To swear or not to swear – the spark that freed America

Published by on: 26-08-2022

Thinking we were discussing something  relatively new in music, we learn the topic goes back 287 years.


It occurs to me as we sit around here at Bridge Radio discussing what songs we like from the new releases, which ones we should put into heavy rotation, and which of those currently in heavy rotation should come out that the same conversation starts up. Which version should we play? Like many stations, we use music pools to compliment the releases we get sent by the labels. In these record pools, we are given a choice of which version we wish to use. The uncensored version – quaintly referred to as the ‘dirty” version- reminds me of school children giggling because they have learned a new swear word. Then there is the radio edit, the extended version, and finally, the short edit version, which are all self-explanatory. Some songs are so ridiculous when comparing the censored and the uncensored versions that they may as well be different songs entirely, which is somewhat the point of our discussion, which evolves into how much is too much?

The debate around explicit lyrics or the gentile parental advisory warnings is supposed to be there to warn the audience that what follows some may find uncomfortable or offensive. But which version is the actual song? As I write this, I am listening to a song that is, in my opinion, overly descriptive of how good the singer’s girlfriend is at oral sex. The song details how and where the sensations he feels are the most exquisite. Now it is true that men and women discuss such things. However, this is usually done in the company of good friends who can be trusted to keep such comments to themselves and, perhaps most importantly, not judge the person regaling them with their latest adventure, which, if my explorations are any judge, are only 50% true at a maximum. So desperate were my group of friends not to be outdone or ‘left behind by our peers.’ Is it possible that the lyrics to songs could be similar? It would be naive to believe the lyricist has experienced first-hand everything they are writing about. After all, few people have been to space, but that doesn’t stop artists from composing songs about being an astronaut.

“If the lyrics were about extolling the views of the Third Reich and how they were just misunderstood, we would turn it off within a matter of seconds.”


Before I get completely off topic, let’s come back to the music I’m currently listening to – personally I find it is too descriptive and too much to hoist onto our listening audience – but haven’t we warned them already? If so, who are we to judge what the audience is upset by? If the lyrics were about extolling the views of the Third Reich and how they were just misunderstood, we would turn it off within a matter of seconds. But swearing, well, some people do find it highly offensive – absolutely, but yet don’t they have the choice not to listen, and this is where we return to our original topic.

We decided to allow uncensored versions to play on-air provided the station carried an explicit warning, which, as you can see here, it does.  


The results were interesting – we witnessed our audience share drop and drop quickly too. We had to think about the knock-on effect on the business and were contemplating returning to standard practice. However, something else even more interesting happened. We began to listen to more songs, much more carefully, and we began to listen to a broader selection of songs.

“If programme schedulers are honest, they will tell you that often a song either grab’s them in the first few seconds or not, and if it doesn’t, it is skipped over, and it’s on to the next song”.


Now though, we had to carefully listen to all the lyrics and compare the different versions. The side effect of this was a realisation that our Hot Hits 100 station, which is loosely based around the pop/mainstream Hot 100 (and if we are feeling completely honest, what’s in the top 20 plus those songs newly released from mainstream artists), hardly changes at all, week after week.

Using our new selection method of listening all the way through to clarify the lyrics, we added a record of 22 new songs into heavy rotation last week, and we are sitting here about to do something similar. This leaves us with a conundrum – does it do what it says on the tin, as in, does the station play the music it says it does? Well, it doesn’t if we play the uncensored versions, and it doesn’t when we listen to a broader selection of songs and add them in regardless, even if only the uncensored version from the same artist(s) and yet isn’t that what we are supposed to do? – give people what they want to hear because they have heard it before and so often that they have gotten used to it and like it?

I went looking around to see what other people think of our ‘conundrum’ and to summarise, the same problem seemed to come up repeatedly.The ‘problem’ is self-perpetuating and was brought up as part of our discussion. By playing the uncensored version of some of the songs in the Top 40, are we or aren’t we playing the Top 40 and given that we are ‘supposed’ to deliver what it says on the tin, are we doing that? Even more, are we not just contributing to the problem and being like 90% of other stations – as you can imagine, there followed an internal discussion about how we weren’t and, in fact, we were different, and we were different because .. blah, blah, blah. I think you get the point.

The reality is generally people want to listen to what they already know, so on a chart-topping station, they want just that the chart-toppers – fair enough the songs must be good because they are at the top of the charts. Step back a bit though and it becomes pretty obvious that the same artists appear again and again – this is not disrespecting to them, they have worked hard for their success and deserve it. However, the same artists keep cropping up. Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Eminem – just to name a few – some of these artists have been around for decades – again there is absolutely nothing wrong with these artists, they are all very good.


The issue comes when stations like us play it safe – if an artist is known for hits before, then a new release from a big artist will get a lot of attention so the logic follows it will likely do well and so it deserves to be given the appropriate airplay and so it will go into heavy rotation. However, how do we get to know a new song? By repetition. Without it, the formula breaks down. Radio stations are a business, music streaming services are a business and the formula has worked for a long time so why change it? People want to hear what they like so the process becomes self-fulfilling. Perhaps we are getting sidetracked here – except to say how many songs are left out because of the lyrics – the censored version might get played but is it the same song – if it’s one or two words it can be argued it is, however more than that and suddenly there are multiple lines missing from songs.

Back to our discussion about how wonderful we are and how different we are as a station, except that. On closer examination, it turns out we were not so different, and this is what led to the most significant realisation of all. How is new music supposed to get a hearing if not exposed to the broadest possible audience, even if that ‘new’ music is the uncensored or ‘real’ version of the song? Besides, hadn’t uncensored versions of songs been around a long time already and led to parental and advisory warnings now so widely used? Feeling justified by our argument, we decided to do some research to find out how far back the issue went.

Opening of trial Crown vs John Peter Zenger 1735

Not only did the research show us that risqué lyrics have been around a long time – nearly 300 years – it is argued, it contributed to the freedom of America from the yoke of colonialism – see the trial of John Peter Zenger,  -who stood accused of printing lyrics to ballads critical of the British colonial governor. Such importance was placed on the case that it has been called


 “the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America”

 (McManus 1999:914) source John R. Vile  


This is heady stuff essentially, it “established the concept that truth cannot be libellous.”

In questioning the legitimacy of whether we should play uncensored lyrics or not. Are we actually being truthful by playing the uncensored version of the song (OK, that’s stretching the point somewhat) and if not, are we just contributing to the fact that it is so hard for new talent to break into the music industry – regardless of genre?  And what about streaming services? Yes, some services will advise you on what music you may like, based on what you already listened to which is, arguably, more of the same. Algorithms are built to predict, but doesn’t this lead to cognitive bias? I like what I like so give me more of what I like … isn’t this part of what causes divisions in society, Algorithms predict what we like based on what we have previously viewed and so us more of the same until we get an ‘unfiltered’ stream of just what we like and don’t hear or see any opposing views, which in turn reinforces our own centric views, that we are right and ‘they’ are wrong.


So, where does this leave us? Right now, we see our audience is returning, and we note that people are listening for longer, the average time spent listening is up over 30%, which is a healthy indicator that we are doing the right thing – whether we are commercially, or not, remains to be seen. Only the audience will decide in the end. It is comforting to know that we are continuing a tradition that goes back 287 years. So, the next time you hear a song on our station and question why would anyone allow such strong language, ask yourself, does it really reflect how people talk? Then give a thought to John Peter Zenger and how his stand ultimately led to the first amendment in the USA.

Ethan Lai


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