Cee Lo Green admits he never expected his latest single to be an on-air hit.
"This wasn't about radio," he told the Sun-Times this week. "This was about exhibition and alternative, about underground and antiestablishment. This was always for the Internet -- the people's radio."
He's talking about his new song, wildly popular via viral forwards of its YouTube video, which has racked up 4 million views in two weeks. It's a song radio can't play, with a title we can't print. (Though it fools absolutely no one, not even the kids, you'll have to suffer the hyphens here.) It's Cee Lo's already infamous "F--- You."
The single -- addressed to a gold-digging ex-girlfriend and her new man, and catchy for its contrast between the spirited, lively soul music and the affronted, expletive-laden lyrics -- is the latest from Cee Lo, one half of the duo Gnarls Barkley ("Crazy") and a member of hip-hop group Goodie Mob, and it heralds a new solo album, "The Lady Killer," due Dec. 7. In less than four minutes, the song drops 16 f-bombs. It also includes the s-word and the increasingly dreaded n-word.
"I see you driving 'round town with the girl I love / and I'm like, 'F--- you!' " Cee Lo sings, for openers.
(Watch the original "F--- You" video -- and willingly accept the responsibility of exposing yourself to several naughty words -- by clicking here. Warning: Graphic content. You'll be required to verify you are older than 18.)
But when it's released to radio this week, "F--- You" will be rendered into a family-friendly version called "Forget You."
"I hate it," Cee Lo said of the second version he was asked to record, before adding (irony alert!): "No, hate is too strong a word. ... I don't hate it. It's not as good, but it is politically correct. After the fact, though, 'Forget You' just doesn't cut through."
Nikki Chuminatto, music director at Chicago's WTMX (101.9 FM "The Mix") says the clean version is "comparable" and "quite good." Her station will add the song late this week to its new music show and see how listeners respond.
"Something like this that's so profane, people understand that legally we can't play it. That's not a song mom's going to want to hear in the car with the kids," Chuminatto said. " 'Forget You' still works in the context of the song. When it comes to radio, it's like TV -- you see 'The Godfather' on AMC or watch a movie on a plane, you get the gist of the movie and it can still be good without hearing the exact verbiage."
Several video mash-ups have been posted online in recent days, inserting the song into key musical scenes from famous movies, such as John Cusack's iconic boombox moment in "Say Anything" or the final strutting of "Dirty Dancing." Cee Lo said his favorite is one that uses the song to supplant Tim Robbins' opera-record rebellion in "The Shawshank Redemption."
"F--- You" has drawn the inevitable criticism from family watchdogs. Dan Isett, the director of public policy for the Parents Television Council, said in a statement that the song "is just the latest example of an entertainment industry bent on racing to the bottom of the barrel."
Cee Lo, however -- and he's one of five writers credited to the song -- insists the language in these lyrics is perfectly natural.
"It's just what you say in that situation, you know?" he said. "We didn't put that much thought into it. It's got a sense of humor and is about being silly. It all started as us having a little fun. It's really not vulgar."
Jesse Sheidlower wrote the book on the subject, The F Word (which recently expanded in a third edition), and he's the editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary for North America. He even rewrote the OED's fabled entry for "f---." He loves the song.
"What makes the word successful in this song is that it's exactly the sort of thing you might want to say in this situation, but it's also not the sort of thing you say in a pop song," Sheidlower said. "It works differently in other types of song. Yes, you can say, 'F--- the police!' But this sweet-sounding soul song is not the place you expect to hear someone saying this to a woman."
The f-word has lost its sting in recent years, he said, due to increased exposure. Think of the many alliterative substitutions commonly and openly used; we've gone from fudge to frak, freakin' and friggin'. The distinction in most cases is whether the word is used to imply sex -- and this factored into the FCC's decision not to issue a fine over U2 singer Bono's f-bomb ("f---ing brilliant!") at the 2003 Golden Globes -- which, Sheidlower said, is not the case in an overwhelming majority of the word's uses.
"It's not a sexual term," he said. "I mean, etymologically it is, but when most people say 'f---,' it's used in a non-sexual way. ... And here, he's not just throwing it in for effect. It's all perfectly fine in context. It's just what you would say in this situation if you didn't have a recording engineer or the record company's censor staring at you."
Cee Lo said this song has been lying around his studio for more than a year. He claims his record company, Elektra, actually pestered him to allow them to release it online this way.
The existing video simply presents the song's lyrics on a variety of colorful backgrounds. A new, filmed video is expected this week.
But what does this mean for the full-length album?
"I don't have 14 'F--- You's' on the way," Cee Lo said, chuckling. "A single is meant to signify an album's worth of work, but not meant to sum it up. The moods on the album vary as much as my mind does."