Friday, September 16, 2011

Contains adult language

I'm writing a song featuring a romantic partner with a mercurial personality. You may know the type. One minute, he (or she) is a joy to be with; the next minute, she (or he) turns on you. The character is fictional—I've never dated a psycho—but I've heard enough harrowing tales from friends that I think I can get the details right. I'm having a lot of fun with this.

Anyway, there's a line in the last chorus that I want to tweak:
Pile on the weight
'til I'm down on my knees
The problem is "weight." It sounds good, but it's not quite what I'm going for. "Weight" conveys angst, burden. The thing my character piles on is more like the emotional equivalent of manure, unpleasant and absurd at the same time. "Manure" is pretty good, actually, but too many syllables. Hmm. What means the same thing but only has one ...

(Insert moment of realization here.)

Awww, shit.

* * *

Walking down the corridors of Elm Place Middle School, I had an epiphany. I needed to learn how to swear.

Ever since kindergarten, I'd occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder. I was the kid it was OK to be mean to. I was the kid you couldn't be nice to even if you wanted to, because then everybody else would be mean to you too.

The most frustrating part was, when the abuse came, I couldn't do much but take it. Witty comebacks weren't my strong suit. If I'd known how to hold my own in a verbal duel, really hurt my tormenters, they probably would have left me alone in the first place.

Swearing would solve that problem. Anytime somebody started in on me, I could just curse at them. The strategy wasn't as good as improvising clever, cutting remarks, but it was better than nothing.

So I incorporated a few four-letter words into my vocabulary and let loose. And the results were amazing.

Don't get me wrong. My fellow seventh-graders didn't slink away with their tails between their legs. I was still their easiest prey. Regardless, it felt pretty good to have something to say when they singled me out. Even if "suck shit" (my stock phrase) wasn't particularly clever, it conveyed what I considered useful information:
  1. I am a badass.
  2. Your pathetic taunts don't bother me in the least, because I am a badass.
  3. Also: suck shit.
* * *

Swearing didn't come naturally when I began my campaign. I was a total goody-two-shoes, very obedient, and hadn't indulged in the habit since I was four and my mother forbade me from repeating some of the more interesting words I'd picked up from older kids in the neighborhood. To say the S-word or the F-word at all, much less in front of other people, I had to push past a deep-seated sense of taboo.

But I kept at it. I conditioned myself to swear without internally flinching. And I made an unexpected discovery:

Curse words are fucking awesome.

Seriously. How had I gotten by without them before? They were like salt on scrambled eggs. They made everything better. And more emphatic. Now when I bitched about something, people would know I really fuckin' meant it.

As cool as it was to swear at my enemies, it was way cooler to swear alongside my friends. (Other kids could safely be my friends as long as they were in a different grade or went to a different school.) We were slick and tough and grownup, slipping profanity into as many utterances as we could while acting as nonchalant about it as possible.

One friend, Lisa, opined that people shouldn't make such a big deal about swearing. Words were just words. There was no logical reason that a select few should be placed in a different category than the rest. I agreed with her in principle, but not in practice. If "fuck" had no more power to shock than "darn," what would be the point of saying it? We had to collectively pretend it had magical offensive properties or it didn't work.

* * *

Walking down the corridors of Highland Park High School, I came to a realization. The whole swearing thing was kind of played.

My original reason for learning to do it had evaporated. High school kids were nicer. Most of them left me to my own devices. And while four-letter words were still great fun in their own right, they were also victims of their own success. What good were they for emphasis if I used them in every other sentence?

With a little sadness, I decided to dial it down. Keep it clean most of the time. That way, when I dropped the occasional F-bomb, people would know I was serious.

* * *

Here's the funny thing. Although I grew to love profanity in everyday life, I never cared for it in music.

My first exposure to explicit lyrics came courtesy of Billy Joel's The Nylon Curtain. Specifically from one of my favorite songs on the album, Laura:
Here I am
Feeling like a fucking fool
Do I react the way exactly
She intends me to?
Even though the album debuted in what was probably the early stages of my pottymouth phase, that caught me off guard. It's one thing for me to say "fucking" and entirely another for Billy Joel to sing it.

I understood why he wrote it that way, mind you. His narrator didn't feel like a freaking fool or a flipping fool or even a goddamn fool. The word he wanted was "fucking," and he wasn't about to weaken his point by sanitizing it. On reflection, I respected the choice.

And yet, I knew that if it had been me writing that song, I would have chosen something else.

The problem is, no matter how well a particular swear word works in terms of semantics and phonetics and rhythm, it tends not to flow seamlessly with the rest of the lyrics. A swear word calls attention to itself. That's its entire purpose. Drop one into your song, and instead of being carried along by the story, suddenly your listener is thinking, "Ooh, the F-word."

* * *

I suppose I should consider myself lucky that it took 66 songs before I encountered the "best word is a bad word" dilemma as a songwriter. But I still need to resolve it, so ...
Pile on the ______
'til I'm down on my knees
"Shit" really is perfect in terms of meaning and singability, but for all the reasons above, I'm just not going there.

"Crap" would fill in the blank, but it lacks something. It sounds too much like what I really want to say is "shit," but I'm censoring myself. Even if that's true, it's not what I want listeners to notice.

Looks like we're back to "weight." It's not absolutely, precisely what I want, but it doesn't stand out or sound wrong either. Sometimes you have to settle for good enough. In this case, doing so will make for a more balanced song as a whole.

The song, by the way, is almost finished. When we have an arrangement together and we have time to record it, I'll post it up here.

You'll like it. It's the shit.

* * *

Editor's note: I hope I haven't offended anybody with this piece. I try to keep this little blog family friendly most of the time, but the words are what they are, and I hate that asterisk bullsh*t. If you are not offended by such things and have ever wondered why certain words have the power to offend, read Why We Curse by psychologist Steven Pinker. Turns out Lisa and I were both wrong.


Kyle Bennett said...

"A swear word calls attention to itself."

To everything, there is a season. If its the word that's needed, given *all* of its meanings and effect, then that is the word.

That said, I don't think it carries the impact for most people that it does for you. It's not enough to pull most people out of the moment and into a meta-contemplation about what kind of singer/songwriter swears in her songs.

If your song is as hard and edgy as you seem to be describing, that word's absence may be as contrived and noticeable as its presence. Used properly, it either sets the tone for the rest of the song (if at the beginning), or provides the emotional satisfaction and release of tension that the song has been promising.

Your angst over it is going to lead to a tension that will come through in every performance. Maybe that happens to be the right tension, but probably not. Just make sure that whatever choice, its the one that the little voice in your head can live with, because it will be singing along with you on stage.

And, you can always record two versions, and you're free to use whichever version strikes your mood and assessment of the audience at any given performance. There's a good argument for not actually deciding, right up until that line is coming out of your mouth.

Brian McDonald said...

If "shit" is the right word, then use it. Don't be wishy washy with things that mean something to you.

Sometimes they're just the right words to use. They're emphasis, an ALL CAPS BOLDING of your meaning. Can you imagine Trent Reznor singing "I want to hug you like an animal"?

On the other hand, the song "Fuck You" by Cee-Lo has a more radio-friendly version called "Forget You", and it's just as good as the original, because the cursing is superfluous.

"Pile on the weight" sounds angsty and sad. If you're going for a passive-aggressive Atlas in Cure makeup, go for it. If it's trying to be don't HAVE to use "shit", but you need to hit the thesaurus a while before you put this one to bed.

Xpos said...

'Shit' is mild, barely a curse word these days. In fact all of our curse words lost their power due to common usage and besides, English has the wimpiest swear words around. Pick almost any other language and you'll find a rich and descriptive swearing vocabulary. Serbians might top them all with swears like "Jebo ti konj trudnu sestru na majcinom grobu dok ti otac retardiran gleda iz invalidskihkolica" which translates to: A horse fucks your pregnant sister on your moms grave as your retarded dad is watching from his wheelchair.

DeppityBob said...

I'm not sure what to think about this, not because of the language, but because of the imagery. "Pile on the shit 'til I'm down on my knees" sounds masochistic and, uhh, gross. Could you use "bricks"? Same short "i" sound, similar abrupt ending, and a more universal-seeming feeling of weight. "Shit" doesn't carry the same sense that you want from "weight." If you're aiming for world-weariness, I think that's a better choice. YMMV.

Back before it was such a permitted word, a novel called "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" by Kate Wilhelm used it once, and once only. On the first page, too, where it stuck out like such a sore thumb that I remember it twenty years later. I think that's what will happen if you use "shit" here. It'll disrupt the flow of the song.

MOS said...

What a funny way to learn about your own 12 year old daughter's vocabulary. A mere 30 years later.

cinderkeys said...


You know, it hadn't fully occurred to me that other people might hear those words in songs and not even blink. When I started hoarding my curse words, I reverted a little bit back to being self-conscious about them. Then again, I doubt I'm the only person who'd be pulled out of the moment.

My "angst" over the shit/weight choice isn't so much angst as concern. When I sing what I've got in rehearsal, I'm not mentally flinching every time I hit that spot. My big focus right now is trying to decide what to do about another section of the song. But the swearing thing made for a much more interesting post.

As for making two different versions and singing whichever feels like being sung ... not a bad idea, though I suspect it's just asking for trouble live. There's a good chance I'd end up singing something like "shate" half the time.


I'm surprised to hear this from you. Long ago you said you didn't like four-letter words in songs, not because you were a prude about it, but because you thought the songwriter was cheating -- going for easy shock value. At any rate, a word can be the right word in some ways and wrong in others, which is the case here. Everything is a tradeoff.

You're right about "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails, though. "Fuck" is right at home in that song. Another good example is one of my favorite pound-the-steering-wheel songs, "My Own Worst Enemy" by Lit.

It's no surprise to me I am my own worst enemy
'cause every now and then I kick the living shit outta me

"Shit" is the right choice there, hands down. It fits seamlessly with the rest of the song in a way that "fucking" didn't in "Laura."

But not every song can get away with it, and I think there would be costs to using the word in my song.

Xpos: Depends on the company you keep. I know people for whom that's true, and people for whom it's not.

Dep: I hadn't even considered the gross-out factor. I tried bricks before I even thought about the whole "something like manure" idea, but I didn't like it as much as "weight."

Mom: You were at least a little bit aware of my vocabulary changes when I was 13 and 14. Every now and again you'd catch me on the phone with a friend, dropping one of THOSE words, and you'd be all sad. Maybe you've repressed it. :)

johncwenger said...

Just sing, "Pile it on, 'til I'm down on my knees."

There, problem solved. By the way, MOS agrees with me.

cinderkeys said...

Not a bad idea, and doable. All it would take is a strategically placed quarter-note rest and it would scan. However, I like the relentless feel of what I have now, without that rest.

Anonymous said...

I just enjoy hearing your process as a songwriter! Very interesting and educational! I certainly don't have a problem with swear words. Me and George Carlin! I taught my girls they are just words, and consequently, they never felt the pull to use them! As teens they still rarely do! I think "shit" works well in your song. ...How could such a cute girl such as yourself have been picked-on as a kid?! I was, but I had thick glasses! Judy

cinderkeys said...

Somewhere along the line I'll be able to post the song, and then you can decide whether you think it would have worked in context. Any word has to not only fit where it's placed, but fit within the entire song.

As for how I could've been picked on, I was a weird kid, and that's a subject for a whole 'nother post. :)

kris said...

I'm rollin up a little late here, but "Pile on the baggage"?

Also, I hope the worst you got at HPHS was "Sue Sue Sue!" How do you even respond to that? Idiots.

cinderkeys said...

Hi, Kris! "Pile on the baggage" doesn't scan right. I've gone with "weight."

"Sue! Sue! Sue! Are you going to a party, Sue?" Ahh, high school. Better than junior high, but I don't miss it. :)