Block meWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill Day, a former Blade editor, was a consultant to the University of Toledo Collegian during my early days there. Among the hundreds of lessons he (and Blade alumnus Ed Whipple and the late Bill Rosenberg) imparted was wisdom about an “obscene” word I had used in a column.
I had declared that something or someone “sucked,” and was taken aback by Day’s adverse reaction to the word, which was used fairly commonly even back in the early 1990s. Day said the word is “crass,” which it is, and professed surprise that it had entered mainstream vernacular. It is a striking and ugly word, but in pop culture terms was divorced from its explicit origin long before I used it.
Day’s reaction has since been a measuring stick for the words I utilize in print. With a few purposeful exceptions, this is a no-fly zone for explicit language. But as the ’90s melted into the 2000s and now into the second decade of the new century, obscenity barriers are falling faster than Middle East governments.
The granddaddy of all obscene words recently enjoyed a banner week. Rather than be coy by employing asterisks or cartoony character symbols to display Taboo Word No. 1, let’s use another word that starts with a soft consonant sound, glides over a breathy vowel and closes with a hard click: “block.” So when I need to employ an f-bomb in this discussion, I’ll use “block” instead.
The king of curse words started the month of March by being featured in the titles of not just one, but two official Billboard magazine Top 10 songs. Peaking at No. 2 was Cee Lo Green’s “Block You,” which was a recent nominee in the Grammy Song of the Year category. The song uses the word “block” roughly 16 times: “I see you driving ‘round town/With the girl I love and I’m like, block you!/I guess the change in my pocket/Wasn’t enough/I’m like, block you!/And block her too!”
How did Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen ever make it through their Top 10 and Grammy-winning careers without relying on a song that focused on “block you” as its main hook?
Just a few notches down, at No. 4, Pink scored with her song “Blockin’ Perfect.” Pink only uses the word “block” at least seven times: “Pretty pretty please, don’t you ever ever feel/Like you’re less than blockin’ perfect/Pretty pretty please, if you ever ever feel like you’re nothing /You’re blockin’ perfect to me!”
Are you paying attention, Hallmark?
Cee Lo and Pink are not the first artists to use “block” in a song. The Who took “Who Are You” to No. 14 in 1978, with its Roger Daltrey-wailed “Who the block are you?” Prince dropped “block” in so many songs, he had to send the longshoremen royalty checks. Alanis Morissette famously asked, “Are you thinking of me when you block her?” in “You Oughta Know” and Radiohead professed the object of singer Thom Yorke’s affection was “so blockin’ special” in “Creep.” But radio stations usually cut the word, and it certainly wasn’t used in song titles like Cee Lo and Pink used it.
A one-hit wonder named Eamon made waves in 2004 with “Block It (I Don’t Want You Back),” which reached No. 1 in several countries with an official Guinness World Record for 33 repetitions of “block.” It made the Billboard Top 20 in the United States, and inspired an answer record by the female singer Frankee, “Block You Right Back.”
It’s one thing when novelty songs like Eamon’s make the charts or when the MC 5 scream “Kick out the jams, motherblockers” or the Dead Kennedys declare they are “too drunk to block;” that’s intentional provocation, not the casual, lazy usage Cee-Lo and Pink employ. The difference is significant in terms of what mainstream America is willing to accept.
And yes, rap musicians use the word “block” like most people use the word “the.” Eminem and Three 6 Mafia both won Oscars for songs that use the word “block.”
Speaking of Oscar, Best Supporting Actress winner Melissa Leo made news when she dropped the word “block” during what is supposed to be one of entertainment’s classiest and stuffiest venues.
In a bizarre reversal of character, Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, who screamed in “Closer” that he wanted to “block you like an animal,” won an Oscar for his score for “The Social Network” and took the stage as cultured and refined as anyone in the theater. I watched his acceptance speech and kept hoping he would revert to form and tell the Academy he wanted to block it like an animal, but no such luck.
It’s worth noting that Best Picture winner “The King’s Speech” will reportedly be released with a PG-13 rating instead of its original R if it drops two “blocks” from its soundtrack. So there are still some final frontiers for the taboo word.
I am certainly guilty of over-employing the word “block” in its many variations; that’s partially because I retain my South End street roots and partially because newsrooms breed foul language like Charlie Sheen’s sheets breed whatever nasty human bouillabaisse of bacteria lurks there.
But yelling “block!” at a crashed computer isn’t the same as placing a song in the country’s top 10 pop charts. Or is it? In a society that allows such charming idioms as “MILF” in its daily conversation, does every private use of the word further cultivate its public use? Do we lower all standards when we lower ours?
If so, we are royally blocked.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Call him at (419) 241-1700 or e-mail him at email@example.com.
Tags: Alanis Morissette, Bruce Springsteen, Cee Lo Green, Eamon, Lighting The Fuse, MC5, Melissa Leo, Michael S. Miller, Paul Simon, Pink, Prince, Radiohead, Stevie Wonder, The King's Speech, The Social Network, The Who, Trent Reznor