I’m tired of it. I’m tired of every currently running TV show someone tells me to watch being littered with content that might make even the proverbial sailor blush. With so many forms of entertainment now freed from the reach of the FCC’s decency rules, it is now countercultural if dialogue or song lacks a peppering of the coarsest words. Is this really the best we can do?
It seems to me it has gotten worse since HBO started dominating the pop culture zeitgeist years back. In the shadow of titans such as Game of Thrones, every generator of pop culture has been racing to see who can most boldly explode any norms of decency. Today, it almost shocks me if a service like Netflix produces a new show and it doesn’t sport a TV-MA rating. And, sadly, as goes with Netflix, so goes for Apple TV+, and otherwise promising shows I’d be tempted to try, such as Ted Lasso.
So much for families watching things beyond children’s programming together.
Some might read this observation and think me “puritanical.” I know many who would never personally use the sort of language these shows glory in and yet have shouted out their appreciation of shows that race to the bottom of the barrel. Even my fellow pastors, who, after all, don’t want to be seen as stuffy.
Even if your own moral standards are not violated by our current pop culture norms, I return to my question: is this really the best we can do?
If you think f-bombs and frequent invocations of divinity outside of pious purposes are unobjectionable, can you actually go a step further and explain how they improve things?
When my beloved Star Trek made headlines for its “brave” arrival in the f-bomb world courtesy of Ensign Tilly in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery (possible since it was the first free of those pesky decency rules), did it really make the plot more engaging or was it just a ploy to say, “See, HBO has nothing on us”?
Do I remember that moment in the episode better than if Tilly had stuck to Trek’s traditional swear pallet peculiarly fixated on hot places? Yes. Do I — does anyone — remember the actual plot around that moment better because of the language? Doubtful. The word left a mark, but not one that drew attention to the plot.
TV shows and movies aren’t the only offenders; even the tamer realms of the pop music world have the same trajectory.
Taylor Swift’s twin 2020 albums are rightly acclaimed as pandemic art, beautiful works forged out of an incredibly difficult year. My esteemed fellow OFB contributor, Jason Kettinger, and I have both joined the chorus that sees the particularly triumphant Folklore as an album headed to the pantheon of timeless albums. The exquisite craft of these works only makes it more painful that Folklore and Evermore are the first two albums Swift has created that require “clean” versions.
One could convincingly argue that the scorned characters in the latter half of Folklore realistically drop the language they do. Even people who control their tongues often loose the verbal litany when facing the sorts of betrayals Swift’s vivid characters experience.
As a wannabe fiction writer, I have often wrestled with whether characters in the crucibles of life might be best given less than pure words. If storytelling, in songs, in books or on screen are to, as Hamlet says, “hold a mirror up to nature,” and if such a process does help with our own reflection and growth, sanitizing every character so that they speak as the morally superior, even in their worst moments, may be unhelpful.
I get that.
I once did a film discussion showing the Blues Brothers and the filter I tried to use went awry, leaving it to play in all of its linguistic fullness that never makes it to the FCC-friendly TV airings most of us remember. Afterward, we did have a fantastic discussion about Jake and Elwood’s growth as people as their word choices change throughout the film.
I struggle to outright approve of foul language, but in such narrative moments, it does at least demonstrate character growth. Naturally, two on-the-fringe-of-the-law, hard drinking, hard smoking men trying to figure out what it means to be on “a mission from God,” wouldn’t be as wholesome in speech as the nun they lovingly refer to as “the Penguin.” Of course.
But, back to Swift: I think anyone who listens to the edited version of Folklore would struggle to explain how “betty” is worse off for James “only” fearing that his love interest will tell him to go “straight to Hell.” Lyrically, the cleaned up chorus — less coarse, but literally harsher — actually feels like less of an interruption to the song’s narrative.
Much as CeeLo Green’s 2010 cleaned up hit “Forget You” is, if anything, more emphatic than its explicit source song because it leaves us right on the cusp of what he “really wants to say” without it being said, so it is with the clean versions of “betty” and “mad woman” on Folklore.
It is the lesson learned millennia ago in ancient Greek tragedy: Agamemnon’s death in Aeschylus’s Oresteia is more powerful for hearing only his agony off stage. It invites the imagination to run wild and for the horror to be mulled rather than witnessed and forgotten.
This is even more true when the coarse material is entirely gratuitous as it largely is on Evermore and, I would argue, most “premium” TV. Back in college, I remember a time when I was standing in line to register for classes and the girl ahead of me used f-bombs in place of the normal “um’s” and “uh’s” of conversational verbal filler. They added nothing; they were just a crutch to fill in while she thought out what she wanted to say next.
What a shame that so many excellent wordsmiths take the easy way out and go crass. Whether Swift — a poetic singer whose strength has always been rooted in the unforgettable turn of phrase — or the great dramatists and playwrights and other culture makers of our moment, the rest of their words — often even in the same work — show they are capable of a more creative linguistic toolbelt.
Even if those words weren’t morally dubious selections, they are dulled blades chosen time and again as Excaliburs await.
One column won’t solve whether any dramatic use of vulgar language is morally defensible. Perhaps sometimes there are those Blues Brothers moments where a loss of character depth would come from linguistic boundaries. Nine times out of ten, though, it will actually sharpen the dialogue or lyric to pick out a more descriptive option.
That, at least, ought to suggest a good course of action for our own verbal selections.