(Stay with me on this one. I think I can make the case.)
Even though some people believe that profanity is a linguistic copout or the sign of a failed imagination, sometimes a profane word is the right one.
When I first read about Cee Lo’s “Fuck You” a couple of years ago, I assumed it was merely the next click on the ratchet of ever-increasing transgressiveness required to create a buzz in a world of extremes. But then I listened to it, and discovered that it is, well, fuckin’ brilliant. The song is a tightrope walk—be too emphatic, sound too harsh, and it’ll come off vicious. Pull back from that edge and wink at the audience while you sing it and the epithet starts to seem funny in the way that overkill can be funny, like Wile E. Coyote getting smashed flat by an anvil in a Road Runner cartoon. Do it over a backing track that Motown would love, and you’ve created a classic.
But never mind the song’s brilliance. Even though we live in a world where George Carlin’s famous Seven Words have been reduced to five (or maybe it’s four now? Is “tits” still forbidden?), “fuck” remains beyond the pale. So if “Fuck You” was going to get airplay, something was going to have to be done to it. You could bleep the title phrase, or mask it, but either way, you were going to lose the sense of the song. The solution? Change “Fuck You” to “Forget You,” and presto—you’ve got a record fit for everybody.
Well, not quite everybody. I stand before you today to proclaim “Forget You” as one of the World’s Worst Songs, because it fails to respect two writerly maxims: first, that one should always strive to put the right word in the right place, and second, that it’s possible to edit too much. When it’s perfect, stop messin’ with it.