Why and when The Current will play the song, 'S.O.B.'

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Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats (Malia James)

For the past few weeks, there has been one song that's generated more conversation around the offices among the staff of The Current than any other — without ever being played on the radio. That song is a tune called "S.O.B." by an artist named Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. You might have heard or even seen this song: Nathaniel performed it live on NBC's Tonight Show a few weeks ago, Jimmy Fallon raved on about it on national TV, and it's starting to generate a buzz in music circles and on other radio stations around the country. We've also got history with Nathaniel, whose music we started playing in 2010, the same year he also performed a session in our studios. We're fans. If there's a radio station in America likely to play Nathaniel Rateliff, it's probably The Current.

So why the hesitation on "S.O.B." at The Current? It's a catchy song with an Elvis Presley-like chorus that seems to encourage partying — surely there are thousands of songs like that in rock history, and we play quite a few of those. But if you pay attention to the verses, there's a deeper conflict expressed about the dilemma of an alcoholic who knows he's got the disease — he's at a desperate point where he can neither drink nor not drink; it's heavy emotional stuff riding under that soulful swagger. Although the song conforms to FCC regulations on language, we have an additional policy at MPR where we believe it's important not to play songs with lyrics that could be considered demeaning to a group, race, or gender. There are several words that can upset some of our listeners if played on The Current — this is especially true for parents of young children, who rely on The Current to provide a safe harbor for language. And that's where our careful scrutiny has centered: The hook to this song is when the music drops out and Rateliff shouts, "Son of a bitch!" Rateliff doesn't say "son of a bitch" just once; it comes up eight times in the song. The phrase is crucial to the song's delivery and spirit of desperation; it doesn't work to edit out the last word of that phrase — in fact, it kind of ruins the song if you do (believe me, we tried this).

One could argue this is a phrase that should never be uttered on an MPR station. Others would say the titular phrase in "S.O.B." is used as a self-directed admonition; it's not used to put someone else down, but instead to capture the "eureka" realization that illustrates the feeling that traps Rateliff's narrator. Like some of the best art, this song celebrates and challenges the listener, plus it's got a good beat and you can dance to it. But that phrase haunts us at The Current.

Meanwhile, you can turn on network TV and hear that exact phrase all the time (I know; I was watching a rerun of The Family Guy with my nine-year-old last week, and the Peter Griffin character said it not once but twice in a single episode — this is on a prime-time TV show, not some 11:25 p.m., late-night program!). And cable TV has long moved way past this debate into a much more risqué environment.

Can The Current be true to its mission of supporting music we think is powerful and important and in the moment while still providing that "safe harbor" for parents to drive their kids to school as they listen together? Does context matter, or is a word always out of bounds? For example, we don't play Elton John's 1974 Top 5 hit "The Bitch Is Back," even though I grew up singing along to that one on Top 40 radio. Listeners may note we do play Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" with a bleep for the SOB phrase that generates a big laugh on the live recording; taking that one out enables the listener to insert their own language — the bleep could stand for "big bad poopy head" or any such putdown. We also started playing the song "Queen Bitch" by David Bowie a few years ago; in that case, although the title may be offensive, the titular word never appears in the lyrics of the song.

Although we're not bound by the FCC on this issue, we feel a responsibility to uphold "community standards," a term that goes back to the famous 1973 Supreme Court ruling on obscenity — that obscenity is a subjective judgment, and calls for prosecutors, judges and juries to apply "community standards" in determining what speech is obscene and what is protected. But in the Internet age, which community sets the standards? If you listen to The Current in Minneapolis or Berlin or Little Rock, do community mores become more fluid?

We wanted to post this to let you know that we don't take this stuff lightly. We believe "S.O.B." is a powerful song. Many people will not be offended by the chorus, but some members of our community (and members of MPR) might be, as even our staff members hold wildly diverse opinions on the song.

At this time, we are going to add the song "S.O.B." to our library and start playing it on the radio, but we'll apply what is called a "daypart restriction," meaning the song's airplay will be limited to the 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. portion of any 24-hour period. As we generate reaction from our audience and from the wider public, we may widen that window, or we may choose to close it altogether.

What do you think? You can share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, "S.O.B." - official video


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