The Importance of Not Censoring Cee Lo When He Sings “Fuck You”

(A downloadable version of this is available on my scribd feed)

Censorship is and always has been a concern. What we can allow in film, television, music, print, and other media is always something that is negotiated by social norms and mores, values, and usually what we would be willing to expose others to. There are some things, I believe, which will always be wrong and taboo (snuff, child pornography, other similar things) and then there are other things which are commonly available but based on my aesthetics and personal values I find disgusting and would much rather not ever see.

Despite my own acknowledgement that there are things I believe are better not seen or heard, I respect people’s liberties to choose their content. Thus I would rather that instead of external censors, we help people to develop their own aesthetics so that they can decide for themselves what is appropriate.  While we try to develop that (something quite utopian really, but we might as well set our goals at the level of utopia and fall short, than to be bound by what are “manageable expectations”) I believe that we have to differentiate between content that is blatantly sick, disturbing, or offensive, and that which manages to use certain images, acts, or language for artistic effect.

It is thus that we move from censorship in general to the censorship of profanity or what might be considered improper language. We must acknowledge that profanity, swearing, cursing, or whatever we may want to call it, is part of our daily lexicon, that though we may not use these words ourselves, we hear them used. Now if you are a writer and you want to capture a specific kind of character, or a filmmaker and you similarly want to portray a character, it is essential that you deploy the kind of language and manner of speaking that the character would. Sometimes writers have to work around limitations of the form which they are working in. For example the television series 24 was on American broadcast television network Fox, and thus could not use profanity. So while it would have been more realistic for Keifer Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer to say fuck or shit, he would only use the word dammit.

In music, particularly rap and hip-hop, there is a good amount of profanity. It has reached a point where parental advisory warnings no longer suffice and there are “clean” versions of albums released, while the “dirty” versions are only sold to buyers over eighteen. Of course this is easily subverted in the digital age, but the principle exists. And more telling, that a “clean” version exists which means that you can understand and appreciate the album with all its expletives replaced with more acceptable language, or merely rubbed out. This does not bode well then for the usage of profanity in rap and hip-hop, because it shows that this language is unnecessary, and the song’s artistry does not suffer by its deletion or replacement.

It is here then that I would like to differentiate Cee Lo’s “Fuck You” from all those other songs and point to how essential the profanity and use of the word fuck is to building the song’s meaning. While it sounds crude and crass to say fuck, without it the song loses a power that is created in the usage of profanity

We must understand the way that profanity operates and how it is accessed in our brains. Sure we pepper our language with it sometimes, and you don’t have to be a rapper or a poet to know the various ways that one can deploy the word fuck, employing it and its conjugations as different parts of speech. But when we use profanity inadvertently, it points to our neural processes and how the use of profanity traces back to something primordial and instinctive.

Consider this: You’re walking along and you slip. As you’re falling you don’t think about it, you just scream out an expletive in response to the surprise of your falling.

Or: You’re hammering in some nails and you accidentally hit your thumb. Without stopping to think, an expletive issues forth from your lips.

Or: You see your ex-girlfriend in the arms of another. A, “What the fuck?” comes out rhetorically before you have had the opportunity to process what you are witnessing.

The explanation is this: Though we do sometimes consciously use profanity in our language, when things like the examples above happen, we respond instinctively, with profanity bypass the thought and language centers and just getting blurted out.

When something happens which we respond instinctively to, it is the Amygdala, the old reptilian part of our brain, where reside the instincts, that is activated. Thus even the most modest-spoken person can at times say the most profane things, when this instinctive reaction is provoked. We cannot stop or control this, we just respond automatically. Again, instinct comes into play, thus without thinking we resort to profanity just as much as our ancestors would have responded in yelps.

Sometimes well-considered, well-chosen words and proper language fail to express what we feel. Though we could be more eloquent, that eloquence might not suit the situation, and it might not even be available to us because we are responding in an instinctive, automatic fashion.

This is where the brilliance of Cee Lo’s use of profanity comes in. There are things that cannot be expressed with anything but profanity. Cee Lo uses different words and metaphors in his song, yet the core of it, the deepest, most real thing he wants to say can only be expressed by saying, “Fuck you.”

We understand then that sometimes we cannot express ourselves except through profanity, because the raw power, the unmitigated meaning of it is there. It isn’t merely the word, but its being profane, which gives it power too. Cee Lo invokes this power to convey the anger and hurt of the persona in “Fuck You” for powerful dramatic effect. It is not a mere decision to use profanity to sound cool or strong or street. Rather it becomes clear that there is no other way to say these things than through the use of profane language.

He sings, “If I was richer I’d still be with you/ Now ain’t that some shit,” and here we see again the deployment of profanity furthering the depth of emotion that the persona cannot convey through any other word, and can only show the hurt and feeling of rejection by invoking this profanity.

When we consider the cleaned up version, forget you, we cannot help but feel how hugely the meaning, the impulse behind the sentiment, is gone. It is not merely replaced, but the feeling is smothered and lost. How far is a fuck you from a forget you? Sure it’s only a few letters difference, but we all know how much more powerful and evocative the one is over the other.

And thus when Cee Lo describes the scene, and he sings, “I see you driving around town with the girl I love and I’m like fuck you and fuck her too,” we get that real, powerful emotion that could not be expressed in any other way than to evoke this kind of language. We must not censor this, lest we lose that which Cee Lo has chosen to express.

His decision to use expletives and deploy them as he has is an artistic and aesthetic choice. Thus I believe we must admire and appreciate this decision, because it conveys a meaning more powerfully precisely because of that choice. More importantly, no other words work as well to illustrate and express what the persona feels. After all, when taking the dramatic situation presented in the song, what else can one say, really, to express all the pain, hurt, anger, rejection, betrayal, loss, yearning, regret, and hatred, than, “Fuck You?”



2 Responses to The Importance of Not Censoring Cee Lo When He Sings “Fuck You”

  1. cornerseat says:

    i think i recall clearly as a freshman, one professor scolding a classmate for writing “oh, fudge,” in her narrative essay: “if you mean to write ‘oh, fuck’, write it! none of this fudge…”

  2. i thought of this essay when a friend linked me to a NY mag piece about the use of profanity in writing.

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