Everyone remembers the first time they heard a swear in a song. For some people, it was Rob Tyner commanding MC5 to “kick out the jams, motherfuckers.” For others, it was Axel Rose telling his detractors to “fuck off” on Appetite for Destruction. I have distinct memories of Eminem yelling all manner of swear words into the microphone on his third studio album The Eminem Show. However, more fond than that memory is my recollection of his radio edit for “My Name Is.”
In the explicit version of “My Name Is,” Eminem jumps all over the place with lyrics about smacking Pamela Anderson (referred to as Pamela Lee), smoking pounds of pot and dreaming about murdering his father. The radio edit, however, sees Eminem rapping about kissing a pair of silicone lips, hitting himself in the head repeatedly, and taking out an ad in a pornographic magazine.
What’s amazing about this is that none of what he changes does anything to alter the song’s original meaning. Granted, “My Name Is” is essentially just about how nuts and out there Eminem is, but it’s a true show of lyrical ability and creativity to be able to make two versions of the same song, much less a cohesive “clean” version for the radio.
Eminem was not the first to cut an alternate clean version of an otherwise vulgar song. In the 80s, NWA was blazing that particular trail.
That’s right, even the most prolific rap collective in history, a group whose name had to be abbreviated on all media, cut a clean version of “Straight Outta Compton.” I always jokingly go into the clean version of this song to throw people off. “…from a super dope gang with attitude” is a hilarious line to pull out.
Again, the overall meaning is retained because Ice Cube could write a solid verse with or without profanity. Rap could still be violent, could still be aggressive, and could still sound good even listening on television or in the car.
Some time in the early 2000s, the radio edit began to go by the wayside in favor of artists just muting curse words in songs. I offer up Snoop Dogg and Pharrell’s 2004 masterpiece “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”
This one came on the radio the other day and I found myself wondering if, by muting certain lines, doesn’t that leave room for interpretation as far as the subject? For example, the line in the chorus goes “If a ni**a get an attitude,” but with the muting, it could just as easily be “if a bitch get an attitude.” The integrity of the song is ruined. RUINED.
That’s a little hyperbolic, but I do wonder what caused the shift from an alternate complete radio edit to an edit with only the offensive words muted. With “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” I found myself filling in the blanks for a lot of the muted words, which is probably the intent.
The culprit for a lack of effort in radio edits might simply be that society as a whole doesn’t look at profanity the same way. NWA’s debut album Straight Outta Compton debuted in 1988, a time when music considered “profane” or “extreme” was under attack by the Parents Music Resource Center, an organization with Tipper Gore at the helm. The infamous congressional hearings in 1985, where artists like Dee Snider of Twisted Sister and Frank Zappa were called forth to defend lyrical content, brought forth a new focus on profanity in music. This was the era of the black and white “Parental Advisory” sticker, and that probably reflected on the creation of clean radio edits of songs.
As profanity and drug references in music became more widespread, not just in hip hop but in rock and pop and metal and everywhere else, people’s opinions on it started to relax as well. Not only did the references become more widespread, there’s significantly less subtlety to them. This year, hip hop artist Desiigner became a household name when his song “Panda” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Lyrically, it’s full of bold references to violence and the sale and use of drugs, yet it plays unedited on the radio.
Do I think the radio edit should come back en vouge? Not really. I think the concepts of profanity and censorship are fundamentally flawed. Who determines what is vulgar? How do you objectively censor something? The profane is subjective, and no one’s ever going to be happy one way or the other. However, I can only imagine what 1984/1985 Tipper Gore would of a song like “Panda” being the most popular song in the country.