Many observers decry what is deemed the widespread use of bad words in today's pop songs. However, that controversy has been simmering for decades. This list illustrates 10 particular examples of songs that have used so-called bad words in a memorable fashion. Looking back at what words have raised public ire and controversy provides a fascinating window into the standards and concerns of society as a whole at any given point in time.
2010 - Cee Lo Green - "F**k You"
Cee Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley dispenses with any pretense of disguising the bad word that is a centerpiece to his viral hit song. There is already a "clean" version of the song which uses "Forget you" in place of the offending original title.
Britney Spears' top 20 pop hit "If U Seek Amy" is the only example of a song that faced censorship of words that are not actually words on their own but allude strongly to another bad word. The words "If U Seek Amy" cleverly, or offensively, spell out the phrase, "F**k me," depending on your response. The uproar over slipping offensive language into a song in such a fashion resulted in a radio friendly version of the song leaving out the "k" sound for "If U See Amy."
The #1 hit single "Gold Digger" presents the unusual situation of a black artist having their own race sensitive language eliminated for radio airplay. In the radio edit of "Gold Digger," the word "nigga" is replaced by a repetition of the word "broke." It is obvious from the rhyming structure of the song what word is most likely left out, but the edit provides its own interesting stutter effect to the recording. Later in the song the word "a**" is left out of another racially sensitive line.
Why say an offensive word only once when it can be repeated 38 times? Gwen Stefani roared to the top of the pop singles chart in 2005 with a song that repeats the word sh*t a remarkable 38 times, and, in the version most frequently played on pop radio, it is altered every single time. In the video release below, the need to leave out the offending word is played for laughs with Gwen Stefani using "shh" gestures and covering her mouth. The censored version became so familiar, for many listeners the original mix that leaves the words in may sound unusual.
In this broad parody, Eminem took aim at a wide range of pop culture targets. Among those are the fear of explicit language in a pop song. The result is a range of edited versions of the song and the video, "The Real Slim Shady," depending on which of the smorgasbord of offending words someone finds most offensive. The video below does eliminate some of the most objectionable words. When the dust settled, this was Eminem's first top 5 pop hit.
Dire Straits' leader Mark Knopfler wrote much of the #1 smash hit "Money For Nothing" based on language he actually heard from delivery men watching MTV. However, the use of the word "faggot" in the line, "That little faggot with the earring and the makeup," offended many. At times, the entire verse is expurgated from the song when it is played on the radio. Mark Knopfler has spoken about the difficulties this issue raises in having it understood that a song is not always written in first person but can be depicting the words of others.
How to handle the "f" word in the title of a song that hits the top 40? That is what faced those who compile the UK pop charts when the Dead Kennedys climbed into the pop top 40 in the summer of 1981. The song was immediately banned from being played on the radio by the BBC. Some stores refused to stock the single with the title on the cover, while others sold a version with a sticker over the offending word. Charts listed the song as "Too Drunk To."
One of the first obvious uses of the "f" word in a mainstream pop song occurs twice in the Who's "Who Are You." The line, "Who the f**k are you?" is heard twice in the original album release and the UK single edit. For US pop radio ears, the offending word was completely eliminated. However, the lines are preserved in the video below.
The word "bitch" is one with quite a colorful history in pop music. Elton John was at the peak of his popularity when he released the single "The Bitch Is Back" in 1974. According to Elton John, the song is highly autobiographical. A number of pop radio stations in the US refused to play the "The Bitch Is Back" due to the word. As a result, it merely peaked at #4 in the US instead of #1 or #2 like Elton John's three other single releases in 1974.
Meredith Brooks presented even more of a challenge to pop radio programmers in 1997 with the release of her single "Bitch." However, it overcame reluctance and censorship at pop radio to eventually hit #2. As recently as Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," "bitch" is a bad word in pop songs.
Johnny Cash's only top 10 pop single is the story of a man made tough by having to struggle with growing up with a girl's name. Written by Shel Silverstein, best known for children's books, the story in "A Boy Named Sue" talks about the man searching for the father who gave him the name and the ensuing fight. It is also notable for including the line "son of a bitch" which was censored from the 45 release of the song and the original LP version.