Profanity and pop music go hand in hand these days. The pop star Rihanna recently appeared on the British version of Simon Cowell's singing competition "The X Factor" dressed in a demure plaid jumper with a prim white collar. It seemed like a bow to younger viewers (and their parents). But a glance at her black sneakers and the mood was shattered: She'd inscribed the words "F--- off."
On her blog, The Record, NPR music critic Ann Powers declared this little stunt exemplified an undeniable reality: "21st century pop music is very dirty." In fact, "2011 saw so much boundary-breaking in pop that the lines seem forever pulled down."
Powers made quite a list. There were several underground rap hits that graphically celebrated oral sex. There were top 100 pop songs about sex addiction, the "cowgirl" sexual position, even sex with extraterrestrials. (In the last example, Katy Perry in "E.T." insisted her alien lover "Infect me with your love and fill me with your poison. ...Wanna be a victim, ready for abduction.") Putting a woman on a pedestal is archaic. Degradation is a requirement.
The country singer Luke Bryan boasted he was listening to hip-hop music when he came up with his 2011 anthem to exotic female dancing, "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)." Bryan recently performed the song on the TV broadcast of the Country Music Awards, complete with a bevy of booty-shaking, leather-clad dancers. The song is overtly sexual, although it didn't need anyone at ABC to hit a bleep button.
The Powers list ended with Lady Gaga, and I'm counting the days 'til the bloom wears off and she fades ... away. In the meantime, she's everywhere. She appeared at the New York "Jingle Ball" on Dec. 9 hosted by the pop radio station Z-100. She performed "White Christmas" scantily clad, sitting on the seat of a motorcycle. She explained to the audience that she wrote an additional verse. "I think it's too short. Just when I get into it, it stops. It's like a really bad orgasm." That's when some parents took their children and headed for the exit.
Gaga closed out the song by laying down on the motorcycle seat, doing several upward pelvic thrusts and then spreading her legs while exclaiming, "Santa, I'll do anything for you!"
This matched Gaga's other Christmas stunt, releasing a simple, stupid new song on Dec. 25 blatantly titled "Stuck on F---in' You." It dropped the F-bomb five times. The Huffington Post loved it: "Think of her as a raw, hyper-sexualized Santa Claus, slinking down the chimney to mingle with the flames of your yule log."
The aerobic desperation in this woman's urge to offend must be exhausting. What's worse is how some entertainment writers wallow in this musical sludge, as if Beethoven was reincarnated.
NPRs Powers, without really condemning this morality-shredding trend, underlined its intensity: "Pop has hardly just developed this pretty potty mouth. But never have so many artists spilled profanity so blissfully or embraced salaciousness with such ease. There's a sort of carefree, cheerful quality about such naughtiness now."
The good cheer in the profanity isn't always obvious, but it's definitely carefree. Music stars and their promoters don't really fear the Federal Communications Commission, since young people have migrated away from FCC-regulated broadcast TV and radio to get their songs downloaded directly from iTunes. They watch the videos on their laptops, iPads and smart phones. Powers turned to professor Kembrew McLeod to proclaim, "The graphic language boundary pushing has much to do with the fact that kids now listen to music largely through unfiltered sources like YouTube, which the FCC doesn't touch."
Powers concluded this whole shock epidemic is a sign "of the fantasies we share but don't always know now to handle, of the arguments that were begun and never finished, and of the conversations we still desperately need to have." That sounds profound for a second. But it suggests that the profanity and the sexploitation it often describes might just be socially uplifting.
Can anyone imagine a parent being grateful for having to explain to a grade-school child what Katy Perry meant by "melt your Popsicle"? Sleazy pop songs might be a conversation starter, but as a warning about how not to speak or behave. There's no happy talk that can avoid this fact: The music industry slides lower each year into the gutter, interested only in making a quick buck through our lowest common denominators.