So you want to be a rock-and-roll star? These days, you better watch your mouth. Of course, for most of rock’s history, the exact opposite was true.
Rock-and-roll first erupted in the 1950s as a dynamic rebellion against button-down conformity during a time when CBS so feared the carnal potency of Elvis Presley’s hips that cameras only showed him from the waist up.
As rock grew during the ’60s, so too did its intensity when assailing “The Man” with obscenity and outrage. The ’70s brought hyper-decadent arena rock stars worshipped for their Caligula-like indulgences (e.g., Led Zep with the groupie and the mud shark), followed by punk, railing in opposition with unprecedented "filth and fury."
Come the ’80s, heavy metal’s blasphemy and sadomasochism petrified the Polite Set the point that Senator’s wife Tipper Gore almost got the state to step in and do something— you know, for the sake of the children. Again: almost.
Alas, the Puritan streak in America runs deep. Terror that a turn of phrase might sexually and/or violently corrupt society is now terror that some verbal outburst will rain down unending racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and an endless parade of other “isms” and/or “phobias.”
To illuminate the difference between our present state and the way rock stars once freely voiced even their ugliest notions, let’s look back at ten revered artists whose words—not actions, of course—would today end their careers.
John Lennon's 1972 anthem “Woman Is the N---er of the World” is a cry against male supremacy holding back and keeping down females and people of color. The song’s title is taken from an observation made by Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono, pointing out how even among the most downtrodden people, women get treated as lesser beings.
Alas, context is nonexistent today, and it’s likely that the Brigades of the Incensed would focus only on the song’s employment of a racial slur, and not its larger meaning. In addition, since John Lennon qualified as neither of the oppressed classes for whom he was advocating, no dearth of nabobs would be quick to shriek that these aren't his complaints to file.
The Beastie Boys
Look no further than the Internet’s present disgust with Iggy Azalea to imagine how three privileged, pampered, Upper Class New York Society white males would be greeted today if they showed up doing the Beastie Boys’ schtick circa ’86.
It’s hardly a secret that the original title of the Beasties’ breakthrough LP License to Ill was Don’t Be a F-ggot, but a Village Voice piece from 1987 paints a more vivid picture of where these future groovy Buddhist heroes were mentally in their wayward youth.
Ad Rock: Greenwich Village is the gay area of New York, and I’ve lived here all my life, and I hate f-ggots.
Reporter: You hate homosexuals?
Ad Rock: I really do… I shouldn’t have said that. I’ve got a lot of gay friends but… you don’t know what it’s like growing up in this neighborhood.
MCA: What Adam’s talking about—I’ll give you this, he definitely hates gay people—but the reason for that is that in this neighborhood, where you’re five years old, a lot of disgusting f-ggots who hang around here aren’t just like gay people—normal gay people—all the sickos who are gay hang about on Christopher Street and they see kids and they walk up to them and they say, “Hey, kid, I’ll give you five bucks if you suck my d--k, y’know?”
As the Beastie Boys are always hailed for being pioneers, Ad-Rock spearheaded the current Celebrity Apology Tour all the way back in 1999 for publicly saying he was sorry for the anti-gay sentiments he expressed when he was young and didn’t know better.
Coming to his senses through a hangover, Costello expressed sincere regret. Ray Charles, no stranger to booze-fueled missteps himself, quickly forgave the singer-songwriter saying, “Drunken talk isn’t meant to be printed in the paper.”
The public has never entirely forgotten the incident, though, and perhaps that’s what prompted the BBC in 2013 to censor a line from the Costello classic: “Only takes one itchy trigger/one more widow, one less white n---er.”
The song is a protest against the English military occupation in Northern Ireland, which, historically, had been fueled by England’s ruling class viewing the Irish as virtually subhuman.
Context, of course, has been as vamoosed from our contemporary online “dialogue” as that offending word was from Elvis’s song.
Where to begin? Where to end? Iconoclastic on a cellular level, Frank Zappa lived to compose and execute bold, revolutionary music using every tool available to him (even those he had to invent). Among his visionary devices, very much, were obscenity, offensiveness, and all-out assaults on what Proper Thinking Individuals would deem “good taste.”
Zappa loved sex jokes, ethnic and toilet humor, and tweaking stereotypes, all of which served his music to create a new freedom in which any idea or expression was possible. Like his art, Frank Zappa was fearless.
As a result, Zappa remained both controversial and simultaneously beyond controversy throughout his life. In 1979, some organizations gave Zappa specific grief over the song “Jewish Princess” for lyrics such as:
I want a hairy little Jewish Princess /
With a brand new nose, who knows where it goes /
I want a steamy little Jewish Princess /
With over-worked gums, who squeaks when she cums /
I don't want no troll /
I just want a Yemenite hole
Alas, back in ’79, even the most worrisome types could recognize intentionally over-the-top outrageousness calculated to be shocking and funny and thought-provoking, thus, Zappa got to keep doing what only he could do.
Think about Zappa in modern times, though. Where would he and the Mothers be allowed to perform? How many corporations would loudly and proudly announce they wouldn’t carry Zappa product? And how many contemporary rock fans would think, “Good, f--- that bigot!”?
The Velvet Underground is overwhelmingly perceived today as an intelligent and “classy” art rock outfit that brought New York sophistication to caveman garage noise. In reality, the VU first made their mark as dark and decadent shock rockers who horrified the gentle hippies of their day.
No one ran with that mantle more than VU leader Lou Reed. For a while in the ’70s glam era, Reed ruled as a genuine rock superstar who violated taboos on stage (shooting up “heroin” in concert) and off (openly living with a transgender lover named Rachel).
Lou Reed also said whatever the f—k was on his mind. Look no further than his interview from the Soho News, March 9-15, 1978. Choice quotes follow:
"Hempstead’s like the crotch of Long Island. It’s one big bus terminal with f-ggots walking around saying, ‘You in love?’"
"Anything connected with Bill Graham, I’d piss on. He was a lowlife Jewish asshole promoter that I wouldn’t shit on. He was managing Jefferson Airplane till their lead singer got knocked up and they brought in that other dumb bitch."
"Blondie’s not my type, although I’m sure there are people who find her attractive. I don’t like n---ers like Donna Summer."
Someone out there is reading those words, discounting what Lou Reed actually did with his life and music, and thinking, “I’m glad that a-hole’s dead!”
Iggy Pop sought not just to offend proper society but to assault it—oftentimes physically. Punk’s premiere godfather and the aesthetic overlord of so much heavy metal barreled through one barrier after another in his prime, to the point that it makes absolutely no sense that Iggy remains among the living.
Still, Iggy Pop is very much alive and very much still rocking. Such would also very much not be the case today, if he were to presently say what he did in a 1974 interview with rock journalist Danny Sugerman.
"Ummm, I called a n---er a 'n---er' in Mass. last week. That's pretty bold. You know what I mean? You just don't say that sort of stuff in front of 3,000 people. But he really was, I mean he was n---ering. N---ering out, grabbing at my leg and microphone cord. I said, “Stop that, you damn n---er ,’ and that takes guts!"
Michael Richards might add that it also takes a very healthy retirement fund these days.
Back in 2008, a video of Amy Winehouse emerged that depicted the doomed songbird with a friend singing, to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes," a nursery rhyme litany of epithets that goes:
“Blacks, Pakis, gooks and nips.”
In Amy’s defense, she was high at the time.
“Rock N Roll N---er” is punk poet Patti Smith’s declaration of solidarity with People of Color by virtue of her feeling outside of mainstream culture and expressing ideas on that topic through radical music.
White music journalists ate it up back in 1978 and, thirty years later, The Pitchfork 500 record guide newly listed “Rock N Roll N---er” among its greatest-songs-of-all-time roster. Still, that was 2008 and seven years is an eternity in Internet Mob Mentality time.
Just picture how it would go over today on Facebook if a very white singer who constantly invoked canonical dead European male writers belted out the following in public:
“Jimi Hendrix was a n---er /
Jesus Christ and Grandma, too /
Jackson Pollock was a n---er /
N---er, n---er, n---er, n---er /
N---er, n---er, n---er!”
Guns N’ Roses
The song “One in a Million” describes transplanted Indiana teenage hayseed Axl Rose’s thought process as he hops a Greyhound to get away from the bustle of L.A. for a while.
Documenting his stroll through the bus terminal Rose sings:
Police and n---ers, that's right /
Get out of my way /
Don't need to buy none of your /
Gold chains today
Later he bemoans:
Immigrants and f-ggots /
They make no sense to me /
They come to our country /
And think they'll do as they please /
Like start some mini Iran, /
Or spread some f---in' disease /
They talk so many goddamn ways /
It's all Greek to me
Again, in the context of the song, Rose is reporting on how his young mind perceived others and their “otherness."
It's akin to the ugly but historically accurate nickname for his friend Jim used by the adolescent hero throughout The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (and yes, our Grand Anointed Moral Superiors have "fixed" that as well).
Besides, on a grander scale, shouldn’t one function of rock be to shed light on unpleasant and uncomfortable notions that normally get tamped down, particularly as the character in a song is working through them?
Our present climate has answered that last question with a resounding, “No!”
Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach once took the stage in 1991 wearing a purposefully offensive t-shirt that parodied the logo and slogan of the anti-pest spray Raid, which famously declares “Raid: Kills Bugs Dead.” Bach’s shirt, instead, read: “AIDS: Kills F-gs Dead.”
Understandably, the singer took heat, and he promptly sat down with MTV newsman Kurt Loder to say he was sorry. Bach explained that he thought it was a dumb joke, and that, in hindsight—particularly in light of how he didn't find cancer humor funny after the disease killed his beloved grandmother—he recognized how hurtful and even frightening those words might have been.
Bach also said he’d become more thoughtful in the aftermath of the dust-up and, to his credit, he has remained so in the quarter-century since then.
Wearing that shirt today would mean no second chance, no room to grow, no deeper understanding for anyone involved. It would be “Stupid Shirt: Killed Career Dead.”