10 Examples of Swear Words and Foul Language in Pop Music

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Johnny Cash - "A Boy Named Sue" (1969)

Johnny Cash A Boy Named Sue
Johnny Cash - "A Boy Named Sue". Courtesy Columbia

Johnny Cash's only top 10 pop single is the story of a man made tough by having to struggle with growing up with a girl's name. Written by Shel Silverstein, best known for children's books, the story in "A Boy Named Sue" talks about the man searching for the father who gave him the name and the ensuing fight when they finally meet again. It is also notable for including the line "son of a bitch" which was censored from the 45 release of the song and the original LP version.

Johnny Cash recorded the hit version of "A Boy Named Sue" live at San Quentin prison. It was a cross-format smash hit topping both the country and adult contemporary charts while reaching #2 on the pop chart. Shel Silverstein later wrote a follow up "The Father of a Boy Named Sue" to tell the story from the father's point of view.

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Elton John - "The Bitch Is Back" (1974)

Elton John The Bitch Is Back
Elton John - "The Bitch Is Back". Courtesy MCA

The word "bitch" is one with a very colorful history in pop music. Elton John was at the peak of his popularity when he released the single "The Bitch Is Back" in 1974. According to Elton John, the song is highly autobiographical. A number of pop radio stations in the U.S. refused to play the "The Bitch Is Back" due to the offending word. The program director of New York's WPIX-FM spoke for many in the business stating, "We won't play those types of records no matter how popular they get." As a result, "The Bitch Is Back" merely peaked at #4 in the U.S. instead of #1 or #2 like Elton John's three other single releases in 1974.

Meredith Brooks presented even more of a challenge to pop radio programmers in 1997 with the release of her single "Bitch." However, it overcame reluctance and censorship at pop radio to eventually hit #2. As recently as Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" in 2009, "bitch" was treated as a bad word in pop songs.

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Who - "Who Are You" (1978)

Who Are You
Who - Who Are You. Courtesy MCA

One of the first obvious uses of the "f" word in a mainstream pop song occurs twice in the Who's "Who Are You." The line, "Who the f**k are you?" is heard twice in the original album release and the U.K. single edit. For U.S. pop radio ears, the offending word was completely eliminated and "Who Are You" peaked at #14 on the pop chart. However, the lines are preserved in the promotional music video below.

In 2005, the song raised concerns again when the Who included the offending word in their Live 8 performance, and it was not censored on the ABC broadcast. In the face of stronger crackdowns on radio in the U.S. by the FCC, many stations now play the edited version of "Who Are You."

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Dead Kennedys - "Too Drunk To F**k" (1981)

Dead Kennedys Too Drunk To F**k
Dead Kennedys - "Too Drunk To F**k". Courtesy Cherry Red

How to handle the "f" word in the title of a song that hits the top 40? That is what faced those who compile the U.K. pop charts when the Dead Kennedys climbed into the pop top 40 in the summer of 1981 becoming the first hit with the "f" word in the title. The song was immediately banned from being played on the radio by the BBC. Some stores refused to stock the single with the title on the cover, while others sold a version with a sticker over the offending word. A helpful sticker provided by the band read, "Caution: You are the victim of yet another stodgy retailer afraid to warp your mind by revealing the title of this record so peel slowly and see..." Charts listed the song as "Too Drunk To."

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Dire Straits - "Money For Nothing" (1985)

Dire Straits Money For Nothing
Dire Straits - "Money For Nothing". Courtesy Warner Bros.

Dire Straits' leader Mark Knopfler wrote much of the #1 smash hit "Money For Nothing" based on language he actually heard from delivery men watching MTV. However, the use of the word "faggot" in the line, "That little faggot with the earring and the makeup," offended many. At times, the entire verse is expurgated from the song when it is played on the radio. Mark Knopfler has spoken about the difficulties this issue raises in having it understood that a song is not always written in first person but can be depicting the words of others.

In January 2011, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled that the original unedited version of "Money For Nothing" could not be broadcast due to the use of the word "faggot." However, in August 2011, following a wave of protests, the council ruled that individual radio stations could make their own decisions about playing the song.

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Eminem - "The Real Slim Shady" (2000)

Eminem The Real Slim Shady
Eminem - "The Real Slim Shady". Courtesy Interscope

In this broad parody, Eminem took aim at a wide range of pop culture targets. Among those are the fear of explicit language in a pop song. The result is a range of edited versions of the song and the video depending on which of the smorgasbord of offending words someone finds most offensive. The video below does eliminate some of the most objectionable words. When the dust settled, this became Eminem's first top 5 pop hit. The recording also won a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance.

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Gwen Stefani - "Hollaback Girl" (2005)

Gwen Stefani Hollaback Girl
Gwen Stefani - "Hollaback Girl". Courtesy Interscope

Why say an offensive word only once when it can be repeated 38 times? Gwen Stefani roared to the top of the pop singles chart in 2005 with a song that repeats the word sh*t a remarkable 38 times, and, in the version most frequently played on pop radio, it is altered every single time. In the video release below, the need to leave out the offending word is played for laughs with Gwen Stefani using "shh" gestures and covering her mouth. For many listeners, the censored version became so familiar that the original mix that leaves the words in may sound unusual. Critics were very divided in their reactions to the song. However, pop audiences made clear their approval when "Hollaback Girl" spent four weeks at #1 and became the second biggest pop hit of the year. It also earned a Grammy Award nomination for Record of the Year.

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Kanye West - "Gold Digger" featuring Jamie Foxx (2005)

Kanye West Gold Digger
Kanye West - "Gold Digger" featuring Jamie Foxx. Courtesy Roc-a-Fella

The #1 hit single "Gold Digger" presents the unusual situation of a Black artist having their own race-sensitive language eliminated for radio airplay. In the radio edit of "Gold Digger," the word "nigga" is replaced by a repetition of the word "broke." It is obvious from the rhyming structure of the song what word is most likely left out, but the edit adds its own interesting stutter effect to the recording. Later in the song the word "a**" is left out of another racially sensitive line. None of the controversies got in the way of being the biggest hit of Kanye West's career so far. "Gold Digger" spent ten weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned a Grammy Award nomination for Record of the Year.

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Britney Spears - "If U Seek Amy" (2009)

Britney Spears If U Seek Amy
Britney Spears - "If U Seek Amy". Courtesy Jive

Britney Spears' top 20 pop hit "If U Seek Amy" is the only example of a song that faced censorship of words that are not actually words on their own but allude strongly to another bad word. The words "If U Seek Amy" cleverly, or offensively, spell out the phrase, "F**k me." Some listeners responded with laughter and others with anger. The Parents Television Council threatened to file indecency complaints with the FCC against radio stations that played the unedited version of the song in the daytime. The uproar over slipping offensive language into a song in such a fashion resulted in a radio-friendly version of the song leaving out the "k" sound for "If U See Amy."

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Cee Lo Green - "F**k You" (2010)

Cee Lo Green F**k You
Cee Lo Green - "F**k You". Courtesy Elektra

Cee Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley dispenses with any pretense of disguising the bad word that is the centerpiece of his breakthrough pop hit. A "clean" version of the song was released that replaces the offending word with "forget" for mainstream pop radio airplay. Critics praised the song, and it ultimately hit #2 on the U.S. pop chart. "F**k You" earned Cee Lo Green Grammy Award nominations for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

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