Sometimes it seems like you can say anything now. Politicians talk publicly about minorities, the homeless, and their political opponents in terms they wouldn’t have dared use privately a generation ago. In pop culture, we’ve removed a few words from George Carlin’s famous list of seven you can’t say on TV. And thanks to the Internet, no subject is unmentionable, hidden, or taboo.
Except we all know you can’t say everything now. Where Richard Pryor could win comedy Grammys with albums called That Nigger’s Crazy and Bicentennial Nigger in the mid 70s, we’ve infantilized the term to “the n-word” and banished it from the language as if it were a crime just to think it. (We won’t even let Mark Twain say it anymore.) Not only that, we don’t even like words that sound like “the n-word.” Remember the controversies involving the word niggardly, in which people who knew what it means were accused of racism and insensitivity by people who did not? Niggardly means stingy, is descended from the Old Norse, was used by Chaucer, and is not remotely racist.
Similarly, we get the vapors over the kind of drug references that were everywhere in the 70s, thanks to the scolding chorus of cultural watchdogs that formed during the Reagan 80s, the modern-day heirs to the Just-Say-No crowd and the PMRC. Consider what would happen if a popular weekly television program today were as openly drug-soaked as Saturday Night Live in the 70s: network boycotts, sponsor boycotts, and pious who-will-save-the-children wailing on every news channel until the shameful show was cleaned up.
All of that makes certain artifacts of the 1970s, innocuous at the time, seem positively amazing now. Certainly SNL is one of them; I have the first five seasons on DVD, and I am often astounded at what they got away with. Another one popped up on shuffle the other day: Jim Stafford’s 1974 hit single “Wildwood Weed.” It’s the story of accidental marijuana farmers and how they outwit “this feller from Washington.” “Wildwood Weed” was an AM-radio smash during the summer of 1974, reaching the Top Ten in a 13-week run on the Hot 100, although it didn’t stay on radio playlists very long after it dropped off the chart. Stafford still performs it during his shows in Branson, Missouri, a wink and a nod to those who were indulging nearly 40 years ago. And a small screw-you to the cultural watchdogs who would fumigate contemporary culture until nobody can see anything that isn’t fit for eight-year-olds. If it’s safe enough for Branson, it’s safe enough for everybody.