That’s the difference between the dirty dance ditty “Battle Flag” as found on Lo Fidelity Allstars’ How to Operate With a Blown Mind and the clean, radio-ready “Battle Flag” blaring from a car stereo near you, its original prominent profanities buried beneath a stuttering, “My Generation”-esque editing effect. That’s also the difference between what would have been an interesting album cut on an otherwise forgettable record and what has become a certifiable commercial hit, already being appropriated by advertisers to identify product and move units. And to these ears, it’s the difference between a credible artistic statement and a crass concession to popular standards of public decency and broadcast decorum.
“Oh no,” you’re thinking. “Here he goes . . . he’s one of those music critics who automatically hates anything that becomes popular.” Not so: as a dedicated, longtime Butthole Surfer fan (to cite but one example), I was thrilled when their “Pepper” became a hit, breaching the butthole barrier for radio and music video broadcasting alike, allowing adults to reclaim a childhood anatomical term, making it okay for kids to sing about the ever-present football player rapist. That was simply pop subversion of the highest order.
What did dismay me, however, was the fact the heretofore obstreperous Butthole Surfers produced a clean version of Electriclarryland, the album that spawned “Pepper,” replacing its pencil-in-the-earhole cover art with a cute gopher shot from the gatefold and editing out the cuss words that dotted the record’s other songs. Why was that a problem for me? Because if the Butthole Surfers were willing to eliminate the strong words and images from their original artistic statement, then those deleted elements must not have been essential components of their artistic statement in the first place. And what do you call provocative language and imagery when they’re used without reason? Gratuitous. Nothing more, nothing less — and it pains me to think of the Butthole Surfers in that regard, since shock tactics and confrontation had, until the clean Electriclarryland, been defining, essential cornerstones of their creative canon.
Of course, the Butthole Surfers could argue that no one in their right mind would have expected Electriclarryland to be a hit, so that the deleted material was truly not gratuitous since there had never been any intention of it being played in Peoria, much less sold in K-Mart next to White Zombie’s similarly censored Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds. And the Lo Fidelity Allstars could claim extenuating circumstances as well: “Battle Flag” is nothing more than a remix of a cut by a SubPop group called Pidgeonhed, who had themselves already incorporated lyrical snippets from an obscure Prince cut in the original “Battle Flag.” So the Allstars’ “motherfuckings” had to be there since they came part and parcel with the product being appropriated, right?
Maybe. But what do you make of groups who have enough marketing clout and industry backing to have solid expectations that their songs are going to be hits — but who lace their album cuts with profanity anyway, then edit the swearing back out again for mass radio consumption? I make them sellouts. And I make them every bit as odious as the tobacco companies who market to children and the film studios that produce R-rated movies clearly directed towards adolescent audiences. In every case, those peddling the product know that forbidden fruits are the sweetest — and there’s no better Satan these days that commercial radio when it comes to convincing the young Eves and Adams of the world to partake therefrom.
Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit and Lit are all riding high on the album charts this summer, primarily on the backs of heavily-edited radio singles. Likewise Everlast, whose “What It’s Like” features so many cute profanity-masking noises that it ends up sounding like some bad Spike Jones parody played by a hip hop ensemble armed with whistles, pistols and kazoos. (For the record if you’re singing along with the radio, you can insert “fucking,” “god damn,” “balls,” “whore,” “shit-faced” and “shit” the next time you hear the song to simulate the full album experience.)
The radio edits of “What It’s Like” and “Battle Flag” also mark another insidious development in gratuity sanitizing, as their nasty bits are eradicated by sound effects that don’t make it immediately obvious to casual listeners that they’ve been cut at all. This digital-era “advance” is analogous to the video editing techniques in which MTV, Fox and E! seem to specialize — covering breasts, buttocks and product logos with soft focus zones that only become readily apparent when you’re looking for them. Compare such techniques to those used a mere decade ago, when such edits remained obvious due to the “bleeps,” audible dropouts or (in the case of television) black bars used to mask that which could not be said or seen.
We used to hide profanity and nudity. Now we hide the fact that we’re hiding profanity and nudity. And this is progress? I think not, and I find it deeply offensive and worrisome that altered product isn’t clearly marked as such. If videos have to tell me that my rental movies have been modified to fit my screen, then why don’t radio stations have to tell me that my songs have been modified to fit my community’s sense of propriety?
Think of it from a truth in advertising standpoint, given that one of commercial radio’s primary functions is encouraging listeners to buy product played or advertised on the air. Shouldn’t I somehow be informed that I’m going to be buying the motherfucking-fortified version of “Battle Flag” if I score it at a record store after hearing it on the radio? Or shouldn’t a kid have some sense that the radio record he’s been saving his money to buy is going to have a “Parental Guidance: Explicit Material” sticker on it when he get to the store, cash in hand, mom in the minivan? Is that fair?
No. And it’s also not fair that there might be two versions of “Battle Flag” for me and that kid and our limited resources to choose between, thereby raising an additional flurry of questions related to creative intent. Which “Battle Flag” is the real one? Which one contains the sounds, words and images that the band meant me to hear? Which one contains the group’s motherfucking art statement for Christ’s sake?
The marketing department would, no doubt, have us believe that we need to buy both versions of the song, just to be on the safe side — but, then, that’s what the marketing department is there for and that’s what we expect them to think. Of more concern to me is the fact that an increasing number of performers are clearly, personally involved in the art of the gratuitous makeover these days as well, thereby fundamentally reinventing the editing blame equation.
You knew who the bad guys were when the Fucks had to become the Fugs and when Elektra removed a crucial “motherfucker” from the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams — and you knew that neither of those artists had any expectations about making an appearance on American Bandstand. But today we can’t conveniently blame marketing agents, record labels or prude disc jockeys when we’re faced with an increasingly large number of market-savvy artists who knowingly, willfully create one version of their product for private consumption and another version of their product for mass consumption.
Today we have to blame and excoriate those artists, because they can’t be good cops and bad cops, saints and sinners, pop stars and cult heroes at the same time and expect to be taken seriously by the true believers at either end of any of those spectra. I feel violated when I encounter such artists, since it feels like they’re having their cake, eating it too — and then rubbing the remains in my face with every “motherfucking” that they bury under digital fart sounds.
Sour grapes? Probably, since I don’t think I could (or would) get paid twice for writing a fuck-laden article for the permissive Metroland, then cleaning it up and running it again for a wider readership in the stodgier Times Union. Just like I don’t think many painters could (or would) pay the bills by exhibiting “Still Life With Severed Testicle” at Mass MOCA, then retouching their work, renaming it “The Gift of Life” and renting it out to brighten some suburban bank lobby. Just like I don’t think the filmmakers responsible for Interview With a Vibrator could (or would) expect much of a return by pitching their work for broadcast on the CBS Sunday Night Movie.
Although maybe we all should try, since Ben Folds can certainly get paid for singing “Been thinking ’bout the Army/Dad said ‘Son, you must be high'” on the radio and “Been thinking ’bout the Army/Dad said ‘Son, you’re fucking high'” on the album version of “Army.” Which is, for the record, a particularly damnable example of the gratuitous “fuck” since Folds wrote the song in question — then sang both the album and the radio version, not even bothering to pretend that his label, a remix engineer or a prude DJ was responsible for the cut.
Now, note well that as former military officer I was willing to take an oath that placed the value of my own life lower than the value of Ben Folds’ right to say “fuck” on an album. But, by God, if Ben Folds is going to say “fuck” on an album, then he’d damn well better mean it — and he should accept the fact that the song in question ain’t gonna be the hit single, rather than rendering it wholly gratuitous through a radio edit. And if he’s not willing to fight for his “fuck,” then he should just be a gentleman and leave it in the locker-room where it belongs, thereby making the world a nicer, safer place for record-buying young folks everywhere.
That would be a demonstration of some motherfucking creative integrity.