Depiction of Indecency: Classification or Judgment?

We’ve discussed how we define indecency in various media, and even how we apply that definition. However, we haven’t focused a whole lot on how to handle material if and when it has been determined to be indecent.

It is very common to use labels to help us find media content we wish to consume: “I’m in the mood to watch a comedy” or “I’m in a mood to watch a thriller.” Is that how we use indecency: “I’m in the mood to watch some indecency”?

Does indecency refer to a genre of media content or does it describe how the content is presented? Can’t any genre be made indecent if it contains enough explicit material? Aren’t there indecent comedies, thrillers, dramas, etc.? Even indecent animation:

And many people enjoy that type of content and use the label to find media that will appeal to them. There would not be so much indecent media if there were not such a large audience making it highly profitable.

Have you ever watched a movie or TV show just because a friend said they couldn’t believe what they saw, how far the show or movie went? If given the choice, would you watch the rated or unrated version of a movie? Don’t you want to see “The Version You Couldn’t See in Theaters”?

Do many of us never entirely outgrow our childhood curiosity about hidden things we know we are not supposed to see? Do we still seek out “forbidden fruit”? Do media depictions give us a way to explore, even vicariously experience risky and/or risque behavior safely and without harm?

Showgirls was the first (and ultimately only) NC-17 film, to receive widespread distribution:

Some did not think this was the right marketing strategy:

“I think they’re being fairly optimistic and I don’t think that’s the right way to go with the thing,” said one Southern California exhibitor, who predicted possible protests of the film by religious or women’s groups. “I think I would try going the route of art houses. But, they’re going to end up with a lot of controversy on this one. And that’s probably what they’re hoping for.”

In other words, the studios hoped that uptight complaints about the down and dirty film would sell tickets to those who were curious about what all of the controversy was about, hoped that negative publicity would lead to positive box office. This strategy took a while to work. The movie tanked in the theaters, but it went on to become a huge hit on DVD. Perhaps people are more comfortable watching indecent content in private instead of risking bumping into someone who might judge them?

For as popular as indecency is, there is still judgment. And even those who enjoy it are often made to feel guilty about their pleasure. We know we are not “supposed” to enjoy it. Is this a holdover of the puritanical values at our nation’s core?

Is it surprising that consumers in “red states” conduct more online searches for porn than those in blue states? Is there a lot of hypocrisy in how our culture addresses indecent material? Do many condemn other people’s consumption while denying or clearing their own browsing histories? Or go through contortions to explain why the indecency they enjoy is not really indecency at all.

Fifty Shades of Grey is not indecent, it’s erotica. It’s not porn, there’s a plot. (Of course, whether the writing is aesthetically indecent is a whole other question.) Yes, there was a plot, but would the book and the series have been nearly so popular if not for the “dirty parts”?

What about the book’s impact? Were readers’ lives affected? Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but there are numerous stories of how the book empowered women to take control of their own sex lives. I am not just talking about readers imitating scenes from the book (although, as previously noted, the book led to increased sales of rope and sex toys), but that they were inspired to think about what they really wanted from their own sex lives and how to get it. I once had a male student who thought Fifty Shades was the best book ever written. He had never read it and had no intention of doing so, but after his wife read it, she started talking openly about her sexual fantasies. This led to an open dialogue about exactly what they each desired and it totally reinvigorated their sex life together. He could not praise the book highly enough.

But we more often hear about the negatives of indecency, about porn leading to an addiction that takes over its consumers’ lives:

In one episode of Friends, Chandler and Joey discovered they had free porn. Of course, they couldn’t turn it off because it might not have come back on. The constant porn soon began to affect the way they saw the world, particularly the way they saw the women in it.

And of course, if there is even a chance that indecent media has a negative impact, something must be done about it, right? At a minimum, it must be kept away from children.

Maj Sjöwall (1935-2020)

For the past year or so I’ve been leisurely making my way through Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels. I have found them particularly comforting during the lockdown. I am currently reading The Locked Room, the eighth in the ten-book series.

Inspired by Ed McBain’s long-running 87th Precinct series, the Martin Beck police procedurals are the foundation of Nordic Noir. There would be no Kurt Wallander without Martin Beck.

As good as the mystery elements are in these crime novels, and they are quite good, the real appeal is the cast of recurring characters: Martin Beck, the cranky, but dogged homicide investigator; Lennart Kollberg, a brilliant investigator who refuses to carry a gun; Frederick Mellander, a walking database with his eidetic memory; Gunvald Larsson, who does not care that no one much likes him; . . .

The books are surprisingly funny. Martin Beck can be cranky, possibly because he seems to catch a cold in every book; Kollberg does not bother to hide his contempt for most other police or police in general; Mellander spends most of his time on the toilet; dandy Larsson manages to ruin some article of expensive clothing in almost every investigation; and the lazy and incompetent patrolmen Kvant and Kristiansson manage to screw up countless crime scenes.

But interwoven with the whodunnits and the humor is serious political commentary about then-current Swedish society. Committed Marxists, Sjöwall and Wahlöö created the series to spread their cultural critique, figuring crime novels would reach far more people than political tracts.

I learned yesterday that Maj Sjöwall had succumbed to a longtime illness. Wahlöö predeceased her in 1975.

Depiction of Indecency: “Dirty” Music

Your special someone is coming over for a romantic evening. You’ve lit the candles and spread the rose petals. What music do you put on to set the proper mood to get a little, well, improper?

Maybe a little Marvin Gaye?

Barry White? Lewis Taylor? Who? Yeah, I know you’ve never heard of him, but this is a great song:

Maxwell? Jason Derulo? Weeknd? R. Kelly? Only if she’s 12. (May he rot in prison.)

But is a song like this going to get you a little sumthin’ sumthin’?

Is the difference between these songs the difference between the bedroom and the club? The difference between making love and fucking?

Does that last pair of words highlight the difference between denotation and connotation? Denotatively, making love and fucking refer to the exact same physical act, the same body parts interacting in the same way. However, connotatively, the two words tend to evoke very different associations. Is this the difference between seduction and raw, animal lust?

Which is Muddy Waters referring to?

He may use the words “make love,” but do his growl and lack of interest in anything else she might do for him make it clear that he is actually referring to fucking? Of course, he could not use that word and get on the radio or the charts in 1954 (when the song reached #4 on the Billboard R&B chart).

Times have since changed, plus radio is no longer nearly so crucial to a song’s popularity, so artists no longer beat around the bush . . .

. . . as they try to get a, uh, head:

What about this bit of unsolicited advice?

You probably would not have batted an eye if those lyrics had been rapped over trap beats, but is it surprising to hear such graphic words in a country song? Country has a reputation of being wholesome, though I don’t know why with all of the songs about sex in the beds of pickup trucks. Is it okay because they refer to it as “making love”?

Is it a coincidence that these songs all focus on male pleasure, pleasing the stick, not the box?

And is it strange that many female rappers also give lip service to these values?

(Last fall, CupcakKe announced she was retiring because she had come to believe she was “corrupting the youth.” Of course, she never pulled her offending music like she said she would. And just last month she dropped a new song. It may be titled “Lawd Jesus,” but it sure ain’t no gospel tune.)

Are some female artists now demanding reciprocity?

Even when guesting on a male performer’s track?

Uh, thinkin’ out loud, if she “lick [him] like a lollipop,” isn’t it just fair play that Lil Wayne should “eat it in the morning”:

Still, these songs are made up of just words. They all include “dirty” words, but can a song be a “dirty” song, even without “dirty” words?

I must have heard Rihanna’s “What’s My Name?” hundreds of times, even sung along with it in my car (where no one else would be subjected to my awful voice) before I really listened to the words:

Yeah, you know word of mouth
The square root of 69 is 8 somethin’, right?
‘Cause I’ve been tryna work it out, oh
Good weed, white wine . . .

Hey boy, I really wanna see if you can go downtown with a girl like me
Hey boy, I really wanna be with you ’cause you just my type oh na na na na
I need a boy to take it over
Looking for a guy to put in work

“69”? “Eight/Ate somethin'”? “Go downtown”? I finally twigged it was about cunnilingus. This was a dirty song, even if it did not contain any dirty words.

Of course, all of this raises a question: Why are there so many songs about sex? Has that always been the case in popular music?

In 1955, Abel Green wrote an editorial for Variety complaining about the “leer-ics” in the newly popular rock ‘n’ roll music. (At least newly popular with White teens; the indecency didn’t seem to be a problem when only Black teens listened to it.) Songwriter Al Stillman, no rock ‘n’ roller he, responded:

It seems to me that, as far as I remember, practically all lyrics, except “Barney Google,” have been dirty, with the carriage trade practitioners–Porter, Hart, etc.–contributing their share. . . .  Actually, the object of all leericists, outside of Gilbert, has always been to get as close to the Main Subject as possible, without stating it and/or “cleaning it up” by marrying ’em off in the last line. . . .  The current crop of rock ‘n’ rollers are not beating around the bush, but without condoning ’em, it’s at least a less hypocritical approach.

But the guardians of culture continued to fight dirty words in music (of course, teen slang usually stayed several steps ahead of them, which is its purpose). In 1964, the Kingsmen’s recording of “Louie Louie” was investigated by the U.S. Post Office, the F.B.I. and the F.C.C. due to a rumor that the song contained the word “fuck.” I’ve got it cued up to the part of the song under contention:

Did you hear it?

No one else could either, even though the record and its (one track) master tape went through the F.B.I. lab at least three times. The F.C.C. closed its investigation by declaring the record “unintelligible at any speed we played it.”

Of course, the supposed dirty lyrics collected in the F.B.I. file are mild compared to commonplace lyrics of today. The song is alleged to have given a single fuck, which wouldn’t cause many of today’s listeners to give a fuck.

Oh, by the way, before you think this generation of artists was the first to use Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV” in music, check out this song Jelly Roll Morton (the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz) recorded at the Library of Congress in 1938:

And remember, both the “jazz” and “rock ‘n’ roll” genre labels refer to sex. (There is some debate over the origin of the word  jazz, but no one contests that rock ‘n’ roll was slang for fucking.)

But is sex the only subject that rises to the level of indecency in music?

Extremely harsh and disturbing lyrics. Do they endorse the events they detail or offer them as a cautionary tale? Even if it is meant as a warning against the indecent, inexcusable actions being detailed, is the song still indecent due to that detail?

And then there’s Tyler, the Creator. His early albums are filled with indecent language and imagery, from gay slurs to rape fantasies. Tyler is responsible for the notorious songs “Tron Cat,” with his most infamous line, “Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome” (that’s really quite sophisticated wordplay for such a noxious image – are we condoning its values if we laugh at it?), and “Yonkers”:

Is it like Tyler compiled a list of every topic society finds indecent and checked them off one by one? In doing so, does he offer a mirror to society’s values? Is Tyler like a little kid being outrageous just to get attention? And love him or hate him, don’t we give him that attention?