17 Comments

What happens if songs become offensive over time?

What we need, so Blue Mink tell us, is one great big melting pot. And do you know – I agree with them.

I’m sure if I’d been around in 1969 I’d have agreed with what was meant by the song all the way through, but I can’t say I’d stick their lyrics up on a banner now, in 2012.

For the purposes of analysis I shall share with you a sample of those lyrics:

Take a pinch of white man
Wrap him up in black skin
Add a touch of blue blood
And a little bitty bit of Red Indian boy

Curly Latin kinkies
Mixed with yellow Chinkees
If you lump it all together
Well, you got a recipe for a get along scene
Oh, what a beautiful dream
If it could only come true, you know, you know

What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough to take the world and all it’s got
And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee colored people by the score

The message goes slowly off-colour, but how do we reconcile this with what was clearly a well-meaning song about mixing race in harmony?

Another song that might fit here is Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. Though this doesn’t deal with any political themes necessarily, one wonders whether the lack of controversy around the use of the word “coloured” is because the song is so good.

That said, if this was the case then why is there so much controversy surrounding Dire Straits’ song Money for Nothing which contains the now unacceptable word “faggot”, as does Fairy-tale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.

Is it just that some songs are not subject to censorship and others are forgotten?

A Canadian radio station successfully managed to ban playing Dire Straits earlier this year, and on several occasions the BBC have tried to ban Fairy-Tale of New York, but the fuss kicked up was so high that they continue to play it today – and even go as far as saying they no longer censor songs.

Myself, I think where it is well-meaning or harmless, we’ve little choice but to live and let live. Taking out the word/s might seem crass, and certainly not good for artistic form.

In the case of the Blue Mink song, I’m afraid I can’t simply say live and let live. It is well-meaning, yes, but there are so many words in the song that don’t sit well with our modern palate that it’s hard to have it any other way.

Also I think if nostalgia is positive, then songs can stay. The way in which Lou Reed delivers his line, we are transported back to a time where black girls danced in sync providing backing vocals – particularly so in soul music.

Unfortnately, this isn’t so in Blue Mink. References to “chinkees” and “coffee coloured people” only remind me of negative instances, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

So as for what we do when songs become slightly offensive over time, there’s not one single answer. What’s often the case is that we just know when something doesn’t quite sound right anymore, and there are few better examples where that is the case than with the above two songs.

17 comments on “What happens if songs become offensive over time?

  1. Times change/Take Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime”… Nobody would advocate “have a drink have a drive” anymore. Still it’s good for a drink drive campaign!

  2. I’m quite worried about these lyrics in that song too:

    If her daddy’s rich, take her out for a meal
    If her daddy’s poor, just do what you feel

    Class war!

  3. AH yes I’d forgotten those lyrics.

  4. […] became a dope fiend rent boy, and me on the music of the black diaspora, as well as Carl asking what you do when songs become politically incorrect. Kind of blurred the first and last CDs and first and last LPs, but that’s OK. Let’s […]

  5. Carl,

    Thank you for introducing me to the wonderful Blue Mink, who I confess I’d never heard before.

    Three points.

    First, when it comes to racist and homophobic language and other forms of giving offence, context is absolutely central to evaluating it. For example, if a newspaper prints the following two sentences in news articles: “John Smith said the police officer called him a ‘faggot’ before punching him.” And “Thousands of faggots gathered peacefully in Hyde Park for London’s annual Gay Pride festival.” The word “faggot” is completely different in the two.

    Similarly, the context in which you play a song matters. Your embedding of the Blue Mink youtube into a discussion of this issue could not be accused of racism, but it would be inappropriate to play it without comment on primetime radio.

    Blanket bans, censorship and self-censorship therefore are never the right thing to do. If there’s a good reason to play or listen to a song with politically incorrect lyrics, there’s a good reason. If you’re playing it only to cause offence, then that’s wrong.

    Second, there’s a very big gap (although not always clear) between being politically incorrect or “off-colour” as you put it, and being offensive. Is “coloured girls” really offensive? It’s not the term that black women would want to be applied to them these days, but it’s not really offensive. If it was, the NAACP would have changed its name long ago. It’s basically completely benign.

    The Blue Mink song uses terms that, although well-meant at the time, sound less benign and more offensive today, so I doubt many DJs would want to include them in a club set, say, or a radio playlist.

    Third, “Walk on the Wild Side” (like “Fairy Tale of New York” or the Stones’ “Brown Sugar”) is a classic, of enormous musical value, and to jettison it because it has some “off-colour” words would just be silly. With Blue Mink, part of the question should be: is the music good enough to warrant keeping the song alive?

  6. good article …. we once had a ‘heated’ debate on line once over ‘honky tonk women’ and when i say ‘heated’ that’s an understatement.

  7. This is a good post… this is probably a generalisation on my part… there are aspects about the English Language that are still steeped in class bias… i.e.: regional accents are an example. In Spain for example, I don’t know many people who would worry about the phrase “de puta madre” … it is used by everyone in terms of age, class, cultural background, gender… I would say it is part of a common living language.

    Because of a class and cultural ‘divide’ exists in England (in particularly I think), terms of normal everyday used are stigmatised by those form another class/cultural background… that isn’t so much the case in many other European nations. In a sense the Punk are was a great movement for highlighting these linguistic biases – It was refreshing to hear common everyday language in a formal setting such as the Radio and the TV [at last the youth culture could ‘own’ the language it wanted to express itself with…] – no problem that our songs also spoke in the same language.

    In the 60s… the idea of “just doing what you feel” was still revolutionary… the PC thing was to “take her out for a meal” [yet thinking about the Profumo scandal… the this idea is quite ironic] – it was the era of a sexual revolution among the sexes … it was a song that was sung by a black artist fronting a rock band in England… it was a sincere expression of that time … and to me the language then was more HONEST than the regular chart-fare.

    These types of PC-criticisms have been targeted to todays’ musical genres … if we hide away from these terms, then we perhaps misconstrue their original purpose – often a positive one. This is the song that I particular found “off colour” when I first was introduced to English Anglo-Saxon culture… about the ship Titanic… it doesn’t have any swear words [they are for the listener to put in themselves at appropriate places within the jolly middle-class molto allegro chorus … THAT find VERY offensive… I was taught this song at girl-guides and at my secondary school during choir singing classes in the late 70s – the offensiveness accentuated by the jolly ‘allegro’ tune of the whole song.

    http://www.scoutorama.com/song/song_display.cfm?song_id=173

    (Chorus)
    It was sad, SO SAD! It was sad, SO VERY SAD!
    It was sad when the great ship went down to the bottom of the (husbands and wives, and little children lost their lives!) It was sad when the great ship went down

    Well they were not far from shore, say a thousand miles or more, and the rich refused to associate with the poor, so they sent them down below and they were the first to go. It was sad when the great ship went down.

    (Chorus)

    Having said the above… yes, I like the idea of reflection such as this… however, it is worth asking what those songs meant to surviving members of the generation who got to hear them for the first time… and also IF in England… to think about the class interpretation…. That is why Punk was such a breath of fresh air to me … “up yours you snooty hypocritical upper & middle classes!” [Even though many of those artists… did sell out to the establishment, which today they are still a part of – with fantastic exceptions of course.]

  8. […] 1. Raincoat Optimist: What happens if songs become offensive over time? […]

  9. I cannot agree that songs/words become offensive over time. I am Chinese, and I was deeply offended when the song came out in 1969. The difference is that any complaint I raise today would be listened to and probably be acted upon, whereas the many letters of complaint I sent in 1969 were largely brushed aside and ignored. The change is not in the offensiveness of words to the victims of racist slurs, as anyone subjected to racial abuse will tell you that these were as offensive then as they are now, but in the perception of others as to what is regarded as offensive, and the willingness to acknowledge this fact and act accordingly upon it..

  10. did you mean to choose two songs with herbie flower as the bassist?

  11. Your thoughtful article on ‘Melting Pot’ is moderate and well-argued.
    However, I simply can’t accept that we should continue to take notice of these ever-evolving Politically Correct obsessions.
    I believe they’re a product of liberal guilt.
    Eventually, we won’t be able to say anything about anyone.
    We’ve already got to the stage where the only group who can safely be insulted is the Christian White Male.
    As for the use of ‘coloured’, I remember when we were encouraged to use this word instead of ‘negro’ or ‘black’.
    Nowadays, it’ has to be ‘African American’ – unless, of course, you live in the UK or France or New Zealand – in which case what the hell are you meant to say?
    I’ve got news for you; in the USA, there’s a prominent long-established and universally recognised lobbying organisation with the initials, NAACP.
    Ever heard of it? It stands for, The National Association For The Advancement Of Colored People.
    Perhaps you should let them know that they’re racists.
    Whereas ‘Negro’ was once simply a race description like ‘Caucasian’, it has become the ‘N’ word.
    Is it still ok to say ‘black’?
    This constant updating is ludicrous and – as someone who knows very well what is in his heart – I’m not playing anymore!

    • We should not be racist. But neither should we rewrite history. If we do then we are acting like the government in the book 1984. It would be a great loss to rock music to utterly eradicate ‘Walk on the wild side’. The same must be said of ‘Brown sugar’ which is one of the best rock songs ever. However I have often wondered how the BBC could ban the harmless sexuality of ‘Je t’aime’ yet allow ‘Brown sugar’ whose lyrics can not other than be seen as a glorification of the depravity of the slave trade and which revel in racism, sadism and sexism!

  12. Interesting topic but Blue Mink’s “Melting Pot” is not a good example of a song that would be considered offensive today but wasn’t in its day because it’s usually remembered as an example of just the opposite (it was considered “too radical” on its day, though today seems warm and fuzzy).

  13. The Blue Mink song IS a classic, and I’m pleasure to say at least one UK radio station plays it daily! You can’t say “ban this for offense, but keep the pogues and lou reed on air” just because you happen to like the other two. It’s all or nothing. Personally, I think “Melting Pot” is one of the greatest equality songs ever written and I know I’m not alone, because when the daily mail published a similar article to this one (which reaches much more of the public than this one) THOUSANDS of people defended the song!

  14. I’d just like to point out that here in New Zealand, the 1988 cover of Melting Pot (by When The Cat’s Away) is still popular and remains part of radio playlists. Cultural diversity has been the accepted norm here for at least a couple of generations.

  15. How about this for a ‘song of its time’? Many of us are familiar with ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On,’ but how many know the original words to the second verse as written and recorded in 1932? I can remember hearing it played on BBC Radio 2 about 25 years ago – almost certainly without the DJ realising what the lyrics were – and as far as I know, there were no complaints – possibly because no one (apart from me) was listening! However, more recently (in May 2014) a BBC local radio DJ, playing the same song from his personal collection of old discs was fired – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-27360884. Stephen Fry used the song when working on the musical comedy ‘Me and My Girl’, but changed the offending ‘n-word’ to ‘peanuts’ -https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Dn7WAwAAQBAJ&pg=PT53&lpg=PT53&dq=%22The+Sun+Has+Got+His+Hat+On%22+roasting+peanuts&source=bl&ots=CXyWIQft_V&sig=qeNzhxYeAlle66gmQXhHKtH4IUA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CE8Q6AEwCGoVChMIz8ra7ez0xgIVYo3bCh0WlgON#v=onepage&q=%22The%20Sun%20Has%20Got%20His%20Hat%20On%22%20roasting%20peanuts&f=false. Hmm! I’m not so sure that if I were a native of Timbuktu, I mightn’t find that even more offensive!

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