In a recent column responding to a profanity-laced post–Super Bowl speech by the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jason Kelce, the Catholic pundit Matthew Archbold wondered whether “the f-word is even a thing anymore.”
Had he thrown in the S-word, Archbold could’ve also been pondering the latest albums (listed in ascending order of quality and socially redeeming value) by Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, MGMT, the Divine Comedy, and Belle and Sebastian.
For some time now, musicians have used profanity the way that they use tattoos—to declare themselves hip. Instead, they declare themselves ignorant about the way language functions irrespective of one’s intent. “Generally,” the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti told an interviewer in 2015, “dirty words divert the attention from what you’re trying to get across.”
Ferlinghetti, the éminence grise of the Beats, was explaining why only one of his many poems contains profanity. But he was also reiterating an increasingly neglected truth: that the correspondence of words with reality gives them objective qualities, and that one objective quality of “dirty words” is their tendency to suck the air out of a room.
That tendency looms especially large in a “room” as claustrophobic as the one currently inhabited by Taylor Swift. The unrelenting electronics (AutoTune included) of her new album Reputation (Big Machine) close in upon her modest melodies like the trash-compactor walls in Star Wars until there’s little left but a treacly trickle. When she drops the S-bomb in “I Did Something Bad,” there’s simply nowhere to run.
Swift’s obliviousness to the finer points of linguistic expression dovetails with other naïve and/or arrogant statements she has made about writing lyrics. “I wouldn’t be a singer if I weren’t a songwriter,” she told Billboard in 2014. “I have no interest in singing someone else’s words.” Feminists used to talk about only wanting a room of their own. Swift only wants a room of her own making. To anyone so imprisoned, occasional profanities are understandably no big deal.
By comparison, Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods (RCA) feels expansive. The former teen idol sings to, about, and with his wife (the actress Jessica Biel) and toddler son. He varies his electro-pop palette with soft, acoustic numbers and homages to both brown- and blue-eyed soul. He even mentions church as a place to kneel and search one’s soul.
In short, Timberlake comes off so good-natured that the profanities besmirching “Midnight Summer Jam,” “Supplies,” and “Montana” feel like shibboleths cynically inserted to provide him with commercial cover in a time of diminishing sales.