What the Fuck?
Curse Word Band Names Challenge the Music Industry
"We got an e-mail this morning from Coachella saying they won’t book our band because of our name,” says an exasperated Brian Borcherdt, whose band, Holy Fuck, is featured on this month’s cover. Funny thing is, Holy Fuck has played Coachella before, as well as Osheaga, Glastonbury, SXSW, and recently, Toronto’s civic-minded, corporate-sponsored all-night art exhibition, Nuit Blanche. But their return engagement to Coachella has been cancelled.
In 1991, Toronto mayor June Rowlands infamously barred then-indie rising stars the Barenaked Ladies from performing at Nathan Philips Square, just outside Toronto City Hall, ironically the site of the band’s first gig three years prior. Things may have changed in the 16 years since, with Barenaked Ladies becoming as crucial to our cultural identity as socialised medicine and ketchup chips, but the latest batch of mayoral-y offensive band names is creeping out of the gutter and on to big-name festivals, nationally syndicated television and magazine covers.
On January 16 this year, Toronto’s Fucked Up performed live on MTV Canada. While the band was introduced as "Effed Up,” their mere presence on a major broadcaster would appear to indicate a shifting acceptance of what is traditionally regarded as indecent language. The same band has graced the cover of Toronto-based alternative weekly Eye, as have Holy Fuck. Ottawa’s Fuck the Facts have started making a name for themselves outside of the insular grindcore community through extensive national touring, and you can buy a Total Fucking Destruction CD in Wal-Mart - a pretty significant change from 1993, when the chain forced Nirvana to alter the title of In Utero song "Rape Me” to "Waif Me.”
As bands like Fucked Up continue to gain exposure in mainstream media (a recent New York Times profile referred to the band as "Messed Up”), what is the ultimate effect on both the artist and the use of language in the media? While these bands can be seen as breaking down totally arbitrary taboos, it can be argued that pervasive use removes the taboo attraction that draws bands to these words in the first place. As they grow in popularity, how does a media climate that doesn’t event allow the utterance of their name adapt?
"I say ‘fuck’ at least 60 times a day,” says Fuck the Facts guitarist Topon Das. "Who thinks about that stuff? Normal Joe Schmoes like me and you go around saying ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ like it’s peanut butter.” Das is (mostly) right; according to a 2006 Associated Press/Ipsos poll, 46 percent of Americans admit to using profanity in general conversation a few times a week or more. At the same time, 67 percent say that hearing swear words bothers them "a lot.”"Who cares?” asks John Cerar, drummer for the Fucking Wrath. "We’re a metal band. If someone has a problem with it, fuck it.” Cerar’s coarse contention that anyone offended by his band’s name probably wouldn’t be a fan in the first place probably holds true; with the exception of Matador Records’ Fuck, whose music generally consists of sweet-sounding indie-pop, and the electronic-rock of Holy Fuck, most bands that opt to drop the f-bomb in their name play the kind of aggressive music that, until recently, had no place in mainstream music culture.
"I come from a pretty underground scene,” says Rich Hoak, drummer for Brutal Truth and the braintrust behind Total Fucking Destruction. "There are tons of stupid, violent, sexist, gore-metal idiots that have shitty names all the time. Having a band called Total Fucking Destruction didn’t seem that original to me.” Hoak’s sentiments are echoed by 10,000 Marbles, guitarist for Fucked Up, perhaps the best example of a band birthed in the hardcore scene and currently migrating toward a pop culture landscape that is less liberal with its language.
"Where we were coming from, it was totally normal. Think about how many times you use ‘fucked up’ in day-to-day speech,” 10,000 Marbles says. "When you’re a hardcore punk band, there are different rules. We didn’t really expect to appeal to people outside of that world. We were a gritty punk band back then.” Even for bands not playing within the realm of punk and hardcore, choosing a name with potential commercial limitations isn’t a huge initial concern.
"It’s not like we were starting our first band at 16 when you have delusions of grandeur and you think you’re going to skyrocket to the top,” says Holy Fuck’s Borcherdt. "For now, music is fun, music is expression, and music is a way to be ourselves.”Timothy Prudhomme, founding member of Fuck, agrees. "We figured that anyone who had a problem with the name would not be the kind of music fan, club, or label we were hoping to catch,” he says. "Methinks our songs are a bit too esoteric for most majors, as is our unusual sex appeal. We were never worried about any express route to fame and fortune.” Yet not even the land of independent labels is free from such concerns - Fuck were told by a marketing director at Matador that they needed to change their name. They didn’t.
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