Almost everyone swears, or worries about not swearing, from the two-year-old who has just discovered the power of potty mouth to the grandma who wonders why every other word she hears is obscene. Whether they express anger or exhilaration, are meant to insult or to commend, swear words perform a crucial role in language. But swearing is also a uniquely well-suited lens through which to look at history, offering a fascinating record of what people care about on the deepest levels of a culture–what’s divine, what’s terrifying, and what’s taboo.
One of the best ways to observe how our cultural standards on profanity have evolved is to look at the music we have enjoyed and the lyrics that have provoked censors, parents, and the general populace over the past several centuries. In the playlist below, profanity expert Melissa Mohr highlights some of the most shocking songs from modern history.
“O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana
Though the music was written in the 1930s, the lyrics are from early thirteenth-century Goliardic poetry, written for the most part in Latin by traveling scholars who celebrated drinking, sex, and gambling in stark contrast to the religious literature more prominent in this era. Think: Spring Break, 1230 edition.
“Farai un vers de dreyt nein” by Guilhem de Peitieus, the Duke of Aquitaine
This is a song from around 1100 by one of the first troubadours: Guilhem de Peitieus, the Duke of Aquitaine. Troubadours usually sang verses like this one, about courtly love—a knight’s abject devotion to a powerful and standoffish lady. Guilhem, though, also wrote one about how two women dragged him to a cave, tortured him with a cat, and kept him as their love slave. He reports that he “fucked them” [“fotei” in medieval Occitan] 188 times over eight days—that’s once every 61 minutes. That song is available on Youtube.
“Now is the month of Maying” by Thomas Morley
This song from 1595 contains no explicit swearing, but pretty much every word is a double entendre, from “playing” to “maying” to “barley-break.”
“Sir Walter enjoying his damsel, Z. 273” by Henry Purcell
Considered to be one of the greatest composers of seventeenth-century England, Henry Purcell wrote operas, church music, and a collection of tavern songs like this one, which features a musical depiction of a woman’s orgasm.
“Shave ‘Em Dry” by Lucille Bogan
This 1935 track from Lucille Bogan is years ahead of its time—it is one of the most obscene songs ever recorded, as “shave ‘em dry” was African-American slang for sex. When Bogan brags that “my cock is made of brass” she is referring to her vagina, not a surprise penis (cock was southern African-American slang for the female genitalia even through the 1980s).
“Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen
When “Louie Louie” came out, people had such difficulty understanding the words that concerned parents decided the lyrics must be horribly obscene and urged the FBI to investigate. After almost three years, the FBI found that it had no idea what The Kingsmen were saying either, and so dropped the case.
|Concerned parent||FBI||Actual lyrics|
|At night at 10 I lay her again||?||Three nights and days I sail the sea|
|Fuck you girl, Oh, all the way||Think of girl, constantly|
|Oh, my bed and I lay her there||On that ship, I dream she’s there|
|I meet a rose in her hair.||I smell the rose in her hair.|
“The Bad Touch” by The Bloodhound Gang
The twentieth-century equivalent of “Now is the month of Maying.” It dares to ask the question: How much of 1990s pop culture can be put to use in sexual innuendo? Answer: Lots.
“Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj
Nicki Minaj may be one of the most lyrically-obscene female artists out there. She uses profuse swearing to present herself as strong and active in the frequently misogynistic world of rap, where women are often “fucked,” but less often do the “fucking.” Plus, this song has lines like “He toss my salad like his name Romaine.
“Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber
Though Justin sings “love yourself,” he means “fuck yourself”—a classic technique to evade radio censorship and avoid outraging the parents of younger listeners. Enrique Iglesias’s “Tonight (I’m Lovin’ You)” employs a similarly evasive technique.
“The Hills” by The Weeknd
The Weeknd played this song at Jingle Ball concerts last year. I waited to see whether he would change the lyrics in deference to the audience, which was mostly tweens and their mothers, and he did censor the first f-word. By the end, though, thousands of 12-year-old girls, including my daughter, were singing along, “I just fucked two bitches ‘fore I saw you”—an interesting parenting moment.
Find the complete playlist here:
Featured image: “Nicki Minaj” by Eva Rinaldi. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.