To be young and to have the power of separating yourself from . . . from all that shit—wouldn’t that be great? This is a question of broad relevance if, as I think, we’re all young insofar as we’re still struggling to establish who we are. To speak such separation violently is to curse. A young music of separation-power will need cursing lyrics; aggressive drums and guitars won’t be enough.
Of the violently insulting and dismissive expressions that are available, “Fuck you” strikes me as supreme because its ugliness involves a kind of turn-the-table triumph, a form of judo—“You thought you would have your way with me (or with anyone or anything), but instead you’re the one who’s going to be used, abused, gutted, and junked.” Objectively, “Go to hell” intends something far worse, ultimate and irreversible, but “Fuck you” burns you infinitely in the present moment.
Uses of “fuck” are dime-a-dozen in recent popular music, but few rise up in one’s memory. There’s a very nice “Don’t you fuckin’ touch me!” in the chorus of a Dada song, “Feel Me Don’t You,” an authentically unconvincing outburst of a prickly young white male, an anthem of isolation. (Compare Ben Folds’ send-up of the white boy’s “Fuck!” in “Rockin’ the Suburbs.”) An ambiguous “Fuck off” flashes by in “Precious” on the first Pretenders album, one of the intriguing clues to Chrissie Hynde’s new rock heroine persona. But if there is such a thing as a truly classic use of “fuck” I think it must be Courtney Love’s “Fuck you!” in “I Think That I Would Die,” which appears on Hole’s Live Through This.
It isn’t even the only time Courtney Love sings “Fuck you!” on the album, but the curse comes with special power in “I Think That I Would Die” because the song as a whole is so depressed. The woman is being pinched from both sides—she can’t get the drugs she needs (“rose white, rose red, rose up in my head”) and her baby has been taken from her and she has no milk (or it’s as though she has no milk), so she can’t meet the baby’s needs either. The guy is not helping her, needless to say, but there is no articulate reproach of him or analysis of the situation—only the sullen lead-off, “He’s stupid, I’m smarting”—until deep in the song, erupting at the end of a quiet bridge, she whispers “It’s not yours” and then ramps up to a “Fuck you!” that pierces and scorches, attacking the guy in one way and whoever’s keeping the baby, or just whoever, maybe including her own damn self, in another.
I didn’t know what the song was about. I had to look up the lyrics. Only feeling the ache of the song, something about a woman’s problem about a baby, it was the improbable clarity of “Fuck you” in that context that got me. Everything (whatever it was) came to a brilliant focus.
The usual effect of rough language is dulling, not sharpening; it allows bad feelings to grind out loud. But speaking offensively is supposed to be sharply decisive, and still can be; if I (mild-mannered professorial type that I am) were to tell you “Fuck off” out of nowhere, the break in our civil relations would be dramatic; you’d feel kicked away. “Forget all about that macho shit and learn how to play guitar” is a great kick-away dismissal of one alternative setting up a jolly invitation to another in John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Play Guitar.” A rough word can hurl defiance with sudden glory: I think of Demi Moore’s character in G. I. Jane, a persecuted Seals trainee, yelling “Suck my dick!” at her son-of-a-bitch trainer (this is even better than General McAuliffe saying “Nuts!” to the Germans demanding his surrender in the Battle of the Bulge).
But the woman in Love’s song doesn’t get to stand up for anything. She doesn’t get to strut like a street fighting man. She doesn’t get to curse bitches or cops categorically. She’s too much restricted—in what she can do, in what she can even see in her distress. All of this horrid restriction is squeezing to the point of “Fuck you!,” a blast that channels the horror and crystallizes its essence. It is not a liberating act, except in the strictly inner liberation of feeling that comes with successful expression. We are not thrilled that she is kissing off her enemies. She is not winning; she is not even scoring a point. The awfulness of having nothing better to do than scream “Fuck you” is imposed on us. The empathy we feel is furious—fury momentarily getting the better of nausea.
Our feelings are exalted by the musical body of the expression. The two words come on beats one and three, in 4/4 time, with a stately rhythm, an ironic formality of delivery: this . . . is . . . the . . . point . . . They’re sung out commandingly on the high fifth, a pitch of fury an octave above the fifth that’s been the ceiling of the murmurous verse melody. The curtains part and we’re now witnesses of the song’s main event, the fucking over of female youth; we gape at the center of a collapsed universe.