What the Fuck?
Curse Word Band Names Challenge the Music Industry
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.
While dubbing yourself ‘Fuck’ might land you in trouble when trying to have your record stocked at Wal-Mart, there’s usually a way around even large chains’ obscenity rules; if you’re Jane’s Addiction, it meant replacing the entire cover of Ritual De Lo Habitual with the text of the First Amendment, and if you’re Total Fucking Destruction, all it takes is one well-placed sticker.This is the point when a band’s name becomes an issue; there aren’t children lined up outside of whatever dive bar that Punk Band X is playing tonight, but there certainly are kids wandering Best Buy, watching MTV, and looking at posters for Coachella. So while bands are free to be as loose with their language as they want in the confines of their own subculture, as soon as kids enter into the picture, it’s a whole new fucking ballgame.
"Every kid I know in the world knows ‘fuck,’” says Martin Gero, whose directorial debut, Young People Fucking, debuted at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (see sidebar). "When you’re a kid, there’s a limited number of places you can swear. When you’re an adult, the number of places you can swear grows exponentially, to the point where the only place you can’t swear is around kids. It’s the weird trick act, where we’re pretending like they don’t know and we don’t know and newspapers don’t want to print it ‘cause they don’t want kids to read it. To which I say, ‘Show me the eight year old that reads the paper.’ If the kid’s reading the paper, he’s probably heard the word ‘fuck’ — and he’s probably pretty cool.”
Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. These are the original "seven words you can never say on television,” as infamously recited by George Carlin on his groundbreaking 1972 comedy record, Class Clown. They are the seven words that had Carlin locked up for disorderly conduct in Milwaukee in 1972, and the seven words that led to the 1978 Supreme Court ruling in Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, which found the routine "indecent but not obscene.” Stemming from a 1973 complaint over WBAI-FM’s broadcast of Carlin’s performance, the decision established the vague guidelines for obscenity that media outlets are forced to grapple with and interpret to this day.
Though we’re generally less draconian about it, Canadian regulators have always taken their cue from our southern neighbours. According to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Code of Ethics, "Programming which contains sexually explicit material or coarse or offensive language intended for adult audiences shall not be telecast before the late viewing period, defined as 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.” In the States, the Federal Communications Commission’s stance on obscenity in the media remains a murky one at best (and whose late viewing period starts an hour later).
"The fact that we even said ‘Effed Up’ — I know for a fact that on MTV in the States, you can’t even say ‘effed,’” says MTV Live producer Alex Sopinka. "Their restrictions are even worse. And the fines that Bush brought in are tremendous. They’re ten times the amount they used to be.” Where the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council generally requires broadcasters in violation of the Code of Ethics to issue on-air apologies, the FCC is capable of dolling out millions of dollars in fines; a 2004 broadcast of Without A Trace was slapped with $3,607,500 in fines, while WZEE-FM in Madison, Wisconsin, received $7,000 in fines for playing Eminem’s "The Real Slim Shady.” (A single that reached #4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 2000.)"Whenever we do radio sets in the states, we have to be really careful. That’s where it becomes an issue,” says 10,000 Marbles. "These are small, community radio stations, populated by normal people who swear and use colourful language, but they’re governed by the same laws as NBC and all the big networks. And if someone makes a mistake, this small, small radio station ends up with a huge fine.”
Fines are not the only legal concern of bands with potentially offensive names in the States; there’s also the possibility that they don’t even exist. "At the time we were starting out, the U.S. Copyright Office refused to acknowledge that the word ‘fuck’ exists,” says Fuck’s Prudhomme. "They have a list of dirty words they refuse to acknowledge. A short list, but a list nonetheless. Which means the record contracts we signed cannot be presented in a court of law, and if another band calls themselves ‘Fuck,’ we can’t ask them to desist. But I don’t mind. We’re not the litigious types anyway.”
While Europe is often perceived as being light-years ahead of North America in regards to its permissive stance on language (and most other things), there remain pockets of conservatism that still rival that of the colonies. Holy Fuck were booking an overseas tour around an invitation to play Glastonbury this past June, when they were invited to play a Canada Day show in Trafalgar Square. Unable to pay the band, promoters secured an Air Canada sponsorship that drastically reduced the tour’s expenses.
"We’re putting a budget together, hiring a tour manager, renting gear over there, renting a van, and then at the last minute, we were pulled,” says Borchedrt. "We found out later that they had some anti-obscenity clause with the media, where you can’t say ‘fuck’ before nine at night, and the show started at eight. They were afraid someone would slip up and say the name. The decision to have us play came down to one person — the mayor of London. This happened ten days before we were supposed to go on tour. We lost our sponsorship, so we lost our flights. We ended up cancelling half our tour because we had no money. We took a hit and paid for as much as we could so we could play Glastonbury. Because we got fucked on Canada Day.”
Holy Fuck’s experience abroad may be the exception to the rule (Rich Hoak says quite directly: "The article you’re writing — they wouldn’t understand it in Germany or the Czech Republic”), but concerns over anti-obscenity laws are not unique to North America. "In Liverpool, they put our names on posters without any censorship,” recalls Tim Soete, drummer for San Francisco’s the Fucking Champs. "The police ended up going around and taking them down or crossing out the names. It was a little surprising.” For the most part, however, such concerns are the dominion of Canada and the United States, where radio stations are forced to issue apologies for airing indecent Tragically Hip songs ("Locked in the Trunk of a Car,” aired at three in the afternoon by Montreal’s CHOM-FM) or pony up $42,000 for a few slip-ups on Mancow’s Morning Madhouse (six, actually, between 2000 and 2001).
"We have guidelines, and we adhere to them,” says Craig Halket, senior music programmer at MuchMusic. "But we do push to the edge. ‘Shit’ is completely acceptable all day. We’ve aired ‘Fuck the Shit’ by Sons of Butcher — a lot, actually. We play Dennis Leary’s ‘Asshole’ all the time. We try as hard as a mainstream music station on TV can.” Canadians really do enjoy much more freedom with their language than Americans, even though it’s still possible for a radio station to be forced to apologise for playing NOFX’s "Kill All the White Man” (as Winnipeg’s Power 97 did in 2005).
"People say ‘shit’ on TV all the time now,” says 10,000 Marbles. "That’s newly been christened as an acceptable word. You’ll be watching CBC and George Stroumboulopoulos is just relishing saying the word ‘shit.’”
"If some kid is interested in counter- or alternative culture, and they’re going through CDs in Best Buy and see Total Fucking Destruction, they’re going to buy it,” says Hoak. He’s right; in certain music scenes, a well-placed ‘fuck’ can draw the kind of attention that leads to record sales, filled-out tour schedules, and a performance on MTV Canada. Such attention-grabbing tactics are employed by artists of all kinds, from Hoak’s hyper-literate metal-with-a-message straight on through to Chris Ofili’s shit-smeared the Holy Virgin Mary. Then there’s Anal Cunt.
"When I thought of the name, I thought it would catch people’s eye,” explains Seth Putnam, Anal Cunt founder and sole original member. "I was just putting words together, and those two seemed to fit. If someone were looking through a catalogue or a record bin, they’d probably stop. I thought it sounded catchy.” While you can’t get much more eye-catching than Putnam’s project, who are as infamous for song titles ("You Were Pregnant So I Kicked You In The Stomach,” "Anyone Who Likes The Dillinger Escape Plan Is A Faggot”) as music, others have certainly tried.
"I was in a band called Bobbo, and whenever I told anyone the name, the usual response was, ‘What did you say? Could you spell that?’” says Prudhomme. "And Ted [Ellison, bassist] had been in a band called Hieronymous Firebrain, to which the response was, ‘What did you say? Could you spell that?’ But everybody knows how to spell ‘Fuck.’ On our first U.S. tours, more clubs booked us because of our name. They knew what we knew — curiosity seekers would come out to see what kind of band would call themselves ‘Fuck.’ And what a merchandising bonanza! We can grab a sharpie and write the word ‘fuck’ on a 25-cent banana and sell it for a dollar in a New York second. It’s ridiculous.” So while dropping the f-bomb in your name might not mean much in some circles, it’s still is an easy way to draw attention to what you’re doing.
"I think that the moment our name became something notable, it was so much of a novelty that it worked to our benefit rather than our detriment,” says 10,000 Marbles. "I think our name has taken us pretty far. We’ve been able to leave the punk-hardcore ghetto, and once you leave that, it’s not just another band name.” A name like Fuck or Fucked Up is likely to interest as many people as it offends, but what happens as these words lose their power? If "fuck” is indeed like "peanut butter,” as Fuck the Facts’ Das suggests, does the mainstreaming of one of North America’s last remaining taboos take the power away from names chosen specifically for their linguistic power?
The strength of words like "fuck” and "shit” comes from a culture that has imbued them with some mystical, offensive overtones; consider that ‘cunt,’ arguably the last genuinely taboo word in North American society, is considered a friendly, if slightly vulgar term, in Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland. If "fuck” goes the way of "hell,” becoming an acceptable word in most segments of society, will we be left with a slew of bands operating under names like Holy Cunt?
"A dirty word has never actually killed anyone,” says Prudhomme. "If we want to eliminate four letter words that bequeath death, we should start with ‘fire.’” Indeed, there are greater dangers in the world than those posed by a few musicians trying to challenge the status quo. All things considered, what is so offensive about bands like Fucked Up, Fuck the Facts, Holy Fuck, Total Fucking Destruction, the Fucking Wrath, the Fucking Champs, and Fuck? Surely in times of poverty, strife and war, there are greater social threats and concerns than an underground band dropping an f-bomb.
MTV’s Alex Sopinka recalls the difficulties once faced by the Butthole Surfers and how "time caught up with their name.” It may be a few years (and a few Stateside administrative changes), but there is a chance that North American society could, shockingly, find itself relaxing about the remaining four of those seven dirty words. Or maybe, as Carlin himself notes, there will always be "some people that are not into all the words.”
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