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Missing their points

Swift and Timberlake (Photo illustration: Krieg Barrie; Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images (Swift); Lionel Hahn/Abaca/Sipa via AP (Timberlake))

Missing their points

Artists don’t seem to realize how much profanity weakens their albums

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.

MGMT’s electro-pop Little Dark Age (Columbia), the Divine Comedy’s live chamber-pop Loose Canon (Divine Comedy), and Belle and Sebastian’s studio chamber-pop How to Solve Our Human Problems (Matador) come off good-natured too. So it’s a shame that they don’t adhere to Ferlinghetti’s wisdom either. Much of what they’re trying to get across really does deserve undivided attention.

In “TSLAMP,” for instance, MGMT lampoons cell-phone zombies. In “Generation Sex,” the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon refurbishes a Lewinsky-era satire for the #MeToo era. In “Show Me the Sun,” Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch drinks deeply from the story of Lazarus and the rich man found in Luke 16. To be fair, Loose Canon and How to Solve Our Human Problems include only one F-word apiece and are therefore cleaner than the majority of films made during the last 40 years.

But not that long ago most good pop albums included no profanity at all. And none of the few that did were ever better as a result.


  • Andy Knudsen
    Posted: Sat, 03/31/2018 02:39 pm

    Thanks for the article; I think it helped me to understand better the distracting nature of profanity.