C Is for Civilization - JazzWax

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March 21, 2011


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Michael J. West

Wow. I disagree so completely that I'm not sure where to begin. But here's a good place, since it's the statement I find most astonishing:

"rudeness and music began with the Beatles' first press conference at Kennedy Airport in February 1964, when nearly all questions were answered with flip, snotty remarks."

I'm stunned. I can't fathom how the Beatles' JFK press conference could be seen as either snotty or rude. Their answers were intended to be, and generally (including by the reporters present) seen as cute, cheeky, and good-humored. And this is in the face of some hostile questions. How could anyone take umbrage at Paul McCartney replying to a question about Detroit's "Stamp Out The Beatles" campaign with an announcement of The Beatles' "Stamp Out Detroit" campaign? If, as you say, you are not uptight, this is poor evidence to support your claim.

"Artists, by definition, don't have limits. Many also don't have taste or restraint, nor do they care about such things. Which is why there were record producers some years ago. They were there to set standards and draw the line."

Your statement here implies, falsely, that producers were around to act as some sort of etiquette police. They weren't there to enforce social graces; there is no shortage of outtake tapes on which the producers of the era - including Ahmet Ertegun - can be heard using the same language we're talking about. Their job was to make sure that the records were commercial and could be played under the tight censorship restrictions of radio. And these were records that had no shortage of bawdy euphemisms and double entendres. Do you think that Joe Turner and Bill Haley's producers were unaware of the subtext of "Shake, Rattle and Roll's" line "I'm like a one-eyed cat, peeping in a seafood store"?

And lest we forget, these performers often used the F-bomb and other similar expressions in these same songs when performing them live. And it wasn't just rock musicians. "One O'Clock Jump" was known as "Blue Balls" until Count Basie had to announce a title on the radio, and I've got a CD that includes ever-eager-to-please Dizzy Gillespie dropping the F-bomb on stage.

In rock, though, you're talking about a musical form whose entire raison d'etre is to be confrontational and to cross the boundaries of social standards. (Like the double entendre of "Shake Rattle and Roll" that I mentioned above.) The very name "Rock and roll" is a euphemism for sex, after all, and its use was designed to make the bluenosed culture of the American 1950s uncomfortable. (Thus, to answer your question of where rudeness began in rock, it began at the same time that rock began.) In 2011 the boundary to be crossed consists of putting a vulgar word (the *most* vulgar, many would say) right in the title of the song, laid bare for the consumer before they've even opened the package. If you're offended, perhaps that's the point.

"I often hear young adults using four-letter words casually and loudly, as though applying them publicly is perfectly acceptable. Not to me. No one likes to wear, smell or eat garbage. I have the same reaction to hearing foul language used for emphasis in everyday conversaion."

Fair enough. But then you say,

"Four-letter words in conversation and song offend me...because they are senseless and bereft of creative thinking. They also are lazy and have little meaning or flavor."

A mighty contradiction. Are these words "garbage" and "foul"? Or are they meaningless and flavorless? I'm guessing the former, as meaningless and flavorless words would also by nature be offenseless. Your entire problem with the words seems to be their meaning and flavor, which suggests their use is far from senseless or bereft of creative thinking.

"words to me are important. There are so many of them, giving us plenty of choices when expressing ourselves."

Ah, but if that "foul"/"garbage" meaning and flavor is exactly what the artists are trying to evoke, there is obviously not a synonym of equally evocative power, and thus, again, using them is neither senseless nor bereft of creative thinking.

I'm reminded of James Joyce's publisher attempting to remove the word "bloody" from a story in Dubliners; though it was considered profane at the time, Joyce refused to allow its removal or replacement because "it is the one word in the English language that perfectly encapsulates the meaning I am trying to convey." (Ulysses, by the way, was censored completely out of U.S. publication for over a decade because it contained the F-bomb. American society was not the better for its lack.)

More to the point, there's this:

"Does our culture really need to drop this low to be creative and engaging?"

To be creative and engaging, in the broad sense? No. To be honest and realistic? Yes. The "low," to use your word, elements have always and will always be a present and active part of our culture. They've even been among the most creatively potent and inspiring elements of our culture: think of Jelly Roll Morton playing piano in the brothels of Storyville, watching the prostitutes through a peephole and attempting to score their movements on his keys.

We do not gain perspective, or understanding, or even inspiration from these "low" elements of our culture by insisting that they be excised from our examination, or dressed up for public consumption. The more genteel era you're waxing nostalgic about was an era when this was precisely the goal: If we don't see it and don't talk about it, it isn't there.

Society has evolved to the point where it understands, respects, and appreciates this, including with its cash, which is why today's music executives allow this language into the product. If that language were saleable in your halcyon days, the "grownups" would have let it fly, gleefully and without a second thought.

Steve Bovell

Thanks, Marc. I think your comments are dead on. I'm not a prude either, but enought is enough. I was a teenager in the late '50's, and my father hated rock and roll. He predicted that it would bring a coarseness to popular culture not seen before. Sounded kinda strange coming from a construction worker, and I thought he was just being a prude. He died before he could see the rightness of his prediction, but he was, like you, dead on.

Cha Cha

While I do agree that much creative expression in modern lyrics has been replaced by childish profanity, one cannot dismiss the fact that the down and dirty blues of the 1920s were also profane. The one difference was that things were suggested rather than declared outright through F bombs. Also, no one can deny that throughout early 20th Century popular music, songs like "Love for Sale" were about subjects that could certainly make a prude blush!

Bruce Armstrong

Nice essay, Marc. I'm with you 100%. Just when I think our cultural level can't get any lower, it gets even worse.

Ed Leimbacher

Gee, Officer Myers, admire you... and we do. But seriously, folks, blaming the Beatles for society's slide into couthlessness? Kinda like breakin' butterflies on that torture wheel. Jim Morrison? Good ol' Keith? Iggy? Ted Nugent? Seems there's plenty of blame to spread around. (Gee whiz, I always thought that WSS wiseguy song ended, cleverly, "Krup you!" You mean that's not what Sondheim intended? Some Broadway SNAFU no doubt.)

Richard Salvucci

You read Catcher in the Rye about when I did, no? Sometime around 1966? And it was old news then. What's new today is that everyone talks like a Philly or New York street kid did when I was growing up--or that there are 15 brands of condoms in my local grocery store rather than one (so I am told....) in my local pharmacy hidden under the counter. Or in the men's room. Americans were always uncouth. You just weren't forced to associate with them. ;-)

Bob Miller

Marc, of course you are perfectly correct in your assessment and I totally agree. Having said that, with the proliferation of foul language in motion pictures, live theatre, stand-up comedy and as you suggest, on the street in general, why should popular music be exempt from vulgarity, bad taste and just plain ignorance? It is a sad testimony to the society and culture in which we live.

Bill Kirchner

In his new book "Finishing the Hat," Sondheim reveals that he originally intended to use the F-word as the climax of "Gee, Officer Krupke"; however, the producers of "West Side Story" as well as Columbia Records vetoed that idea. Sondheim also reveals that his collaborator Leonard Bernstein suggested the famous "Krup you" line, which Sondheim now feels is better.

paul dionne

Yes well - I admire your blog Marc - you shine a light on great music and great artists. But, putting your attention on this subject is ill-advised. First, most of the reason why three songs with F%^& are in the Top 10 is because people buy them. Nothing more, nothing less; and thinking that this trend started with The Beatles - c'mon: artists tweek the status quo; that's what they do. Some of it is pedestrian and childish, and sometimes it is profound like William Burroughs and Naked Lunch.

Alex W. Rodriguez

Spoken like a true jazz lover! I would be willing to bet that more than a few of your musical idols -- Miles Davis and Lester Young come to mind -- might have a few "choice" words for this kind of uptight snobbery from a so-called jazz writer. You're probably right, though: they wouldn't bother to air them publicly. But who knows, what with modern technology and all? Have you seen Nicholas Payton's twitter feed? A highly entertaining read, if you're not a prude or anything.


Marc, you know I love everything you do, but please. You're starting to sound like my 7th grade music teachers when they were explaining that the Beatles weren't really good music. Or the people who thought Ellington was jungle music.

I'm not meaning to offend, but neither is this music. It's the lot in life of young people to push the boundaries. It what they do, it's what they've always done. And if they ruffle some old folks feathers (sorry) it's all in the course of the day.

Lighten up Marc. They're only pop songs.


John P. Cooper

It doesn't take much to get the Rock and Beatles apologists to come crawling out of the woodwork.

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of a Song" (Grove) and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax is a two-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Association's best blog award.

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