Sing a bleep bleep

by Eszter Hargittai on December 18, 2003

The seven dirty words are still a no-no on US radio (unless they’re not sexual in nature, it turns out), but what about other suggestive lyrics? It doesn’t seem clear when things do and do not get censored. Take, for example, the song Semi-Charmed Life by Third Eye Blind. I haven’t heard that one on the radio, but a friend tells me that it is not bleeped out despite the line “she comes round and she goes down on me”. Recall, however, Alanis Morissette’s song You Oughta Know from a few years ago when a portion of the line “Would she go down on you in a theatre” did get bleeped out.

Is it a sign of the times that such lyrics no longer get censored or as a friend of mine hypothesizes, are women allowed to be less sexual in such lyrics? Are women singing about sexual actions more likely to get bleeped out than men? It’s just a hypothesis. We haven’t done a systematic analysis to answer the question. But it is certainly interesting to observe who and what gets censored.

For some interesting reading on all this, check out this document from the Federal Communications Commision. It has some amusing examples of indecency. Note, for example, the comment about the song Sit On My Face:
The song was found to be actionably indecent despite English accent and “ambient noise” because the lyrics were sufficiently understandable.
It looks like those of you thinking your English accent might get you off the hook better think again!

[Thanks to my friend Shawna for bringing some of the above to my attention and for pointers to relevant sites.]



Andrew Edwards 12.18.03 at 10:47 am

One thing I’v enoticed is in hip-hop, where, anectdotally, references to violence and guns by more political groups are more likely to get bleeped than similar references by less political groups.

E.g. Almost every reference to guns in the Wu-Tang Clan’s Victory gets bleeped.


James Russell 12.18.03 at 10:57 am

In the past I’ve spotted a number of instances—mostly through music videos—where the word “God” is muted out (e.g. Weezer’s “El Scorcho”, Beastie Boys’ “Body Movin'”). I’ve not yet decided whether this is in honour of whichever Biblical commandment says thou shalt not take God’s name in vain or whether “God” is considered the unofficial eighth dirty word…


sym 12.18.03 at 12:19 pm

My personal fave exampple is a Missy Elliot song where from the line “Go downtown and eat it like a vulture”, they bleep the word ‘eat’. They could have picked any word from that line, or just figured it was ambiguous enough to be heard uncensored.
So that supports the ‘evil patriarchal censoring board’ theory.


George 12.18.03 at 2:20 pm

In the U.S., the practice seems to vary by radio market. I’ve heard hip hop songs on the radio here in Kansas City with references to guns or violence bleeped out. When I lived in Washington D.C. I heard the same songs unedited.

As for whether women are more likely to be censored for sexual content in their music, I like to imagine the FCC throwing up their hands in surrender at trying to determine if Kelis’ “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard” is indecent or not.

And I’ve never heard a version of Missy Elliot’s “Work It” that did not include, unedited, the line, “Call before you come, I need to shave my cha-cha.” Perhaps would-be censors concluded the line would be more indecent if they bleeped “cha-cha” and left to the listener’s imagination what Elliot really said.

Finally, there’s always the possibility that editing actually draws attention to the bleeped words that might otherwise go un-noticed. “Work It,” for example, features these lines: “If you got a big {*elephant noise*} let me search ya / To find out how hard I gotta work ya.”

Yes, that elephant noise is certain to transform what was an indecent expression into a wholesome one.


Doug 12.18.03 at 2:36 pm

I’m sure it helps that the line in “Semi-Charmed Life” is barely intelligible, even when you know it’s, er, coming. Funny, I think I remember hearing that song with the line about crystal meth blanked out. Maybe Alanis suffered for being intelligible. But didn’t Frankie’s “Relax” get lots of airplay back in the day? Is that remake of Prince’s “Nikki” getting on the air Over There? What about the Cardigans’ “Live and Learn”? That’s all over German radio, despite both a “paid and got laid” and a “goddamn” but I don’t think the Germans really care what you sing in English. I wonder, if something had a good tune but obscene lyrics in, say, a Finno-Ugric language would the FCC object?

To say nothing of M. Python’s “I Bet You They Won’t Play This Song on the Radio.”


Katherine 12.18.03 at 2:36 pm

If anyone has one of those email filters that scans for inflammatory or obscene language, you can also have a lot of fun with this game. The one I’ve encountered is called “Mood Watcher” and gives you 0-4 chili peppers. It’s not very bright; I’m sure “sit on my face” would be found totally innocent, even without an English accent. And it doesn’t know British curses at all.


Doug 12.18.03 at 2:38 pm

ps I’m thinking I also remember hearing “Shoop” and “Let’s Talk About Sex” on the radio in Alabama, so it’ll be hard to jump to conclusions…


Carl 12.18.03 at 2:45 pm

I found it amusing that on our local station, the word bleeped from this part of Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag…”

“And her boyfriend’s a dick
He brings a gun to school
And he’d simply kick
my ass if he knew the truth…”

…was “gun.”


eszter 12.18.03 at 3:03 pm

Although I said “bleeped out” in my post, what often happens is that the section just gets cut out completely (I think). I’m not sure how they manage this with the beat and such. But the point is that unless someone is really listening to the lyrics (which I tend to do at least once in a while) you can’t actually tell that something got censored.

And good point about the milkshake song.:)


eszter 12.18.03 at 3:08 pm

Carl, that’s quite an example. It seems radio stations are pretty okay with the d word. For example, Simply Plan’s Addicted song does not get censored. I’m referring to the line “I’m a dick, I’m addicted to you”. I wonder if they get away because they make it sound as though they were just pausing before pronouncing “addicted” in its entirety.

They didn’t make it past the censors of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade though (which I happened to be watching at times b/c there was a TV in the kitchen where I was preparing the meal:). They performed a few lines from the song but paused in place of the d word. You could see the singer smiling as he did that though.


digamma 12.18.03 at 3:30 pm

And I’ve never heard a version of Missy Elliot’s “Work It” that did not include, unedited, the line, “Call before you come, I need to shave my cha-cha.”

That IS the edited version. On the record, it’s “chocha”.


dop 12.18.03 at 4:11 pm

As for how they get this “blank spot” in the lyrics, I think many record companies release edited versions (to comply with companies like Walmart who sometimes refuse to sell the unedited ones).

I remember a friend having a totally edited CD release of a Sublime single. Very odd stuff.


drapetomaniac 12.18.03 at 4:55 pm

I wonder, if something had a good tune but obscene lyrics in, say, a Finno-Ugric language

You can say pretty much whatever you want to in Jamaican patois on the radio or on TV (as Arsenio memorably demonstrated on the regular).

As for the gender thing, Sarah Jones’ troubles are a pretty obvious example of bias.


Matt Weiner 12.18.03 at 5:27 pm

I remember hearing that MTV Party to go bleeped the following couplet from “Regulate” (Warren G and Nate Dogg):

Sixteen in the clip and one in the hole
Now it’s time for Nate Dogg to make some bodies turn cold.

Sensibly enough, they bleeped “cold.” I like to think they were trying to fool you into thinking the word was “hot,” and that Nate Dogg was about to make love to the men who were holding Warren G up.

Does anyone else remember “Unbelievable” by EMF, and think that there’s definitely a sample of someone saying “What the fuck?” in the chorus?


George 12.18.03 at 5:39 pm

I wrote: “And I’ve never heard a version of Missy Elliot’s ‘Work It’ that did not include, unedited, the line, ‘Call before you come, I need to shave my cha-cha.'”

Digamma wrote: “That IS the edited version. On the record, it’s ‘chocha’.”

Ah, yes. I can see how that’s much more indecent.



Josh 12.18.03 at 7:21 pm

George: The elephant noise isn’t the work of the censors; it’s in the (unedited) album version of “Work It”, too.

Another example of “God” being a hot-button word: Eminem’s “My name is…”. The unedited version says “God sent me to piss the world off”, but the radio edit changes it to “Dre sent me to take the world on”.

And speaking of “Regulate”, I was in France right after that song came out, and hearing it on French radio was quite the revelation. I hadn’t been aware of just how different the edited version was…


shanti 12.18.03 at 7:22 pm

Thanks, drapetomaniac, for reminding us about Sarah Jones, whose name had escaped me for months. I did a little google search and found a nice article on her song as well as larger gender/censorship issues on the radio from Bitch Magazine, which covers “Feminist Response to Pop Culture.”


Ted Barlow 12.18.03 at 7:23 pm

“Does anyone else remember “Unbelievable” by EMF, and think that there’s definitely a sample of someone saying “What the fuck?” in the chorus?”

You’re right. The sample is from Andrew Dice Clay, and that’s exactly what he’s saying. I’ve never heard it bleeped.

My favorite bleeping story was from the Superbowl a few years ago. The broadcasters put helmet mikes on the players and broadcast them live. At the very beginning of the game, one of the players running out of the tunnel was loudly chanting, “FUCK THOSE FUCKERS, FUCK THOSE FUCKERS”, and they didn’t cut it. It was great.


Ted Barlow 12.18.03 at 7:26 pm

Josh- re: “Regulate”:

Do you remember when Eminem and D/12 released “Purple Pills” as a single? Every line of the song is about drug use, so they basically had to write an entirely different song, called “Purple Hills”, to get it on the radio. I didn’t even realize it until I heard the original song in Germany. I wonder why they thought it was worth the bother.


rosalind 12.18.03 at 8:40 pm

Heh. Maybe they’ll follow the “Purple Pills” model if OutKast ever wants to release “Spread,” second-best song on The Love Below, as a single for radio play. It could be about spreading jam or something…


Rv. Agnos 12.18.03 at 10:28 pm

Steve Miller Band, “Jet Airliner” gets played on classic rock stations all of the time. I have NEVER heard them bleep out “shit.” The lyric is:

“And I’m goin’ with some hesitation
You know that I can surely see
That I don’t want to get caught up in any of that
Funky shit goin’ down in the city.”

I take a double take every time I hear it.


B 12.19.03 at 12:58 am

The one that always gets me, and yes it is from another age, but I can’t STAND the edited version of Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. It’s even on his greatest hits CD. An obviously out of place overdub replaces “makin’ love in the green grass” with “laughing and a-running”. Makes my blood boil every time I hear that version.


matt 12.19.03 at 4:43 am

Two stories:
I lived in Russia for a few years and would quite often be startled in stores or cafes where very vulgar music in english would be playing- few people knew english and even fewer listened, so no one cared.

Also, on ESPN several years ago, during the Arizona Fall basball league games, they had the “pitching coach” mike, so we could all find out what the pitching coaches say to the pitchers when they talk w/ them. It turned out to be something along the lines of “You little pussy! Throw the fucking ball over the fucking plate!” It lasted only one inning, obviously.


laura 12.19.03 at 5:05 am

Like Doug, I remember hearing “Semi-Charmed Life” with the going down left in and the crystal meth bleeped out.

That Shaggy song where the guy’s girlfriend catches him cheating did have a bleep. Or, I think the original had her catching them “banging on the bathroom floor” but a lot of stations played a version that said something like “love on the bathroom floor.”

But it does seem to be up to the radio station a lot of the time. In that Shaggy song different stations played different versions; that’s been even more true with Kid Rock & Sheryl Crow’s “Picture.” At the beginning he says he’s been “fueled up on cocaine and whiskey,” but there’s a cut where he’s just “fueled up on whiskey” and one where that line is missing altogether.


epist 12.19.03 at 9:43 am

If you ask me, the real discriminatory practice is found in th edifferent treatment of rap and non-rap. Rap music, or anything associated with rap music (and that means all black urban music) gets much closer scrutiny than Rawk, college pop or metal. Johnny Cash can sing about shooting a man (in Reno) ‘just to watch him die’ in 1965, Eric Clapton can confess to shooting the sherrif (but not the deputy) in 1974 and the Who can demand to know who the fuck you are (at the top of their lungs, no less) in 1976, but Naz gets bleeped trying to say ‘nigger’ in 2003. Nigga please.

As a Canuck, the double standard was especially painful, since the Tragically Hip could barely get through a sound check without profanity. Although perhaps Downies’s mouthfull-of-marbles delivery might be partly responsible. Still, all their swear words were faithfully played (and played, and played) on Canadian radio and TV. . .


chujoe 12.19.03 at 2:33 pm

Back in the 80s sometime my girlfriend & I were on a bus in Morocco. All the long-haul buses had sound systems & usually the drivers played Arabic pop featuring a lot of high female voices. We were doubled over in our seats laughing, though, when the driver put a Donna Summer tape in the machine & we heard what was then a series of very suggestive songs. As far as we could tell, nobody else on the bus spoke English.


dop 12.19.03 at 3:02 pm

The Australian I live with is constantly amazed at the hacked-up, remixed quality of a lot of my old 80’s pop. He just rolls with laughter over the degree of censorship found there — who knew we were living in the “free world”, eh?


Britt 12.26.03 at 6:28 am

I don’t think that curse words in music is a bad thing at all. Mostly everyone (if not stupid) can figure out what they say even if they bleep it out, so it really is pointless. When I buy CD’s, I buy the unedited ones because the edited versions are ignorant. I think older people are just trying to find a reason to complain about today’s youth and they want to be in control of them. I think many parents have control issues that they need to address.


Dave 01.08.04 at 11:03 pm

Every time i hear it on the radio, the phrase “f— your God” always seems to slip past the censors on A Perfect Circle’s “judith”. Also the phrase “who the f— are you?” in The Who’s “Who are you?” I find it amusing that they overlook the big bad “f” word so often and still bleep the word “indo” out of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice”.


Missy Sexy 01.22.04 at 10:56 pm

Why doesnt any radio stations bleep out the word “Bitch”?

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