Friday, July 16, 2010

Why Does Everything "Suck"?

You suck.

That movie really sucked.

The Seahawks really sucked today.

Working for the man sucks.

The word "sucks" is ubiquitous in today's American language. I'm sure you've noticed...and probably use the word many times a day without even thinking about it.

It's always used to express displeasure or to disparage something or someone and is commonly accepted as a non-offensive word. It's everywhere - in TV programs, in commercials, in movies, in articles and other writings. Children and adults alike use the word.

But do you know where the term originated? What it means?

I've had my hunches, but seeing a recent TV ad in which a "suck-o-meter" is used to make some point or another about how the product being promoted doesn't "suck" demonstrated to me how much this word is in our culture and got me thinking about why such as strange term would be used to express a negative feeling or judgement.

Well, the first thing to know is that yes, "suck" is a term for oral sex. This is what I had assumed all along, and perhaps you did too. But, the real mystery is why it is so commonly used in general society. And I think the answer suggests perhaps it isn't a great term to be throwing around so easily.

OK, back in the, the 60s and 70s and probably before..."sucks" was used in a very negative way as shorthand to essentially say, "you suck c*%#k" or "that sucks c*%#k." So, the intention was a degrading insult. But, it was also usually meant to imply that "you are gay." So, it's a bigoted term too - anti-gay. The translation of "you suck" was "you are gay and suck c*%#k." Because it was offensive, you didn't hear it as much and it wasn't in media, movies and print.

Perhaps the defining moment for the word "sucks" - proving its anti-gay insult status AND its adoption into everyday American syntax - is the whole "disco sucks" thing that happened in the 1970s. Disco music started in the gay clubs in NYC in the mid-70s and had a following in the African American community too...and it spread from those places into the general American culture as a sizable sector of our population wanted to get down.

Along the way, some people who were not gay, black or living in NYC took exception to the disco sounds they were hearing on the radio and the disco fashion they were seeing on the street. It all seemed awfully "gay" to them...and in their contempt they started saying, "disco sucks." By the mid to late 1970s, this essentially homophobic and racist mantra was picked up on rock radio stations as DJs became distraught over their beloved Stones, Zep, Rush and Sabbath being scaled back on airplay in favor of dance songs by Donna Summer, The Village People, Chic and other disco acts. Hitting the airwaves daily, the term "sucks" was used to describe disco in a derogatory way...and spread broadly from there.

At this stage, two events in particular really really propelled and solidified the use of the word "suck" as mainstream. First, the movie Saturday Night Fever in 1978 was a HUGE hit nationally - spreading the groovy disco sound across all corners of America and generating the predictable backlash call of "disco sucks!" among people who may not have quite appreciated the innovation of the Bee Gees and John Travolta and his white suit. Second, the Disco Demolition Night at Comisky Park in Chicago in 1979 where nearly 90,000 people responded to a Chicago area DJ's call to bring disco records to the field to literally blow them up before the start of a White Sox game. Following the initial explosion, a mini riot started on the plying field.

This stunt came across for what it was - low brow and reactionary. It also got a lot of attention in the media...complete with the "disco sucks" chants from the crowd and "disco sucks" signs in the stadium. America, say hello to your new term for saying something is not good.

The rest as they say is history. All of a sudden, many things "sucked." And that's how it is today. Thirty years on from the baseball stadium stunt and the heyday of disco, even kids cartoons say things "suck" when they want to say something is not good.

There are those who defend the modern use of the word and I can see some of the logic, but primarily I try and not use the word myself because each time I do I think that it's a lame way to say something that could be articulated better with other words and it has a quite homophobic and racist history. The word is so ingrained in our culture that I am sure I will still use it reflexively now and again, but I'm trying to dial it back.

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