shouted “THE!” or “AND!”

    If the worst curse in our language has become a filler word with no association to particular emotion or definitive meaning, it has lost the reason for its existence in the first place. How, then, when/if/now that the eff word is ‘just another word,’ can we express the high emotion that ‘fish’ used to denote?


    Well, that was unintentionally academic. I feel I should have included footnotes and a bibliography…

  6. February 21, 2010 11:25 PM

    Ok counter rebuttal time.

    You claim that the acceptance of cussing has increased a hundred fold by society – and I don’t believe that to be the case. Cussing has always been used to huge extents within society (or at least in sections of society). Now I’m not saying that people have been saying f*** all the time, but due to the evolution of language they have been using words that were equally equivalent in their respective times. There are hundreds of words which used to be “powerful” like you say f*** is, but which are now completely mundane and which you wouldn’t bat an eye at – all this means is that cuss words do change and claiming that f*** is a word which should remain a powerful cuss is wrong. I’d also claim that c*** is a worse a swear word in modern english.

    Your second argument is one on the meaning of words – which I disagree with on the basis that cussing is in itself a corruption of the word’s original meaning. F*** means to have sex and has a long history with Germanic origins. As such its use as a cuss word at all is a perversion of its meaning (and the same for all other swears for that matter). To claim that we should preserve its “emotional impact” by using it sparingly is absurd to me. There will always be further worse and worse swear words which will usurp the last ones in the eyes of the people – all of them based on what could be considered fairly harmless original words. The word f*** to me, and to many others (probably including the song writers in my opinion) has lots its heavy impact and is now common usage – but other words like c*** still retain their power.

    Regardless of my two rebuttals above I would like to exert my personal opinion that no words should be considered swear words. So despite the constant inevitable march of swear words in and out of fashion I would wish that the english language simply did not have high-impact words which are considered taboo. The words themselves make no difference, so what purpose is there in having a word which should not be used? More often than not I see it merely as a way that people who consider themselves “higher” than others use to look down on the “lower” people who use such base language. Such a divide is not something I want to see in society. I think that the acceptance of the usage of all words is a way that we can remove the power and efficiency of all swear words – essentially making them meaningless which I see as a good thing.

    F*** swear words.

  7. Angus permalink
    March 11, 2010 9:10 PM

    Artists use course language to offend sensitive people like you. =P


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