Swearing, by common agreement, is a nasty habit that should be given up by the age of 30. Most right-thinking people do just that, and stamp it out of their households as well. But for all that, it's too easy for people to forget that their children may sneak out and swear behind their backs.
Well, aren't they in for a shock.
Obscenity is the order of the season, thanks to the magic of the Internet, and a song that's become immensely, instantly popular. It will almost certainly be the big back-to-school song of 2010. And it is, I have to tell you, one great big swear of a song.
Its name is Fuck You, and it comes from an artist who goes by the handle Cee Lo Green. I'm told we can say its name in the newspaper, as long as we say it sparingly. The authors of this song felt no such compunction. That phrase is not only the song's name, but its chorus and a statistically significant percentage of its lyrics.
It sounds like the kind of thing you could ignore with a groan, writing it off to kids these days, music these days, or the music kids listen to these days. Conservative outfits in the United States, such as the Parents Television Council (which never met an impropriety it couldn't milk) are complaining. "Just the latest example of an entertainment industry bent on racing to the bottom of the barrel," they say.
Yes, yes. But there's something going on here. Beneath its disguise as a novelty item, this is a clever and compelling song that deserves its instant fame. Never before could it have reached the audience it's found today, and, for that, we shouldn't blame the Internet - but we should thank it.
Even by Internet standards, the song's instant popularity is eye-opening. As I write, the original video to the song has been viewed 4.5 million times on YouTube. That alone is good showing, but when you consider that the track has only been online since Aug. 19, it becomes a bit breathtaking.
What's intriguing is that, despite its name, the song's obscenity is skin deep. Sung to a gold-digging ex and her new beau, it's actually a Motown-styled lovers' lament, even if it's laced with some direct phrasing.
"I see you driving 'round town with the girl I love," it starts, "and I'm like" - and here, he urges the new boyfriend to eff himself.
"I guess the change in my pocket wasn't enough …" he continues, and once again notes that the new boyfriend should eff himself, and adding that his ex should eff herself, too.
"Ooo ooo ooo!" the backup singers croon.
Is this song popular because its chorus is "Fuck you"? Of course. Ours is the culture so prissy, it coined an infantile phrase like "f-bomb" in the age of terrorism, as if f-bombers may strike at any moment, covering us all in eff. Still, the mere presence of a vulgar phrase doesn't count for much. It isn't the size of your taboo that counts; it's what you do with it.
And this song does neat things. This ear worm isn't macho, but unsettlingly vulnerable. The singer's persona wheedles and whines his way through, a loser lashing out at the people who beat him at love. By the end of the song, the singer has collapsed into a blubbering heap, wailing "Why? Uh! Why?" It's an embarrassing - but highly relatable - inner monologue, set to music.
As it happens, Cee Lo Green was one-half of Gnarls Barkley, the duo behind the highly viral 2006 single Crazy. That delicate, almost elegiac tune was so catchy, it caught fire on commercial radio and the Internet alike. It became a phenomenon, and ended up being named Rolling Stone's Song of the Decade.
That was an instance of commercial culture and online culture moving in step. But with Cee Lo Green's latest, we have a song that could never have become popular through the commercial mainstream.
You can bleep out a taboo phrase or two (or 10) for radio play, but not when that taboo phrase constitutes the chorus in its entirety. J.C. Penney does not want to hear this play before their ads for back-to-school knitwear. Rogers Cable is not going to pick this up as the theme music to their next ad campaign (though maybe they should).
So it fell to the Internet.
The song is going viral in proportion to its universality, to its catchiness, to its willingness to co-opt a vulgar phrase and put it in its most familiar context - not the swearing cop or the angry thug, but the stung, petty voice in our heads. That's art.
To me, this isn't a case of the online free-for-all abetting vile behaviour or foul culture. Quite the opposite: This is the story of how the online free-for-all let a worthwhile piece of music find an audience by playing with a taboo instead of running from it.
Our taboos, arbitrary as they are, serve a purpose. I'm not a taboo liberationist, but I am glad to live in a world where a great song can exploit our quirks like this. Radio-play culture that protects delicate ears? Eff that.