In The Key of F


The cry of censorship is a tiresome reaction to decisions like the one made by Wal-Mart. It's a form of pressure intended to coerce someone to remain part of the problem.

A couple of weeks ago, as I sat innocently reading the Sunday paper, the F-word wafted musically through our living room. My 14-year-old daughter was listening to a Tom Petty album at the time, and the singer had just defiantly warbled the F-word in its familiar participle form.

As my daughter explained it, obscenities are rare in Petty’s songs — she has located just two — but Petty apparently thinks it’s important to drop one in every now and then, possibly to show that he is just as hip and rebellious as the next man.

My own opinion, I told my daughter, is that Petty is a talented and generally harmless fellow who does not engage in musical rants on the glories of suicide, cutting up women, shooting cops, burning out Korean shop-owners, or other similar topics judged by the American Civil Liberties Union to be crucial to our civic discourse.

However, I said, he is not allowed to use the F-word in our living room. The proper place to use this word is in his own house or in some remote outdoor location, preferably right after smashing his thumb once or twice with a hammer.

This goes for other singers who are beginning to test the waters by emitting gratuitous F-words just to gauge public reaction. The sound track to the wonderful movie version of “Romeo and Juliet” contains one such word, though that lyric is not sung in the movie itself.

Most of the discussion of obscene music has focused on over-the-top gangster rap and nihilistic hard rock. But it’s worth focusing on the first, small steps toward the breaking of norms in mainstream music — the casual insertion of a few obscenities, making them seem normal and unobjectionable. “The language of the streets is coming indoors,” Letitia Baldridge said on a recent “Sunday Good Morning America” show. Yes, and we are paying to have it happen.

As I sat there thinking about how all the commercial pressures nowadays seem to be on the side of coarseness, my eye caught a news article about a rare commercial pressure on the other side: Wal-Mart says its stores won’t carry CDs with degrading, violent or obscene lyrics. It will, however, be happy to sell cleaned-up versions of these discs.

Since Wal-Mart’s announcement, the air has been thick with charges of censorship and violations of artistic freedom. But it seems to me that Wal-Mart is simply saying that it won’t take part in the continuing debasement of our popular culture. No store is morally or legally bound to sell products it considers harmful or degrading. The more stores take social responsibility for the things they sell, the healthier the society will be. The alternative — throwing up one’s hands and simply selling anything that yields a profit — makes stores part of the problem. Because Wal-Mart sells so many CDs, about 10 percent of the American market, most singers will adapt by putting out a second, or cleaned-up version, of each album. This is all to the good.

Spare us the argument that Petty’s lone F-word was of crucial artistic importance. Nobody believes that. It was put in for commercial reasons, and it will come out for commercial reasons as well. As a matter of fact, some of us would be willing to pay a dollar more for the F-word-free version so we could play it at parties. At grown-up parties, playing music with F-words in it is a lot like leaving a dead cat in the punch bowl.

The cry of censorship is a tiresome reaction to decisions like the one made by Wal-Mart. It’s a form of pressure intended to coerce someone to remain part of the problem. Wal-Mart is not blocking free expression here. Besides, in a free-enterprise system, everything is supposed to respond to market forces. If Wal-Mart doesn’t wish to be part of the offensive-music market, well, that’s the way the system works.

The “Sunday Good Morning America” program focused on the growing incivility in America — more crudeness, confrontation and public anger — and what we can do about it. Four commissions are said to be studying the incivility problem. Whatever the ultimate recommendations may be, it doesn’t take a genius to see that the media and the popular arts are both reflecting and reinforcing the ugly, angry side of our culture. They are creating an expectation that any dissatisfaction or dissent will be expressed in obscene, confrontational language. And this won’t change until more and more people say no to creeping incivility. Wal-Mart said no, and it was right to do it.


Leo, John. “In the Key of F” US News and World Report (September 3, 2000).

Reprinted by permission of John Leo


John Leo writes the Outlook column for U.S. News and World Report. His latest book Incorrect Thoughts published by Transaction Books sells for $29.95. Transaction Books is at Rutgers University, 35 Berrue Circle, Piscataway, NJ 08854.

Copyright © 2000 US News and World Report.

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