What’s THAT You’re Hearing on Pop Radio??

It’s a decades old debate that keeps rearing its head.  And with the release of Lady GaGa’s “Born This Way” yesterday, the subject came roaring back, and precipitated me putting together my thoughts about what you’re hearing on pop radio these days, and how it all got there.

For me, it goes back to growing up in the 1970’s, when the sudden change in subject matter for singles on pop radio started to be all too apparent.  You couldn’t get any more obvious than sexy and seductive singles like Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”, Sylvia’s “Pillow Talk”, Barry White’s “I’m Going To Love You (Just A Little More Babe)”… and on the flip side there were other unique-sounding hits such as David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” – this one not for the subject matter but more for the artist – and of course Lou Reed’s only charted hit, the groundbreaking “Walk On The Wild Side”.  And this, folks, was 1973!!

So while Elton John grabbed hold of glam rock for his look and perhaps inspiration for some of his songs, he was the first artist that I can remember whose song used a swear word – other than say hell or damn – in its title no less, and one describing himself!  I’m referring to 1974’s “The Bitch Is Back”, which was a Top 5 hit.  I think perhaps the song would have went to #1 because there were radio stations that refused to play it.   The swearing didn’t stop there!  Veteran R&B act The Isley Brothers released in 1975 “Fight The Power”, which sang about “All that bullshit going down” and was censored on radio (usually with a ‘beep’) but was still a Top 5 hit in the U.S.  By 1977 The Eagles exclaimed “Haven’t seen a goddamn day” in “Life In The Fast Lane” and for some reason got away with it at radio.  But Steve Miller ended up with “Funky kicks going down in the city” instead of “Funky shit” in “Jet Airliner” the same year.  And after that, changing the lyrics seemed to be the way to go.  It no longer seemed to be an issue, even in the hot and heavy days of disco when sexual lyrics and subject matter pretty much remained in clubs.

In fact I can’t think of it being much of an issue until the late 80’s, but that was with videos which were spearheaded by one Madonna.  But those videos helped promote Madonna to radio, and controversial hits like “Like A Prayer”, “Justify My Love”, and “Erotica” were all still huge hits.  And it was all about the video star… until recently since TV stations like MTV and MuchMusic long ago dispensed with music videos as their main showcase in favour of other programming.

The Internet is the new MTV for videos, and it was not until 2010 that songs that prominently featured swearing or sensitive subject matter began to find their way to success through the Internet as well.  By late 2010 this had reached its pinnacle, with some of the world’s most popular artists releasing songs that, in fact on this very day are at the top of iTunes Canada’s chart.  They are “Born This Way” by Lady GaGa, “S&M” by Rihanna, “Fuckin Perfect” by Pink, and “Tonight (I’m Loving You)” by Enrique Iglesias, which I wrote about last week as “Tonight (I’m Fucking You)” (and even Avril Lavigne’s “What The Hell” is #5 – though in Canada we had Michel Pagliaro’s hit “What The Hell I Got” in 1975).  And it’s no longer possible to cover your ears or those of your children if you want to hear pop music on the radio or online, you would just basically have to avoid it all together.

For every bit of imagery borrowed from Elton John, Madonna or perhaps Donna Summer, “Born This Way” has a strong, strong message of equality that made me immediately think of those “Walk On The Wild Side” lyrics from 1973 but I’m extremely aware that that message would not be so strongly felt without Lady GaGa’s current status on the 2011 platform shoes of pop music.  “S&M” takes Madonna’s images from “Justify My Love” and “Erotica” a few steps further with a playful video and lyrics “Well I might be bad but I’m perfectly good” which make the topic seem very – routine.  And sure Pink has used swearing before, but of course in a song title you’re not going to have retail or radio promoting the F-word so even in 2011 the song becomes “Perfect” just as in 2004 when Eamon’s “Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back)” became a parenthetical title only – and in the UK the song was an even bigger hit than in North America, as was its reply song by Frankee which was just called “F.U.R.B.”  Ditto with Enrique Iglesias’ latest song.  A singer with such a nice-guy image as Enrique singing “Tonight I’m fucking you”?  Relegated to clubs and the online community, alas.

Only "Tonight I'm Fucking You" fan-made artwork available!

So yes, it’s the mid-seventies revisited at pop radio.  One day the swearing barrier will come down because it will no longer be an issue.  But we’ll have to see what kind of content we will hear next on pop radio, and who will bring that next step to the forefront.