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?