What’s Going on with all this F***ing Music?

Flipping through the iTunes Store today, in the music section, I was intrigued by how many albums have “Explicit” labels. Among the top-selling albums, four of the top five have explicit labels, and 26 of the top 100 albums feature such labels.

Explicit music

It made me wonder why so much music is labelled as explicit? Is the labeling changing, becoming more strict, or are more artists writing songs with foul language?

I’d not bothered by this; quite the contrary, I think “explicit” language is part of language in general, and some of the great works of literature have been labeled as obscene before being exonerated (Leaves of Grass, Ulysses, Howl and many others).

I’m just a bit surprised that so many of these albums feature explicit songs. And I wonder about artistic integrity for those artists who also sell “clean” versions of their music. If an artist has something to say, can they really clean up the lyrics and still say the same thing? Or do the lyrics simply not matter that much?

For those who are not aware of how this all started, it was Tipper Gore, wife of the former Vice President (and nearly President), who spearheaded a movement to label music with explicit lyrics. I’m on the fence about whether this really serves any purpose. I’d rather see limits to violence in movies and TV shows than worry about a few curses on popular songs; the words don’t touch kids the way filmed violence does.

14 thoughts on “What’s Going on with all this F***ing Music?

  1. The first time I saw this kind of thing was on an album with Dave Holland and an excellent flamenco player names Pepe Habichuela. I notified the iTMS without any luck, don’t know if they took off the E for Explicit. All the tunes on this recording are instrumental! Since then I’ve seen similar issues. The latest was a Silvio Rodriguez tune, Rabo de Nube, covered by the Charles Lloyd Quartet. In some, but not all, covers, the word Rabo is censored: R**o (Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra is an uncensored case). Rabo means tail in Spanish and has a potentially obscene use. However, in this case rabo de nube means tornado or whirlwhind.

    • It’s fascinating to hear about an instrumental album mislabeled as containing explicit lyrics. It would be interesting to know the ratio of mislabeling to correct labeling, “correct” in the most simplistic sense. It’s hard to have a reliable, meaningful evaluation, in any case. There are plenty of songs that showcase violence and discrimination, while avoiding the words that would trigger the “explicit” label. I agree with Kirk, that things like violence and cruelty are more serious than curse words.

  2. The first time I saw this kind of thing was on an album with Dave Holland and an excellent flamenco player names Pepe Habichuela. I notified the iTMS without any luck, don’t know if they took off the E for Explicit. All the tunes on this recording are instrumental! Since then I’ve seen similar issues. The latest was a Silvio Rodriguez tune, Rabo de Nube, covered by the Charles Lloyd Quartet. In some, but not all, covers, the word Rabo is censored: R**o (Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra is an uncensored case). Rabo means tail in Spanish and has a potentially obscene use. However, in this case rabo de nube means tornado or whirlwhind.

    • It’s fascinating to hear about an instrumental album mislabeled as containing explicit lyrics. It would be interesting to know the ratio of mislabeling to correct labeling, “correct” in the most simplistic sense. It’s hard to have a reliable, meaningful evaluation, in any case. There are plenty of songs that showcase violence and discrimination, while avoiding the words that would trigger the “explicit” label. I agree with Kirk, that things like violence and cruelty are more serious than curse words.

  3. At one point, Apple were very careful about censoring song titles too, but they seem to have changed their policy. Once upon a time, the seminal 1970 Miles Davis LP was listed as B***hes Brew, but now it’s Bitches Brew. Maybe the amount of profanity is the cause: when I typed ‘bitches’ into iTMS store, the top result was Bitches Ain’t S**t, which might be somewhat more difficult to parse if it were written B***hes Ain’t S**t.

  4. At one point, Apple were very careful about censoring song titles too, but they seem to have changed their policy. Once upon a time, the seminal 1970 Miles Davis LP was listed as B***hes Brew, but now it’s Bitches Brew. Maybe the amount of profanity is the cause: when I typed ‘bitches’ into iTMS store, the top result was Bitches Ain’t S**t, which might be somewhat more difficult to parse if it were written B***hes Ain’t S**t.

  5. I’d actually like to see Apple be a bit more proactive with this for parents — it would be great if iTunes Match ported in explicit tags (yes, I am aware of the glitch that substituted clean versions of songs for the explicit ones. That’s been corrected. And besides, I might like that as a feature!). It would help me when I’m listening to music in earshot of my toddlers if I could auto-generate a playlist without explicit songs and know that it was safe. It’s easier to keep them away from violent movies and stuff at that age than from the occasional F-bomb that they may then decide to imitate in public.

  6. I’d actually like to see Apple be a bit more proactive with this for parents — it would be great if iTunes Match ported in explicit tags (yes, I am aware of the glitch that substituted clean versions of songs for the explicit ones. That’s been corrected. And besides, I might like that as a feature!). It would help me when I’m listening to music in earshot of my toddlers if I could auto-generate a playlist without explicit songs and know that it was safe. It’s easier to keep them away from violent movies and stuff at that age than from the occasional F-bomb that they may then decide to imitate in public.

  7. All true and vaguely depressing and so out of touch. Hysterical it emanates from the “land of free speech”.
    This is quite US centric. Puritanical nannying. I lump the UK in there too (for anyone old enough to remember FGTH getting banned, and more).
    It’s mostly not an issue “on the continent” because by and large the general public are treated maturely, and it follows, that youths swearing, acting up, and disobeying rules is understood by the oldies.
    Isn’t that better than censorship?

  8. All true and vaguely depressing and so out of touch. Hysterical it emanates from the “land of free speech”.
    This is quite US centric. Puritanical nannying. I lump the UK in there too (for anyone old enough to remember FGTH getting banned, and more).
    It’s mostly not an issue “on the continent” because by and large the general public are treated maturely, and it follows, that youths swearing, acting up, and disobeying rules is understood by the oldies.
    Isn’t that better than censorship?

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