Cee-Lo's dirty ditty goes viral, catches flak for profane lyrics

'FORGET YOU!' Cee-Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley sings as a jilted lover watching his ex hit the town with a new man.
'FORGET YOU!' Cee-Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley sings as a jilted lover watching his ex hit the town with a new man. (Arista Records)
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By Paul Farhi
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The hottest song in America at the moment is a catchy little ditty whose title and lyrics are so cheerfully foul that polite newspapers such as this one won't be publishing it anytime soon. You probably won't be hearing it on a radio station, either.

Suffice it to say, the tune -- by Cee-Lo Green of the pop group Gnarls Barkley -- is a two-word, Anglo-Saxon, hortatory phrase whose first word is typically rendered by dashes or a string of nonsense characters from the upper levels of a keyboard. Some of Cee-Lo's other lyrics are what might be described as "problematic" as well.

Despite this (or perhaps because of it), the song-- we'll just call it That Song -- became a bona fide underground phenomenon in just a few hours. Since being released Thursday, That Song's video, a simple animation of its profanely direct lyrics, has burned up YouTube.

By Saturday afternoon, adventurous souls had viewed the video more than 200,000 times. By midday Monday, it was the subject of an "answer" song, a rhyming reply done by none other than 50 Cent. By Tuesday evening, the video had picked up nearly 2 million views.

By now, the thrill is probably gone.

Such blindingly fast viral velocity suggests that George Carlin's famed routine about the ephemerality of pop music has moved from parody to near reality. Carlin imagined a fast-talking Top 40 DJ speaking about the latest hit: "Here's a tune that's really moving fast. When I say fast, it was recorded at 9 o'clock this morning. At 12 noon, it was No. 15. At 3 o'clock, it was the No. 1 sound in town. And now it's a golden oldie!"

Set to a kind of neo-Motown beat, That Song takes the point of view of a jilted lover watching his former girlfriend hit the town with a new, wealthier man. The lyrics include couplets: "Yeah, I'm sorry I can't afford a Ferrari/That don't mean I can't get you there./I guess he's an Xbox and I'm more Atari/But the way you play your game ain't fair."

The verboten phrase is both the song's title and the singer's rebuke to the couple.

Professional music critics and other hard-to-please online commenters have been nearly unanimous in their praise of the infectious song, which combines shock value with a bit of humor. No less than the Wall Street Journal said it "may be the best rock and pop single of the year."

Well, not everyone is so enamored.

The Alexandria-based Parents Television Council says it is concerned that the song could find its way onto the radio after a federal court ruled against the Federal Communications Commission's "indecency" regulations. The regulations prohibited radio and TV stations from broadcasting profane language (think Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words") before 10 p.m., when large numbers of children are in the audience.

Last month, however, a court found the rules "unconstitutionally vague" and sent them back to the FCC for a rewrite (the FCC hasn't said whether it will appeal the decision). Before the ruling, broadcasters could be subjected to large monetary fines for knowingly airing profanity of the sort in That Song.

In the wake of the ruling, "it's unfortunate that the discussion [for broadcasters] has quickly become, 'What can we get away with now?' " said Dan Isett, the PTC's director of public policy. "A song like this is awfully hard to square with a station's obligation to meet community standards of decency and its own public-service standards."

No station has dared to air an unexpurgated version of the song. However, BBC radio was apparently the first to air an edited version Saturday, with the most pungent phrase replaced by the bland translation into nonprofanity -- "Forget you!" -- and other profanities masked or edited out.

Naughty language in pop music has a long and proudly sordid history, dating to the earliest days of rock, R&B and jazz. Complaints and controversy have followed classic pop provocations such as the Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie," Chuck Berry's "My Ding a Ling" and Elton John's "The Bitch Is Back." Rap and hip-hop songs have been criticized for decades for the defiant frankness of their lyrics, too.

What's more, Cee-Lo's new song carries the same title as a bouncy recording that British pop singer Lily Allen released last year. That one attracted a following on the Internet and even climbed British sales charts, but it didn't get very far on U.S. radio stations. Of course, that was when the FCC was still monitoring naughty and nice.

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