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Blowing my own trumpet: music and euphemism

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James McLaren James McLaren | 14:02 UK time, Monday, 31 October 2011

The news today that radio stations are to be given extra guidance to avoid playing sexually-explicit songs got me thinking about euphemism in pop music and the seemingly diminishing art of cloaking the rude in nuanced language.


AC/DC, masters of innuendo

No longer can radio stations profess innocence in examples such as Brick FM stating they thought a particular slang term invoked panini - toasted sandwiches. And no longer can stations play live concerts that are littered with expletives, even if they flag the risk first.

Jolly good, I say.

I find overt swearage in songs to be far more often embarrassingly crass than artistically meritorious. It's normally unimaginative - unless it's one of the few examples in which a single swearword can elevate things (think the end of Killing In The Name by Rage Against The Machine for a good example). It's also often simply ephemeral.

There's no reason for rude words when things can be far more entertaining while retaining a sly salaciousness.

If we look at popular music, even the term 'rock 'n' roll' is a euphemism for sex. Teenagers as a concept were only realised in the post-war world of the 1950s and that generation took to the potential freedoms with aplomb. Building on the filthy undercurrents of blues (check out Robert Johnson's lyrics) rock 'n' roll exploded in euphemisms for both sex and drugs.

The musicians who peddled their wares to this new demographic in the 50s and 60s were expert in writing about rude subjects in order to get their songs into the homes of their audiences, past the censorious power brokers of the radio stations and even their own record labels. The head honchos at EMI might have blanched had they looked below the surface of songs such as The Beatles' Please Please Me.

Come the 1970s the euphemism became an art form in itself, no longer a wink and a nod to those in the know, but a full-on pun fest. Acts such as Kiss and especially AC/DC built careers on such risqué behaviour. It reached its apotheosis in the genuinely laugh-out-loud humour of Spinal Tap's songs. If there's a funnier collection of euphemisms than Big Bottom or Sex Farm I have yet to hear it.

These days media is less concerned with sticking to their social and sexual mores of a Christian hegemony, and it's possible to see just about any video on late-night music TV; so there's less need to mask meaning through lyrical inventiveness. On the flipside, some musical euphemisms have made it into such sites as The Urban Dictionary - especially from the world of rap. They have developed a life of their own.

So where do we stand now? Perhaps the knowledge that out-and-out obscenity stands less of a chance of getting past Ofcom these days will engender more songwriters to think more inventively about their lyrics. I'm sure the twin preoccupations of drugs and sex will continue to occupy the minds of young people making music - so let's have some great euphemisms.

What are your favourite euphemisms? Or can you think of any Welsh examples? If you want to have your say, on this or any other BBC blog, you will need to sign in to your BBC iD account. If you don't have a BBC iD account, you can register here - it'll allow you to contribute to a range of BBC sites and services using a single login.

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