Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Most Baller Bleep Ever

There is this commercial for Amp’d Mobile where a young man defends his choice of cell phone by saying, “It just has cooler ‘bleep.’” I use the bleep not out of modesty. That’s how it played, and it was surprising. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen on a prime time commercial before. Then, a few days later, I heard it again on a radio commercial, where a girl says, “Oh ‘bleep,’ that’s my jam.”

The bleep started as a genuine response to possible swearing on television and radio, but quickly became something of its own. First, it became a euphemism for other swear words (like the recent movie “What The Bleep Do We Know?”). That is how some people who don’t swear make their point — it ends up sounding wrong, like when sitcoms use “butt” when “ass” is clearly more appropriate.

The Amp’d effect works, though, because it allows the commercial to have it both ways; they can have the character look hip and authentic by swearing, but not actually swear and get the company in trouble. Now, like the Parental Advisory sticker on CDs, or the blank word in pop songs — see Gwen Stefani “It’s my shh.” — the bleep has street cred. It’s self-censoring without having to say “butt” when you mean “ass.”

When South Park started using the bleep, the effect started to lose its value. For a narrative, fictional series — animated no less — to choose a bleep over a script change highlights the word as much as it covers it up. South Park made their intentions even more clear in the episode “It Hits the Fan,” where they lampooned Chicago Hope or NYPD Blue’s use of “shit” in one episode (and the resulting media storm) by using the word 162 times. They also bleep straight characters that say “fag,” but not gay characters. Chappelle’s Show does it too. VHS and DVD sales have allowed South Park to bleep the words on TV and keep them in home sales; which has a result similar to the Amp’d Mobile commercial.

This reminds me of a technique in jazz that also emphasizes through absence. Instead of playing a given note in the melody, the musician will play notes around the note, in the same scale as the note or near that note, but not the actual note.

There is a Bob Dylan song called “Mississippi”” with the line “I was thinking ‘bout the things that Rosie said/ I was dreaming I was sleeping in Rosie’s bed.” I always thought the line was “I was thinkin’ about the things that roses had.” I like my lyrics better — no offense meant — and whenever I hear the song now, I think about petals and thorns (although they never appear in the song).

Jacques Lacan, a French pschyoanalyst, described this as the objet petit a, or “The Little Object,” which is the unattainable object of desire. The trick is that pleasure comes from that objet petit a rather than the actual experience. For instance, he argues, seeing someone in their underwear is more pleasurable than seeing them naked, or the hints of a movie monster are scarier than actually seeing it. Not hearing the “right” note or seeing the “right” word creates a desire for what was never there. Hearing a bleep makes you think about swear words.

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