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Soundtracking with Robert Szkolnicki: Reader discretion advised — Neko Case, John Grant and Nina Simone on profanity in music

September 12, 2013

Using profanity in music lyrics is one way to get noticed. When CDs were the primary music media, the message was flagged with a sticker that read “Parental Advisory Warning ­ Explicit Lyrics”.

Ask a songwriter what a specific lyric means and you will likely get the response, “Whatever it means to you”. Drop and F­bomb into a chorus and the listener says this song needs an explanation.

Why would an “obscene” word be used in lyrics? Especially when radio will not play the song. Is it because no other word works?

Three musicians offer some insight into profanity and music: Neko Case, John Grant, and Nina Simone.

Neko Case discussed her new album with NPR and a song meaning question was asked about “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”. My guess is that song will be the one that people will want to know about. Her answer was simple. It is a story of a scene she witnessed. Quite a simple answer until she later suggests that the story will not end there. The damage will linger. Powerful stuff. If you are going to tell that story then there is no other way to present it. You can read a little bit more on Sound & Vision.

John Grant of the late band The Czars has a voice of a warm embrace. A single from his latest album “Pale Green Ghosts” called “GMF”, as in “Greatest Mother F…..”, has a radio-friendly B­side, “GMF (Greatest Living Creature)”.

Why the cussing? Simple answer really. As he says in a recent live set on KEXP, Grant says that people use profanity in ordinary conversation. It is ordinary speech.

With radio and CDs becoming less of a factor in getting your music heard, the business rules for avoiding profanity are not as relevant today.

The word “goddamn” might not be an obscenity in 2013, however, imagine hearing it in 1964, during a time of social unrest in the United States. Now imagine hearing it in a live performance by Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall.

Jim and Greg on Sound Opinions 404 look at the music around the time of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech and the struggle for civil rights in the United States. The stories from that time find their way into song and Nina Simone lets her feelings known loud and clear with her performance of “Mississippi Goddamn”.

Would there have been another word that could have been used? Not this time.

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