The idea of swear words, also known as terms of profanity, is an ongoing topic of controversy for (at the very least) the more conservative music consuming public. The original meaning sees these phrases as things not aligned with the church and/or religious practice. This initial meaning has changed in the present day, but the idea that we swear or use profane gestures in moments of extreme/unexpected anger or surprise remains easily associated with swearing’s typical setting, whether one speaks of centuries ago or just last week.
The song has two things that immediately stand out about it, given the blatant shift to pop.
- A simpler melody using a minimal amount of changing tones for both the verses and the chorus. (try humming the tune without words, you’ll see what I mean)
- A somber story connected with a break up, but hardly with words or musical expression that infer recent loss, extreme rage or spontaneous pain.
Now, if this song is supposed to have high commercial Top 40 radio potential, then that means the expected listener is going to be the Top 40 target demographic of 18-34. (using New York’s z100/WHTZ-FM as an example.) While 18-34 technically resonates “adult,” target demographic doesn’t mean total actual listeners, who can range from far below or above that bench mark, especially given the tween and younger teen fan base for acts like One Direction and Justin Bieber, who z100 and other stations like it are serious in promoting.
You could say society becomes desensitized to the crude and brash nature of swear words and that once you reach a ‘certain age,’ people don’t gasp at you if an “F-bomb” gets dropped. It’s an ‘adult thing.’ Kids aren’t supposed to curse but if you’re a 20-something and you curse off your landlord or the guy who cut you off on the highway, everyone does it, right? Okay, let’s run with that logic for a second.
Let’s say Maroon 5 wants to sound “adult” and appeal to “adults” by swearing in the song. Then what the heck are they doing trying to simultaneously cater this new melody to radio rotation for stations that undeniably have masses of juvenile listeners? The simpler melody is synonymous with today’s definition of pop music and clear cut pop is, or has been, thoroughly employed (to use my examples from before,) by 1D and the Biebs.
In this way, I hear both in words and melody that Maroon 5 is displaying a major age identity conflict. At least with previous singles containing swear words, the swearing either was fleeting or not so much at the forefront; partially drowned out or mixed with more complex arrangements to balance things out. Having both these methods absent from Payphone is what makes the language stand out and feel more out of character for Maroon 5, even though they’ve used the words before. When you strip down composition, the lyrics become unavoidably more prominent.
(Side note: Adam Levine had no issue milking the lyrically innocent but commercially successful single “Stereohearts,” which coincidentally also collaborated with a rapper, Gym Class Heroes lead vocalist, Travie McCoy.)
Furthermore, listeners have expressed either dissatisfaction or confusion in regards to the much more overt use of swear words in “Payphone,” when the lyrically modified “Radio Edit” has them hardly missed.
Quotes from Maroon 5’s Facebook fans on the lyric video shown above:
Sarah DeVries “It was really good til he started dropping swear words. so i don’t know i’ll take the clean version anyday. :-D”
Gabriella Butler “Y did u write this and you shouldnt swear as much :(“
Tracey Burge “Song would be better if it didn’t have all the swearing in it. I don’t understand why people have to make songs I cannot play in front of my children.”
Rhys Martin “Great song that didn’t need any swearing imo [in my opinion]”
…The end of it all could just come down to Maroon 5, their producers or both, agreeing that having two versions –explicit and non-explicit– will optimize sales potential, since people that want the punchiness of swearing and people that want the family-friendly break up song can both get what they want. Honestly though Maroon 5, since it’s not like you’re in “I just slammed my finger in a door” rage with this one, what purpose besides ‘adult consumer lip service’ does some swearing really serve? A 90% mid-tempo ballad with a narcissistic (and rather lyrically random) rap bridge thrown in near the end really makes this about the money/ability to fit in and not so much about the composing or recording of the raw, grown-up passion you are so desperately trying to convey.