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F***ing up the Charts: on F-Words and Music

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You may have heard the song, "F**k You", by Gnarls Barkley vocalist Cee Lo Green. It swept across the internet way back in August, which in viral-video terms makes it a golden oldie. When I first learned that a song with that title was creating a buzz online, my initial expectations were low, anticipating a desperate stab at calculated controversy along the lines of Britney Spears' awkward "If You Seek Amy". But when I eventually heard Green's track, I was delighted to discover it was one of the catchiest pop tunes in years, a joyous and profane chunk of funk, like the Four Tops with Tourette's. Not only does Cee Lo drop the f-bomb a whopping sixteen times in under four minutes, he generously tosses in the s-word and even the n-word, which undoubtedly annoys Dr. Laura because she won't be allowed to sing it on karaoke night.

It's pop-culture moments like this when I am relieved not to have kids. As an adult, I'm glad this song exists for my enjoyment, but I completely understand why parents might not want their young children to encounter this song floating unedited through their airspace. I know it's an uphill battle to preserve even a brief period of innocence for kids in a world of Eminem and South Park, where, according to one recent study, more children are using profanity -- and at earlier ages -- than has been recorded in at least three decades.

Common sense tells us that not every piece of art is appropriate for every audience, every circumstance or every age. I vividly recall seeing a pre-teen boy watching a grisly murder scene from the film Scream as it played silently on a monitor at a Virgin Megastore many years ago. Traumatized, the child did exactly what the movie's title instructed and ran in terror toward his mother, clutching her leg for comfort. Honestly, the incident restored a little faith for me, as I was pleased to learn that at least one kid was left in America who hadn't been desensitized to violence by video games, the internet and laissez-faire parenting.

Green does have a "clean" version of "F**k You", rechristened "Forget You", but the song loses a great deal of its charm and bite in the process, and another version where the offending language is replaced with silence is utterly pointless. Unless you're aware of the real lyrics, how can you make sense of a song in which the main lyrical hook has been whitewashed into "...you, and...you too"?

Precisely because such "naughty" words have power, I hate to hear them used lazily for mere shock value. Any hack comedian can blurt out a four-letter word for a quick jolt, but a wise wordsmith will reserve this weapon for occasions when it will have the most impact. Frankly, I think Jon Stewart's points would be sharper lately if he found ways to express his outrage without so much (bleep)ing bleeping.

I do appreciate the occasional well-meaning attempts to find sanitized alternative terms that preserve some of the flavor of the old standards, whether it's "cuss" in Fantastic Mr. Fox, "frak" on Battlestar Galactica, "shut the front door" in The Kids Are All Right or , of course,"smurf" on The Smurfs. But let's face it, sometimes there's just no replacement for le f-mot juste.

That's why I want to shine a spotlight on my picks for the best f-word songs of all time, songs that rise above your casual drive-by swearing, songs which just wouldn't be the same if the lyricists hadn't given a f**k.

10. Team America -- "America, F**k Yeah" / Lily Allen -- "F**k You"

Humor and politics mix in Parker and Stone's delightfully douchey anthem of "boot up your ass" patriotism and in Lily Allen's chipper ditty which pairs a jaunty melody (reminiscent of the Carpenters' "Close To You") with a boisterous condemnation of the Bush administration.

9. Snüzz - "Die Trying"

A heartfelt tribute to artistic tenacity from North Carolina's Britt Harper Uzzell, aka Snüzz. I want to end a movie with this someday.

Find more artists like Snuzz at MySpace Music

8. Jonathan Coulton - "First Of May"

Internet phenom JoCo invented his own holiday with this one. See you next spring!

7. Warren Zevon - "My Sh*t's F**ked Up"

Ironically, this was written shortly before Warren discovered that his own sh*t really was f**ked up.

6. Prince --"Sexy M.F."

A few years back, a colleague remarked on the Super Bowl's post-wardrobe-malfunction decision to avoid edgy contemporary acts in its halftime ceremonies in favor of "safe" veterans... ya know, like Prince. He may have mellowed in recent years, but the man who triggered Tipper Gore's album-labeling crusade has several classics which are contenders for this list.

5. The Doors -- "The End"

It's debatable whether the studio recording actually contains the f-word, given the incoherent roar Jim Morrison emits at the song's climax, but there's no ambiguity to the Oedipus context in this live version.

4. Violent Femmes -- "Add It Up"

Sexual frustration, straight outta Milwaukee.

3. Alanis Morissette -- "You Oughta Know"

A huge hit, rarely heard unbleeped on the airwaves. In this string-laden Grammy-ceremony performance, the word in question feels even more bitter. (Honorable mention in this vein goes to Jill Sobule for her vulnerable, defiant and unreleased "Don't F**k With Me".)

2. Ben Folds Five -- "Song For The Dumped"

Almost an answer song to "You Oughta Know". Drummer Darren Jessee supplied the key lyrics in this case, but Mr. Folds is perhaps modern pop music's most devoted tosser of f-bombs, detonating them in his most commercial songs ("Army", "Rockin' The Suburbs") and celebrating them in a wide array of covers (Elliott Smith's "Say Yes", Liz Phair's "Chopsticks", Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Sh*t", "Get Your Hands Off My Woman" by the Darkness).

1. Nilsson -- "You're Breakin' My Heart"

The grand mother of them all. Sorry, Cee Lo, but Harry beat you by 38 years.