Is there a more taboo subject in the American consciousness today than sex? Politics maybe? But even then, people seem at least eager to bring up the topic in mixed company for debate. For whatever reason — our puritanical roots, the media, societal norms — ever since the first settlers arrived on these shores and planted their flag on the eastern seaboard, we have been generally averse to talking about sex, that, paired with a simultaneous utter fascination with the carnal wonders of it all.
In her new book Good Booty: Love And Sex, Black And White, Body And Soul In American Music, veteran music critic Ann Powers — who has worked at The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, and NPR, to name a few — seeks to strip away the stigmas and tell the real story of how sex has formed, shaped, and inspired popular music in America. It’s a compelling history, reaching all the way back to Congo Square in New Orleans in the 1800s up to Miley Cyrus’s MTV twerk-fest and beyond.
Sex is as intertwined with the rich traditions of American music as any other human interaction out there. It’s in the way we dance and the way we bond as a community in a live concert space. It’s in the way we objectify our most beautiful and alluring pop stars. It’s in the way we define ourselves and in the way we understand and relate to the very act itself.
“We, as a nation, most truly and openly acknowledge sexuality’s power through music,” Powers writes. “From colonial times onward, the sounds that inspired dancing and loud sing-alongs in the streets, in ballrooms, in bars, and in people’s homes exuded erotic energy and often directly discussed the problems and possibilities of sex and love that people were facing in their times.”
In other words, you can’t have jazz, blues, rap, pop, or rock and roll without sex. I spoke with Powers about how elements of American music have interacted with sex historically, especially across lines of race and religion, and how New Orleans and the AIDS crisis both figure prominently into our modern understanding of popular music. Read our conversation below.
At what point did it become clear to you the true power of sexuality and music as a combined force?
I think anyone who writes about popular music for a living, as I have for my whole adult life, sees that very obvious connection. It’s usually played out as kind of a cliché. “Rock and roll is about sex. Rock and roll means sex.” Of course I was always aware of that on a surface level, and felt it on a deeper level, but what I wanted to do with this book was explore that idea with greater nuance and how, in particular, it changed over time. In a way, it’s a new kind of history of American music, and also a new kind of history of American sexuality and the way we express eroticism. Both of those things are so intertwined in our culture and our society that I knew that the material would be rich, which, of course it was.
It seems like Americans, in general aren’t as eager to confront issues like sexuality as some other cultures. Why do you think that that is?