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?
We are taught as children in school to this day, that America is founded on a pursuit of religious freedom, and puritans, who were repressed, were the founding fathers and mothers of this country. That’s not entirely true in the south. It was an entirely different group of people who came. And in cities like New York, there was commerce and that pioneering spirit was also a huge part of colonial America. I’m not saying that puritan impulse is the reason for this. But at the same time, religion is a huge part of why we don’t openly talk about sex in this country. I start out my book with an anecdote about how early Christians were uncomfortable with dancing. This was like in 1819 where you had this Methodist minister questioning and expressing anxiety about the way that others were expressing themselves, even in religious ceremonies; that they were being too physical. Even at this early stage there was trouble around that question.
There’s a racial component to all of this that I think gets glossed over in some respects, which I think you lay out quite clearly in the book. Questions about appropriation, and the ways that sex in music is disparaged by larger society based on both subliminal and outwardly racist grounds.
It’s so complicated. The one habit of thinking that many people who love, write, and think about music have developed is saying ‘Well, people of color are more in touch with gut, their primitive side, whatever,’ all those words that are said in a way that isn’t intentionally racist, but ends up being racist.
They’re loaded words.
Yeah, they’re loaded words. Very well put. That’s one way of thinking. Then, as you say, some of those forces are obscured. I try to be careful and always express the elegance and deep intellectuality and deep spiritual sophistication of eroticism as it’s expressed through African-American music. Another idea I’ve sort of been stewing over is that music became this language through which legacies could be maintained; rituals and customs that African slaves brought here. They could continue to express that stuff through music and dance. I think there’s a way to think about music, which we already had trouble communicating what was not on the surface in American culture, namely this African-American legacy that is so important, but is obscured in the official story.
You mentioned the South earlier, and by pure coincidence, I started reading the book while on a flight to New Orleans, a location that takes up the bulk of the first chapter. I really appreciated it because it gave me a rich cultural context about the place before I landed that I was a bit unaware of. Can you talk about how important that city is to the foundations of music in this country?
I felt it was crucial to mention New Orleans as the seedbed of this culture. I know that many people who don’t live in New Orleans consider the city a magical place and they understand how important it is, but I really feel that New Orleans is absolutely central to the American narrative. As central as any other capital; Boston or New York or wherever. New Orleans is the place where the mix and the connections and the confrontations happened.
It’s also notable that New Orleans was a slave market and all the most difficult stuff we have to deal with was happening there too. I really wanted to start my story there, so what was intended as an introduction turned into this very long first chapter. I understand trying to capture an entire century’s worth of history through one city and one chapter is maybe the craziest thing I did in the book, but it felt right.
The book touches on such a wide breadth of different eras, genres and forms, but I was really surprised to read about the depth to which the AIDS crisis impacted the world of music at its inception in the early 1980s and the continued repercussions leading up to today.
It’s a very personal subject for me. I moved to San Francisco when I was 19 in 1984 and I lived there until 1992, so that was something that I lived. I had many friends who dealt with the HIV/AIDS crisis as part of the gay community. It’s hard to describe for people who came of age after HIV/AIDS became a chronic disease instead of an immediate terminal sentence, or what it was like to be a young sexually active person during that time.
It was very frightening and it definitely shaped my generation’s consciousness around sexuality. Inevitably it had a huge effect on the music world as well. For complicated, epidemiological reasons the music world was hit very hard from the beginning, especially the club world. Obviously, I don’t have to stress this but I will, it had nothing to do with morality, promiscuity particularly. It was just the way that viruses travel.
I think, ultimately, that experience moved through my generation, who had to handle it because we were living through it, to the next generation in the same way emotional fates are passed down. So then, you have a slightly younger generation in the ‘90s and their legacy is this fear. The generation that came up during, you know, Nirvana’s reign, that was what they grew up with. This idea that sex was dangerous. That it could kill you. That at the very least it could possibly make you sick on some level. It’s very blatant in the music of that time.
Looking into the future, as the consumption and discussion of music moves further into the digital space, how vital has the concert experience become to maintaining the body’s physical link to popular sound?
It’s extremely important for people to get into rooms with each other and dance. It always will be and it can’t be replaced by virtual reality. I think the experience of going to a huge arena show is different than the experience of going to your local club with 75 people and dancing with a band. I think the best thing would be if people could have both experiences. They both offer something.
So my last question, with all of your first-hand experience, all you research, who is the sexiest musician of all-time.
Prince of course! C’mon is there even a question?
You got to hang out with him at one point right? What was it like to be in a room with Prince?
Oh, it was amazing. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about how sad our world is with him in it anymore. He was charming, intelligent, playful funny kind of person; at the same time controlling the interview, I’m sure. I don’t have any perception that I got to see the quote “real Prince,” but I don’t care about that. But, I would say that Prince dedicated his life to making us all understand better how our erotic spirit can make the world better. That was a huge gift and we’re lucky to have lived in the same time that he did.
To read more, get your own copy of Good Booty: Love And Sex, Black And White, Body And Soul In American Music here.