In 1938, bandleader Eddy Duchin released a single called “Ol’ Man Mose.” A jaunty, brassy ditty penned by Louis Armstrong, it featured Patricia Norman singing lyrics about a man who “kicked the bucket” and subsequently hit No. 2 on the Billboard chart. But “Ol’ Man Mose” became a big seller for one key reason: This was the first-ever pop hit to drop the F-bomb.
Though its wantonness is still up for debate (maybe she was really singing “buck-buck-bucket”?), its cheekiness is singular. The legacy of “Ol’ Man Mose” resonates to this day in a spate of trash-talking singles that have peppered the Billboard charts: P!nk’s “F**kin’ Perfect,” Enrique Iglesias’ “Tonight I’m F---in’ You,” and of course, the troublemaker behind this craze, Cee Lo’s “F**k You.” Of course, potty-mouthing on the charts has been a fairly consistent phenomenon in recent history. The Who’s “Who Are You,” Prince’s “Sexy MF,” Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” Akon’s “I Wanna F--- You,” and Britney Spears’ “If U Seek Amy” have all toyed with the word. But what’s different now is that going to the F place can actually make a track more charming. Ultimately P!nk, Iglesias, and Cee Lo aren’t offensive so much as cheeky: They all offer “safe” versions of their singles.
P!nk’s use of the F-word is no surprise. The pregnant singer, who’s happily nesting with her ex, noted that Britney and Christina weren’t the ones who were supposed to have meltdowns; after all, P!nk has always worked hard at cultivating her devil-may-care, tough-girl image. More recently, her single “U + Ur Hand” was about masturbation, and “Funhouse” shamelessly unfurled the F word. But what’s subversive about “F---in Perfect” is that the song is a ballad—illustrated by an equally affecting video—extending compassion to the socially downtrodden. “Pretty pretty please, if you ever ever feel like you're nothing,” she sings solemnly. “You’re f---in’ perfect to me.” Sure, moms don’t want their daughters spewing expletives, but they may not mind them heeding the advice of this endearing track.
Enrique Iglesias, on the other hand, specializes in the sort of romance-lite that soundtracks your dentist’s office—fuzzy confections about treating his lady-friend right (see “Hero,” “Be With You”). He probably knows that. That’s why “Tonight I’m F**kin’ You” endeavored to step up his game. This is his stride toward rebellion—a track that directs the foreplay right on over to his crotch. Amazingly, however, he apologizes for the dirty talk (mustn’t alienate the demographic?): “You know my motivation/Given my reputation/Please excuse I don’t mean to be rude/But tonight I’m f---ing you.” You see, even a horny Iglesias is nothing if not a chivalrous Latin Lover.
All throwback falsettos and rotund sassiness, Cee Lo, in contrast, plays the part of the loser. Only, with “F**k You,” he’s set out to reinvent the heartbreak soul tune as an ironically chipper tell-off, made more potent by a bright, text-only teaser video. The Grammy-winning song was so adorable even Glee had that beacon of sun-kissed politeness, Gwyneth Paltrow, cover it, to much acclaim. (Yes, “F**k You” is partially to blame for Paltrow’s current musical endeavors. WTF, indeed.) At the Grammys, it wasn’t enough for Cee Lo, dressed like Elton John at his “Rocket Man” height, to meet-cute onstage with Paltrow: A rainbow variety of Muppets were dispatched to bounce along to the tune, hushing out the swearing.
Initially, Cee Lo’s sonic diatribe was so absurd it was clever. But over the seven-month-long popularity of “F--- You,” he and his peers have managed to start distilling the F bomb, once a marker of angst and protest (and in their cases, playful irreverence), into something much more benign: just another word.