I want to preface this post with the assurance that I am not, in general, a fan of emo/punk. Like any genre, it has its moments, but for me they tend to be few and far between. As a singer, I tend to judge many bands by the quality of their vocals, which I’m sure is part of my general dislike of the genre. So many of these singers have whiney, annoying voices, so tight that I would weep for their vocal chords if they weren’t so, well, annoying, and that being the case, a part of me feels that the damage they’re doing to themselves is sort of what they deserve.
But that said, I can also forgive many other musical shortcomings of a group fronted by a really talented singer. And I believe that this is what keeps drawing me back to the convolutedly-named Panic! at the Disco. So upon the release of their new album – on which the frustratingly self-involved song titles of the first (e.g. “There’s a Good Reason These Tables are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven’t Thought of It Yet” and “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage”) have been replaced with simpler, though admittedly duller, titles like “Behind the Sea” – I’ve been revisiting that earlier album “A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out”, and finding much to both enjoy and criticize. (Whoa, talk about a run-on sentence.)
The lead singer’s arrogance, with lyrics like “I’ve got more wit, a better kiss, a hotter touch, a better fuck, than any boy you’ll ever meet”, remains surprisingly attractive (though a few years later, the then 18-year-old’s claims seem perhaps a bit premature). On the same track, “Lying is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off”, the passion with which he sings, in the chorus, “Let’s get these teen hearts beating faster, faster”, really does quicken the pulse. Listening to the album as a whole, I’m also still struck by the confident transitions between different meters and tempos within many of the songs that provide a relatively unique pop music experience, one that is continually engaging and entertaining.
What I’m most interested in at the moment, however, has little to do, I assume, with the band members themselves. The hit single from “A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out” was “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” which received a good deal of radio play when the album was first released in 200*. The chorus of the song, which tells the odd story of an ill-fated wedding ceremony, is:
“I chime in with a ‘Haven’t you people ever heard of closing the God damn door?' No, it’s much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poise and rationality.”
What’s interesting about these lyrics, and this song, is not the song itself, which is a pretty good song for a hit single, but rather what happened to it on the radio.
By now, we’re used to “radio edits” of our favorite songs, in which certain words deemed inappropriate are blanked out, or replaced with less offensive versions. In earlier days, the changes would be straightforward – in middle school, I knew that Alanis Morisette sang, “I’m brave but I’m chickensh.” I was somewhat surprised, listening to the actual album, to discover that what she was, was in fact “chickenshit”. But the bleep was straightforward. "Shit" is not appropriate, so it's edited out. When we get into the realm today of what is "offensive", however, things get more complicated, and we end up with the radio edit of, for example, the Black-Eyed Peas "Let's Get Retarded" being a rather different song: "Let's Get It Started". Who is it that judges "retarded" to be inappropriate?
This is the same issue that arises in "I Write Sins Not Tragedies", where in the above lyric the word that is censored is not the "swear" damn, but rather the word "God". We hear, "Haven't you people ever heard of closing the *** damn door?" What a bizarre decision.
That was my initial reaction. But the more I let it sink in, the more I feel the respect in this shift. What offense is there in the word damn? Yes, it's in the category "swear", but there is nothing in the word that offends any value of mine. The word "God", however, is fraught with tension. Even in my decision typing to continue to capitalize it, I acknowledge the weight of it. And in many religions and cultures, to say "God" is an affront to a sense of divine power. Though I may not agree with that kind of reverence, I am, for now, happy to live in a culture learning to censor words that are actually sensitive, where the potential implications of "retarded" are more important than the arbitrary badness of "chickenshit".