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A Plea Against Verbal Pollution in Lyrics

Jun, 2004

I feel that all films and plays should be given an "F" rating. Without having to spell out that word, I must say that I taught too many years in a junior high school and that I heard that word and its derivatives too many times each hour to have to pay good money to hear it on the sound track of a film or out of the mouth of "celebrity" at an awards event on TV or in a play.

When it comes to opera and other forms of vocal music, I can simply not play music with such lyrics or try to ignore them when a booming car passes by. It is bad enough that more and more nudity is creeping into opera productions and even worse when some translator thought it was the height of humor to have a character in "The Merry Widow" (of all shows) expostulate, "My ass!"

And now I run across a major recording of a new Thomas Ades work, "America, a Prophecy," on the jewel case of which EMI warns (or is it, boasts?) "Parental Advisory: Explicit Content." So I began to play it. And sure enough, in the very fourth line of the first track, there is your F. Well, F is for Forget It, I decided, and refused to play the work any further. And this work was commissioned—get this now—as a "Message for the Millennium" by the New York Philharmonic "with a generous support from the Francis Goelet Fund." Hey, any one of my problem students back in the junior high could have done just as well without the funding! (I didn’t think much of the music either.)

Now before I start getting letters about "old-fashioned values" and "once we couldn’t even say Damn" and "this is the 21st century" and "names can never hurt you," let me explain exactly why I object to these "four letter" words in conversation, scripts, operas, and oratorio-type pieces. If I come across as an old fuddy-duddy in this essay, so be it. I assure you, my plea for decency in language is not rooted in ethics but in psychology. So bear with me as I tick off my points about what ticks me off.

Think of what I refuse to print here: all the "four-letter" words you know. Write them down. Notice two things. (1) They all pertain to sex or excretion, (2) they all have three consonants with a short vowel in the middle. Starting with that second point as a basis, let me proceed logically (I hope).

(a) We think in words. We see a dog and think "dog." If we speak another language, we think "chien" or "hund" or whatever. We see train tracks and we think "railroad." If we speak another language, we think not "road of rails" but "chemin de fer" or "Eisenbahn" (road of iron) or whatever. A man refers to a woman as "honey" or "cupcake" or "a real dish" and thinks he is complimenting her, when he is reducing her to the level of food. In short, our view of the world is very much tied in with the words in which we think.

(b) Some words are pleasant sounding: serpentine, lovely, gracious, munificent, mellifluous. Some words are harsh sounding: cough, knock, scratch, thug, budget (the ugliest of them all in my estimation). And if you saw "The Sunshine Boys," words with K in them are funny.

Therefore if you grant proposition (a), then you must agree that the constant use of unpleasant sounds makes our view of the world very unpleasant.*

(c) The very nature of the four-letter words in your list makes them all unpleasant sounding. So if every noun is proceeded by one of them in adjectival form, or if everything you dislike is "crap" or its nastier synonym, or if in your mind the only important parts of the body male and body female start with that "funny K" sound, then your view of the world is a pretty foul one. Or a strangely funny one, if it comes to that.

Corollary: The most beautiful music cannot change the unpleasantness of the lyrics. (I know that this needs rigorous proof, but not this month.)

Now it is very likely that the author of that line in the Ades work will object thus: I have unpleasant things to say and therefore I must use strongly unpleasant words to say them. Fine. But not in my house. We go into the concert hall with certain expectations. The orchestra is dressed in formal attire, as is most of the audience. This is not a rock concert. We expect a certain level of maturity in both music and lyrics. Films might consider such language as "for mature adults." Personally, I think the word "mature" precludes the need for such language. And that means in print, in dialogue and certainly in song lyrics.

But as always, I am open to convincing arguments. What do you think?

*I just realized myself that all my "unpleasant" words have short vowels! Am I really on to something? It is almost to say that pleasant words are in a major key while unpleasant ones are in a minor one. But some beautiful music is in a minor key. Hmmn. Let me consider this later.

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