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Cussing up a storm

MUSIC | Beyoncé and Taylor Swift sprint toward the “edgy” cliff


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Cussing up a storm
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Given the success of the new Beyoncé and Taylor Swift albums—Cowboy Carter and The Tortured Poets Department respectively—it’s time once again to recall the Lawrence Ferlinghetti rule: “Generally, dirty words divert the attention from what you’re trying to get across.”

One wonders what Ferlinghetti, the éminence grise of the Beats and hardly a prude, would’ve made of Beyoncé’s and Swift’s newest opuses, each of which contains more instances of dirty words (over 80 for Beyoncé, mostly the S-word; over 40 for Swift, mostly the F-bomb) than the outputs of every major musical act from the ’60s to the mid-’80s (before the parental-warning label made bad language cool again) combined.

Those statistics would be a dog-bites-man story were Beyoncé and Swift rappers. But their popularity transcends boundaries. At an average age of 38, can they really not know that it’s disrespectful simply to assume that people want to subject themselves to such words over and over? Can they be so beholden to the canards that only the “edgy” can rivet the masses and that vulgarity still has something to do with edginess that they fear losing sales (sorry, streams) if they don’t cuss up a storm?

Generally, dirty words divert the attention from what you’re trying to get across.

They can be forgiven for not knowing Ferlinghetti. But they should be familiar with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and the scenes in each addressing the short-circuiting effect that bad language has on innocence.

“You like words like damn and hell now, don’t you?” asks Uncle Jack at one point of his young niece Scout, Lee’s protagonist. She “reckons” she does. “Well, I don’t,” he responds. He then tells her that she’ll never “grow up to be a lady” talking that way. And although Scout doesn’t particularly care, she’s impressed by her uncle’s concern.

Salinger’s Holden Caulfield has a stronger reaction upon discovering the F-word scrawled on a wall inside his younger sister Phoebe’s school. “I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it,” he muses, “and how they’d wonder what [the profanity] meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them … and how they’d think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it. I figured it was some perverty bum that’d sneaked in the school late at night to take a leak or something.”

Lots of Phoebes and Scouts listen to Beyoncé and Swift.

Is there more to say about Cowboy Carter and Tortured Poets than their profanity and what that profanity says about their makers? (See “perverty bums” above.) Yes. Do those albums have significant pluses all the same? Of course. But the profanity is a major distraction—almost as major as the cover art of Cowboy Carter’s hard-copy editions. Married ladies, put some clothes on it.


Arsenio Orteza

Arsenio is a music reviewer for WORLD Magazine and one of its original contributors from 1986. Arsenio resides in China.

@ArsenioOrteza

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