Songs in the wrong key

Popular music has always shocked. But society is now obsessed with not causing offence, and it's stifling the spirit of rock'n'roll, says Terence Blacker

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There is nothing that can cause quite such a ruckus as a popular tune. The power of music to incite, upset and insult worries the sensitive liberal, anxious not to offend vulnerable listeners, as much as the censorious moral fundamentalist wishing to protect society from being corrupted.

When I embarked upon a two-part documentary for Radio 4 called Taboo Be Doo, the first of which will be broadcast this Saturday morning, I knew that following the progress of controversial popular songs over the past 100 years would be tricky. I ended up concluding that we are in as much of a muddle about what should or should not be heard as our forebears.

It was about five years ago when I first became intrigued by the way ideas of what is acceptable in music change over time. I had recently experienced, rather to my surprise, a seismic shift in my musical taste. I had begun listening to – and playing on my guitar – songs from the pre-rock years of the first part of the 20th century.

With a fellow guitarist, Derek Hewitson, I devised a show based on politically incorrect songs of the past century, including a few of my own, and took it to the King's Head Theatre in London, the Hay and Aldeburgh literary festivals, and the more broad-minded village halls.

In our show, we visit hits from the 1920s that suggest people's growing fascination for distant, exotic countries – songs which, while humourous, have a slightly erotic undertow: "Sing Song Girl", "The Sheikh of Araby", a bizarre tale about the isle of Pingo Pongo ("Never mind their morals/ What have they to hide?/ The women dress in corals/ And the men seem satisfied").

The novelist Edmund White once said that "good writing is about bearing witness to uncomfortable facts". Musical lyrics can do the same thing, often unwittingly. After the Second World War, which had given women a new and dangerous sense of independence, brutally sexist songs were released across the genres from Western swing to rhythm and blues.

Hank Penny had a hit with "Catch 'em Young, Treat 'em Rough, Never Tell 'em Nothing", while another popular novelty song with the same theme was "Slap Her Down Again, Paw". Even songs taking a more morally commendable line had a nasty undertow. Louis Jordan's 1946 hit "That Chick's Too Young to Fry" warned against chasing inappropriately young girls, but the moral message was slightly spoilt by its sustained poultry metaphor: "Take her back to the barnyard/ Set her down and let her loose/ Way back there in the barnyard/ She'll grow up for better use."

When I appeared on Radio 4's Loose Ends last weekend to discuss Taboo Be Doo, Clive Anderson asked me, with more than a hint of disapproval: "What's your object with these shows? Is it just to get some laughs?" I had to admit that many of yesterday's prejudices can be funny as well as shocking. One would have to be very prim to be entirely straight-faced listening to a song as blatantly incorrect as Eddie Cantor's song from the 1920s, which goes: "The dumber they come/ The better I like 'em/ 'Cause the dumb one know how to make love."

Those on the other side of the fence can be funny, too. Randy Newman's "Short People", a 1977 parody of intolerance, met such disapproval that the state of Maryland tried to stop it being played in public. And in the 1950s, the BBC's head of religious broadcasting decreed that Petula Clark's "The Sky", an English version of the French hit "Le Ciel", should be banned because "to use the word 'sky' as a veiled reference to God or Heaven is offensive to religious feeling".

But making the programmes reminded me that we have no reason to be smug. The balance between free speech and the right not to be offended is one of the great debates of the moment. The default position today is to play safe. In an interview, Jeff Smith, the head of music for Radio 2 and 6 Music, spoke revealingly about what is now acceptable on mainstream radio. There had been considerable discussion about "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, in which the word "faggot" fleetingly appears. Eventually it was decided that because it is part of our cultural past – "a classic track" – it was acceptable.

I wondered where that left new songwriters who happened to have written a song with lyrics (or a single word) that might cause objections. The answer was pretty clear: they would be out in the cold. I wonder whether this is any better than the more overt censorship of the past.

Weirdly, many modern listeners find it difficult to understand that the "I" of a song is not necessarily the singer or the writer. When, in 1985, Mark Knopfler wrote "Money for Nothing", his narrator was based on a redneck worker he had heard delivering a scathing running commentary while watching an MTV video. The lyrics go: "See the little faggot with the earring and the make-up/ Yeah, buddy, that's his own hair." And so on. He overestimated the intelligence of his audience. Twenty-six years on, the song is still said to be homophobic and offensive.

Even a narrative that is not in the first person risks offence if, to the ears of the half-attentive listener, it seems to be endorsing unacceptable views. One of my own songs tells the story of a respectable suburban dad who, after his family has gone to bed, has a secret life: it is called "Harry Loves Porn". It merely tells a story and is not graphic. Yet, to my amazement, there is genuine discomfort – disapproval even – when I play it to some audiences.

With Taboo Be Doo I have been told to brace myself for objections from those who make no allowances for irony or context. A programme looking at the censoriousness of the past might end up revealing that today we are a lot less grown-up about such matters than we like to think.

Taboo Be Doo is on Radio 4 at 10.30am on 25 June and 2 July. You can hear Terence's own songs at