I ONCE WORKED in a restaurant owned by a very old and very wealthy man. one day he came into the place, pointed at stacks of paper cups with the words "Wing-Ding" printed on them and ordered me to throw them all out. When I asked why, he gave me a don't-take-me-for-a-fool look and said, "Because wing-ding is dirty. It's a dirty word." We threw out the cups.
Now many years later, I think I know how he felt. I was listening to radio station WWDC in my car when the disk-jockey boomed out the call letters, said "Kick-ass rock and roll" and then, just when I became convinced that he hadn't really said it, said it again.
I was startled. The last time someone yelled something in my direction about kick-ass, it meant that he was wither going to beat me up or we were about to give something an all-out effort. Either way, it was off-color slang. I told myself that I am no prude, that I have been in the Army, and that I grew up in the streets of a big city where I learned how to tell someone to kiss off in three languages, two dialects and a certain expressive way of using the fingers of my hand. I've been around.
Still, I thought this was too much. This was dirt for dirt's sake -- an attempt to attract attention simply by shocking. There was no artistic context to it. Rock and roll lyrics can sometimes be rough, sometimes raw, almost always short on subtlety and sometimes just plain tasteless. But there is a context. A song tells a story. It is a message.
But this is not the case with "kick-ass rock and roll." In fact, if there is a message, I thought it had to have something to do with violence. It connotes a fight, something physical. It has the hard edge of a threat to it and it does not help that it is associated with rock music. More than any other kind of music, rock has always had this explosive, violent side to it. Sometimes the musicians destroy their instruments. Sometimes the fans destroy the musicians -- sometimes just the auditorium. Any way, it does not happen when Horowitz plays Carnegie Hall ("Kick-ass, Vladimir.")
Anyway, some time passed and I wrote nothing. But then the owner of a radio station called me on some matter and I asked him about "kick-ass rock and roll." Tsk, tsk, he said. It is a shame, he said. A blot on the entire industry, an awful promotional gimmick that has -- let there be no doubt about it -- violent-cum-obscene aura to it. It started, he said, at a Boston station, WCOZ, and paid off in handsome rating. But he himself would not use such a promotional device. Children might be listening.
I called Dc-101 and wound up talking to the programming director, Dave Brown by name, and asked him just what in the world kick-ass rock and roll meant.It means a certain kind of rock and roll he said. It means good rock. It has a positive connotation, he said. The kids use it all the time, he said, and it has nothing to do with violence or obscenity. That is not the way the kids use it, he said.
So I asked a younger person. I said, "younger person, what does kick-ass mean to you?" She said it meant "good" or "terrific" as in the expression, "He's a real kick-ass guy." As for "kick-ass rock and roll," it meant good music.
I went to the stock room where the copy aides and the messengers hang out. I asked my standard question. I got the same answers -- more or less. There was no unanimity of what kick-ass meant when it came to rock music -- to some it meant country style, and to others it meant the opposite of disco. But there was agreement that the term kick-ass, except when used in a violent context, had nothing to do with violence or obscenity, for that matter. It is "bad," meaning, of course, good. There is nothing offensive about it.
That does not change the fact, of course, that to a lot of people, the term really is offensive. And it does not change the fact that the radio station knows this but has decided to pander to a certain audience by using the raw jargon of that audience. For that, it should get a certain number of demerits.
I suppose there is something to be said here about what is happening to the language, how a perfectly good, moderately obscene expression has lost its kick and now has so many meanings that, even the people who use it can not agree on exactly what it means. But this happens all the time, and so, to tell you the truth I called someone and asked what it all does mean and she said, because she is very wise, that it all means that I am getting old.
Isn't that a wing-ding?