Monday, August 01, 2005

Potty-mouthed parrots and muthafunking madonnas

Following on from the articles about swearing last month, here are two more pieces (from The Times online) about outbreaks of swearing in polite society.

Firstly, there's the foul-mouthed parrot, Barney, who's been in trouble for swearing at the local vicar and police officers. And then there's another old bird (sorry), Madonna, whose recent outburst of swearing during her afternoon performance at Live 8 caused many a maiden aunt to clutch their pacemakers and get up to "make a cup of tea" for a few minutes.

While both are silly stories, there's perhaps some mileage to be gained from looking at the response to swearing from different groups in society (parents, children, media) and the importance of context in each of these cases.

Parrot placed in solitary for swearing at vicar
By Jenny Booth, Times Online

A foul-mouthed parrot who stands on top of his cage shouting rude words at passers-by has been isolated after swearing at the mayoress, a lady vicar and two police officers.

Barney the blue and gold Macaw has been placed in solitary confinement by his mortified keepers after he used some extremely choice language.

Stacey Clark, who works at Warwickshire Wildlife Sanctuary in Nuneaton, said that the bird had been handed in by a lorry driver three years ago when the man was emigrating to Spain.

"We don't know who taught him the words, but he seems to have a problem with authority figures," said Ms Clark.

"When he saw the policemen coming, he said: 'Hello, you two w*****s'. He told the mayoress and the lady vicar to f*** off. He stands on the top of his cage swaying his head backwards and forwards, singing 'B*****ks', "B*****ks'."

Normally Barney flaps around in a pen in the back garden of Geoff Grewcock's home, alongside about 300 other birds and 60 animals which have either been found injured in the wild or are unwanted pets.

But Ms Clark said that Barney had now been locked in the front room to keep him away from visitors to the sanctuary after the incidents. He was still shouting abuse at people through the window.

"The lady vicar came to borrow a bird cage, because she was preaching a sermon about the birds," she explained. "She was speaking to Barney really nicely when he said 'F*** off', clear as a bell, so you could tell exactly what he was saying. The vicar was a bit shocked but luckily she didn't mind. She even put it in her sermon on Sunday, saying she had never been told where to go by a parrot before."

Ms Clark said that Barney seemed to know what he was saying as he always picked the wrong person to insult.

"He always swears when you don't want him to," she said. "But when BBC West Midlands came round to film him, he point blank refused to say it. The reporter repeated it to him over and over and over, and he wouldn't say it back to her, so I think he knows.

"I can't wait to hear what he says when he sees himself on television tonight."

Barney does also know some marginally more polite words, apparently. When he sees someone he likes approaching, he says: "Hello, big boy."

*!@**! Where did that come from?
Unexpected swearing incidents are breaking out all over mainstream songs. Giles Hattersley asks the producers why

As if it were not difficult enough to protect children from video games, fatty foods and athlete’s foot, parents have a new problem to confront. Unexpected Swearing Incidents (USIs) seem to occur with worrying frequency. They can surprise you in the car or the comfort of your home and the worst always end with someone in Boden dungarees asking, “Daddy, what’s a motherf*****?”

Nobody could claim to be surprised by popular music’s desire to be outrĂ©. Elvis, the Who and the Sex Pistols certainly pushed some buttons. Hell, even Brian Wilson raised eyebrows when he dug a French bikini on California Girls. But latterly the frisson of a rare rude song has been eclipsed by a taste-crushing onslaught of sexually explicit, violence-promoting popular music so pervasive that four-letter foes are turning up in places they never used to.

Wednesday morning and I am in a music shop. As it’s the summer holidays, and raining, a few 9 to 13-year-olds are browsing the plastic racks, killing time discussing this rapper or that pop babe.

“Wicked fit” is the consensus on Cheryl Tweedy of Girls Aloud, whose leathers and suggestive stare would make a yummy mummy blanch. “Crazy tough” is the verdict on 50 Cent, the world’s biggest rap star, whose bullet-scarred torso adorns the cover of his album Get Rich or Die Tryin’.

Despite such temptations, a well turned out 10-year-old girl instead splurges £1.99 on James Blunt’s sweet bestseller Beautiful. Unlike Tweedy or 50, Blunt, a wan-looking Old Harrovian, does not seem the type that parents need to worry about. His hair may be a little longer than necessary, but at least he is free of piercings. They might even buy his album themselves.

She skips to a waiting car where, I imagine, mum, eager to assert her grooviness, will pop Beautiful into her Volvo estate’s CD player. The gentle love song will wash over them, she will think how nice it is to share such moments, then over the speakers will come: “Yes she caught my eye as I walked on by. She could see from my face that I was f****** high.”

Bang — USI! The only question is: who is squirming more? “This is why I never let my mum and dad listen to my music,” says Charlie, 13, back in the record shop. “It makes them really embarrassed.”

Kate Fielder, a Surrey housewife, could not agree more. She was driving her daughter home from school: “I heard the f-word in a Robbie Williams song and sort of involuntarily shouted, while my daughter groaned at me. It’s only a word and you know they hear much worse, but I wanted to turn it off. I didn’t because I thought I’d seem completely uncool.”

“I had the same thing when we were watching Live 8,” says Liz Johncox, 44. “Madonna said f*** on the BBC in the middle of the afternoon. Here’s this woman, who’s my age by the way, swearing during a charity concert.” Johncox tried to explain to her eight-year-old that saying “f***” at home was not on. “She said, ‘Why not, mum? Madonna does.’”

Of the 100 most downloaded songs on the internet last week, one in six contained explicit lyrics. In the record shop Charlie’s friend Anna says, “The rudest thing I’ve bought was Khia.” It takes some persuading to get her to tell me how it goes. Finally the 13-year-old rappily sings, starting, “Right now, lick it good . . .” followed by a lyric too shocking to repeat.

How did this stuff get into the mainstream? “When we compare music today to the past, we can see there is now a total lack of self- censorship,” says Professor Franco Fabbri from Turin University, a world authority on popular music throughout history. “Although vulgar language has been a basic foundation of culture since ancient Greece, the problem is that because the media allow us to hear many more songs than our ancestors did, musicians have to be as vulgar as possible to be heard.”

Simon Frith, chairman of the Mercury music prize, agrees: “Even five years ago I think a record company might have told James Blunt he would have to edit (the bad language), because otherwise people will complain about it.

“The fact they no longer think that necessary does tell you something. The Streets, for example, write songs that sound like conversations, and if everyday conversation includes more swearing, then that will be reflected in the music.”

Theories are not much use to overloaded parents who are too busy to police their children’s record collections. Helen Whitehead, a 46-year-old mother of two, works full time and worries more about school work than tastes in pop: “They download music for free off the internet, burn it on CDs and listen to it on headphones and I never know what goes on. I only ever get suspicious when they buy a CD and it’s got a parental warning sticker on it.”

British law has it that children of any age may buy any music CD they like. Record companies are advised by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) to put parental advisory stickers on material with explicit content, but it is not compulsory. Even when they do feel like it, a four-year-old is free to walk into HMV and buy any stickered Blink-182 album (sample lyric begins “s*** p*** f***).

“That’s mad, isn’t it?” says Frith. “Music has never been subjected to the same kind of censorship as film.” In Borders only last week, Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP could be bought by toddlers, but if you want to see him perform the same songs on his Anger Management DVD, you need to be 15.

“They’re very different mediums,” says Steve Redmond of the BPI when I raise this. So it is okay for four-year-olds to experience Reservoir Dogs if they throw a tablecloth over their television set? Redmond gets testy. He is “not aware of this being a major issue at this point in time”.

That parents dread what their children listen to is nothing new. What has changed is their involvement in a shared culture with their kids. In the same way that fathers and sons will both be reading Harry Potter this week, they might both be listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“We do listen to some of the same music,” says Brian Allen, a 41-year-old father of three. “But lots of it has bad language that I wouldn’t let my youngest listen to, though.” This did not stop the five-year-old saying “s***” — he had heard it on his brother’s stereo.

Frith believes that modern music suffers for the inclusion of thoughtless vulgarity: “The songs become less interesting when language is no longer used in an inventive way. In a time when people couldn’t use bad language freely, they had to be much more imaginative with metaphors and word games.”

Frith and Fabbri think we can expect more artists to resort to bad language. Meanwhile the record industry, claiming that you encounter worse on Big Brother, will continue to insist that children — their biggest market — should listen to whatever filth they like.

Sadly, USIs are here to stay — but can I make one small request? BPI, please slap a parental advisory sticker on Blunt. You are frightening the grown-ups.

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