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When Is Swearing Not Swearing After All?

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Fraser McAlpine | 10:31 UK time, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Britney Spears - Gagged

Media Studies students, prepare to copy and paste your heart out...

One of the trickiest aspects of broadcasting - whether on TV, radio or in a webular fashion - is when people who are not your target audience get to experience the thing that you do, and pass judgement on it.

For example, if I write something for ChartBlog, it's on the understanding that the people who like ChartBlog will broadly get what I'm on about, and trust that I won't lead them into areas that will make them feel uncomfortable, or scared. That's the basic idea on which all communications work, and goes tenfold for the broadcast media.

The trouble is, it's hard enough to work out what those areas may be for an audience of like-minded people who broadly approve of what you do. It's practically impossible if you have to factor in their younger siblings, parents, and people who are not only hostile to your work, but also the people you work for, for reasons which are nothing to do with what it is that you're actually doing.

It's OK though, I've got broad shoulders, I can take it. In fact I only mention this because it adds a certain amount of perspective to the (not particularly huge) row which is brewing in the States over the next song Britney Spears is going to release from her current album 'Circus'.

Before I tell you anything else, the thing you have to realise is that I can tell you what the song is called, I can tell you broadly how it goes, but I can't link to the video and I can't put a sound file up or anything like that. And the reason for this is that the song title, if read out loud (and interpreted), is total filth of the highest order. So whatever you do, do NOT read it out loud, or I will get into a LOT of trouble.

So, the song is called 'If U Seek Amy', and it is one of those songs which doesn't so much teeter on the border between brilliant and irritating as whoosh back and forth across it on jet-powered rollerskates.

This is a perfect sort of song for radio stations to want to play, as it is instantly memorable and not remotely rubbish, and Britney clearly still has a lot of fans, and may even win a few more people over, due to the goodness of the tune.

The trouble is, radio stations are also listened to by people who find the idea of profanity - yes, even 'cleverly' hidden profanity - to be extremely upsetting. These people are not wrong, the Britney fans are not right, nor are the people who think swearing is no big deal. It's all a matter of taste and responsibility.

So you have to feel a certain sympathy for the radio stations who have to decide whether to play the song or not. They didn't write it or perform it. In playing it, they are only doing what the Britney-loving part of their audience wants them to do, and it's possible that no-one will be remotely bothered by such a juvenile lyrical trick. But they are definitely the people who will get it in the neck if there is any public outcry once the wrong song is played at the wrong time to the wrong people.

Under normal circumstances, all you'd need to do is edit out the bit of the song which contains the swearing (see: all 50 Cent records), and you're good to go. Unfortunately, the most problematic part of 'If You Seek Amy' is the chorus hook, the bit which is the reason why people would like to hear the song in the first place. So, you either play the song and offend people, or refuse to play the song and let your audience down. Epic Fail!

Don't just take my word for it, here's Patti Marshall, programme director at Cincinnati radio station Q102. She told MTV: "It's OK to put in on an album, have fun with it, but we're publicly owned, you know? We have a responsibility to the public ... you put this ... out and act like we're all fuddy-duddies, like we're trying to make moral judgments. It's not about us. It's about the mom in the minivan with her 8-year-old."

John Ivey, of Los Angeles station KIIS FM thinks the song is going to cause headaches for anyone thinking of playing it. He said: "It's a potential issue for every station. I'm certain that I would run it by my legal department first. My first job is to protect [the station's] license. ... It's better to be safe than sorry."

He also added that as far as he's concerned, Jive Records might just be "floating it out there to see if they can stir things up a bit."

Which raises two contradictory thoughts.

1: Why should radio stations feel obliged to play a record which is deliberately structured so as to make them look silly? Especially when it's done in such a daft way. Who would it really hurt if they just didn't bother? There are loads of other songs they can get on with playing instead, I am almost sure. And if it denies Britney a chart placing (US charts are all about the airplay, you see), is that really such a big deal?

2: There is nothing guaranteed to sell a song like broadcasters running news stories about broadcasters saying a song is not suitable for the public to listen to. In the end, the media-scrum is the loudest thing in the room, and it all goes towards increasing sales. This is why record companies like putting sweary songs out in the first place. The history of banned songs is littered with examples of massive, massive hit singles.

Apparently there is a radio edit which cuts out some of the chorus, so that it now goes "all of the boys and all of the girls are begging to (       ) seek Amy", which is a clever way to get around the situation and regain that much-needed grammatical correctness (not to mention airplay). But it does come to something when the censored version of a song is the one which makes more sense, and the uncensored version is the more coy about sexual matters.

In the end, the only appropriate course of action is to pretend it is actually a song about Amy Winehouse, and bunker down until all the shouting has stopped. This is one row that no-one can win, and taking part just makes everyone involved - from Britney on down - look like an idiot.

And while this is exactly the kind of situation the internet - and blogging in particular - was invented for, it's so far removed from the simple joys of people who like music listening to the music they like as to render the entire recording process redundant.

NOTE: The opinions and thoughts expressed within this blog post are not necessarily those of the BBC. They are all mine.


  • Comment number 1.

    It's very childish, very childish indeed.

    Ebeneezer Goode

  • Comment number 2.

    I felt so innocent (or possibly slow) after this - I had to look up what the innuendo was.
    It's an interesting point about censorship though - at what point does the double entendre become a matter of people looking for scandals to repress? The Victorians wound up with covered table legs, and yet I've been with children when something I'd rather not have them see/hear appears.

  • Comment number 3.

    I may just be innocent (or possibly slow like you said) but I don't get it and I don't particularly like the idea of looking it up on the internet! Just thought I'd say

    PS. The idea that Victorians covering piano legs is just a myth and in many ways the victorians were a lot freer (yeah it ain't a word but wotchya gonna do?) then we are. Just thought I'd say.

  • Comment number 4.

    Very sad.

    Stations should boycott it for being stupid and meaningless rather than offensive.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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