Why do bands give themselves unprintable names?
There are things we can and cannot say in public, and we generally accept this without worry or serious regard. Hate speech, for example, is self-evidently bad: Its injury can be violent, sloppy, and incommensurably cruel. It's inadvisable to warn of a fire that's only figurative or to mock religious icons. But what about the simple gesture of naming your band Fucked Up? Last November, the New York Times reviewed a Brooklyn performance by this prolific and perfectly christened Toronto hard-core punk act. The problem was that the newspaper could not print the band's name. As writer Kelefa Sanneh slyly noted, the offending past-tense verb could be printed only in the pages of the Times if it was uttered by an "American president, or someone similar," and so the paper printed eight asterisks and directed readers right off the page, to the band's Web site, on the Internet, where such things don't matter quite as much.
Asterisks, as Kurt Vonnegut suggested, might very well be more visually disturbing than the letters that conjoin as "a-s-s-h-o-l-e." But our concern today is with what asterisks obscure, the choices they blot out, not what they themselves resemble. At first blush, it seems that Fucked Up's unprintable name is doing its own excellent music a disservice. The pragmatist wonders: Does a band with this profane a name even hope to be successful?
The question applies to a glut of acts with similarly FCC-unfriendly names like Holy Fuck, the Fuck Buttons, the Fucking Ocean, Shit Robot, Shitdisco, Holy Shit, and Psychedelic Horseshit, all of whom have released very good records in the past two years, and some of whom are aptly named. At least two bands lay claim to one of the great movie band names, the profanely sacrilegious Shitty Beatles. (The movie is Wayne's World.) These names aren't controversial, per se, and few of these artists traffic in sounds that should truly offend. But they do raise a question: Does it matter anymore what you call yourself if you no longer rely on regulated forms of broadcast or mainstream media to get your name out there?
Profanity is the rare instance in which the worn coin of language resounds with too much power and volume, when society recoils at the very thought of the youth's corrupted tongue. But protections against indecency like the FCC's fine spree of the 1990s and early 2000s assume a world in which the producers of culture are the elites, or at least subject to the whims of elites, a world before conversations across the community were spontaneous, omnipresent, and impossible to earmuff. It is yet another sign of the weakening of traditional forms of broadcast and media that there are so many more points of contact between artists and consumers free from regulation. It no longer matters if a major magazine, newspaper, or radio station—prudes compared with the free expanse of the Internet—promotes a modest-sized band with a review. It only matters if those bands possess the know-how to construct a blog, a MySpace page, or a Web site—and somehow get an audience.
This isn't to say that our mainstream cultural outlets should begin dropping f-bombs. But maybe our vigilance with regard to dirty words is misplaced—it distracts from what truly disturb us. Profanity reminds us of our capacity to be shocked, even if our sensitivity to language has dulled over time. While the Internet hasn't quite absolved us of all concerns over decorum, it does provide a space of cultural exchange where our most impolite instincts may circulate freely. It has so thoroughly decentralized and complicated how we communicate, that concern over profanity seems quaint, even outdated. But the fact that such concerns persist only draws attention to how flimsy our notions of public decency seem today, when showy bleeps or unsightly asterisks only remind us that there is a much wider swath of culture out there that is unregulated and open.
What better way to poke fun at flimsy notions of official morality than to adopt a blunt, post-FCC band name? For others, though, the attempt at provocative humor can go awry. Names like AIDS Wolf—a noisy, abrasive Montreal band—and Jay Reatard—a shockingly talented young Memphis garage-punk, one-man act—aren't literally profane, but both flirt with a sophomoric crudeness. Not that many people are complaining, although Los Angeles-based artist and musician Brendan Fowler was deeply disturbed. Fowler considered these names socially irresponsible and created an exhibition around his refusal to share a stage with them, to the bafflement of some. Fowler's intervention is clumsy but also useful: Is our relativism so great as to justify any act of speech? That would be kind of fucked up.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.