Sex has always been an awkward and uneasy subject to broach in normal American conversation. And yet music, on both a physical and emotional level, has served as an effective art form in expressing sexuality and eroticism. Since the dawn of the rock & roll era, popular music and sex have been and continue to be inextricably linked, accompanied by varying degrees of sensationalism and shock.
But according to Good Booty, a new book by NPR music critic Ann Powers, America's erotic musical history actually dates more than 200 years ago, to the slave era. From there, the book traverses the different historical periods in American history, explaining the evolution of sexually-tinged music – from the 1950s male rockers' relationships with their female fans, to the groupie culture during the 1970s and punk rock's conflicting attitudes toward sex.
"I've always been interested in how gender relates to music," Powers, who had the idea for the book a decade ago, tells Rolling Stone. "I've written a lot about women in music. But I've also always been interested in sexuality and eroticism and how that expresses itself through music and how our various debates about that express themselves through music."
While there's no denying the titillation factor in the music and its stars, Good Booty raises larger and important issues, including race, gender, sexism and cultural appropriation. "Historically, music has become this vessel for hidden realities and for expressions of pride and dignity for the most wrongly oppressed in our culture and society," says Powers. "That's how, tragically, we treat eroticism as well. We marginalize it, we try to repress it, we pretend it doesn't exist and we treat it like an evil force. Music has been the place where people who had been treated in that same way can speak."
From the origins of sex in American music to Beyoncé's charismatic and confident performances, here are 10 things we learned from Good Booty.
1. The relationship between eroticism and music began in New Orleans in the 1800s.
Powers traces the sensual nature of American music and dance back to the lively culture of Nineteenth-century New Orleans, especially in Congo Square. It was an open field where slaves were allowed to dance, a sight that attracted the attention of white spectators. "The heart, soul and libido of American music is New Orleans," says Powers, who describes the city as historically a place of great pleasure and a capital of nightlife. "There was this mix of enslaved people and free people of color. We always have to think about that through the lens of oppression of inequality and slavery, but the joy of it is the mix and the expressions that came through in spite of hardships."
2. Jazz Age-era singer Florence Mills symbolized the new modern woman
Slender with a distinct and boyish-looking appearance the African-American singer and actress Florence Mills, who died in 1927 at the age of 31, was a different kind of star. According to Powers, she represented the transformative possibilities of the Twenties, a period when sexuality in American culture was blossoming. The author writes that Mills, who was famous for her role in the Broadway musical Shuffle Along, had a quality of irresistible naturalness that expressed "overt sexual longing," which made her relatable to audiences. "She represents the new era," explains Powers. "She was not vocally the same as previous stars. She had a kind of different physicality, she's youthful and modern. She was a huge star and she's almost completely forgotten."
3. Gospel music conveyed erotic as well as spiritual joy
In their voices and performances, gospel artists during the first half of the Twentieth century reconciled spiritual and personal longing, or the sacred and the profane. Power cites various examples of this "spiritualized eroticism": from composer Thomas Dorsey's gospel standard "Take My Hand, Precious Lord"; the powerful singing of Dorothy Love Coates; the charismatic, even sexy, performances of male gospel vocal groups. "Gospel music was a secret line of communication not only for erotic expression but crucially for expressions of freedom," Powers says, "which in the African-American community stemmed from spirituals and carried on the sounds and customs of the African diaspora. It wasn't shocking to learn that many fundamental expressions of what we'd call sexy – like the way Elvis moved or the way rock bands interacted with their female audiences – could be found in gospel music in that golden age."
4. Despite their sexual charisma, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison faced resistance within the 1960s counterculture
"The erotic breakthroughs of these cultural appointed savior-fools were doubled from the beginning by humiliation, censure, and defeat," Powers writes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Doors' Jim Morrison, three major rock stars of the late 1960s known for their incendiary live performances. Powers looks at how Hendrix struggled to transcend the racial and sexual stereotypes as he played to mostly white audiences; how Joplin's excessive personality and lifestyle was too much for people to handle; and how Morrison bought into his own myth as a sex symbol but also deflated it. ("Wielding his penis as a weapon...he always realized how flabby that sword inevitably became," the author writes of the Doors singer.)
"I think it's important to challenge the mythologies that have arisen around these key figures of the 1960s," says Powers, "because there's a romantic view of the counterculture that it was truly liberating, that if only the Seventies never happened, the hippie flowering would have continued. It's very important to acknowledge that there was a lot of racism and sexism within the counterculture and there was a lot of machismo. So it was interesting when I looked at these figures at how those realities played out in their own lives or has manifested in their own music."
5. Robert Plant's performances mirrored the orgasmic sounds of '70s porn films
It is quite apparent that Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant's performances on a number of the band's songs – "Whole Lotta Love," "Dazed and Confused," "The Lemon Song" – had an erotic, even orgasmic, quality. "Plant engaged pleasure in ways that resembled porn performance," Powers writes. "Like a porn star, Plant was playing a role, but also genuinely feeling its effects; there was a sense he couldn't stop once he was swept up in a song." His musical "money shots" coincided with the emergence of porn chic – when hardcore films like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door entered the mainstream. "Already in the Sixties you had explicit [art] films," says Powers, "but the rise of the porn feature, in particular the sounds of pornography, really affected how average people viewed and heard sexuality in all things."
6. Soft rock served as a musical "how-to" sex manual
The mellow sounds of such soft rock artists as Elton John and James Taylor were the audio equivalent of sexual self-help books – like the best-selling The Joy of Sex – by employing a gentle and assuring hand in addressing relationships. "It was music made for that moment at the end of the day when you're relaxing with your lady or old man and you're getting into some intimate stuff," says Powers. "So here's music that is very relaxing and that has a soft tone to it but it also pretty much talking directly about having good sex. It's funny to me, since I grew up in the Seventies, that I was listening to all of these songs, like [Starland Vocal Band's] "Afternoon Delight," or [Bread's] "Make It With You," and, oh my goodness, the Captain and Tennille. Come on. That's very dirty stuff."
7. Against the specter of AIDS in the 1980s, pop stars created erotic fantasies through their music and videos
The AIDS epidemic, along with Reagan-era conservatism of the 1980s, "would greatly undermine the openness and sense of liberation that characterized the sexual revolution and its aftermath," Powers writes in Good Booty. Thus, the groundbreaking music and stylized videos by Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson provided a space for erotic imagination. "They constructed fantasy worlds in their music that were very free while still acknowledging that it was not reality," explains Powers. "Madonna is a true embodiment of this. She is a gift of that imaginative freedom, at a time when it was hard to feel that freedom for a lot of people. The way [Prince] dealt with sexuality in every aspect of his music and performance – not just his lyrics but the sound of his music, the way he dressed – presented a vision that we all desperately needed."
8. Britney Spears was "the first American sweetheart of the Internet"
Britney Spears arrived in the late 1990s as a super-human, machine-like version of a pop star – a cyborg of sorts as the country prepared for the turn of the Millennium. With producer Max Martin pumping out catchy pop hits for her, Spears projected a public persona that was somewhere between a "teeny bopper queen and hardcore vixen," as she is described in Good Booty. "Britney's emergence and the emergence of the Internet as the central experience of young people's lives were simultaneous," Powers says. "On the one hand, you have this more mechanistic approach in creating pop music. On the other hand, you have young people interacting with pop culture in a way so that they could master this mechanistic realm and participate in it and they could become cyborgs themselves."
9. Auto-Tune helped T-Pain blur the lines between romantic reality and fantasy
Auto-Tune, the controversial pitch correction software tool, played a role in T-Pain's 2005 hit, "I'm 'n Luv (Wit a Stripper)." According to Powers, by electronically manipulating his voice, T-Pain created "a giddy confusion between the flesh and mechanics, calculation and emotion," Powers writes. The song somewhat foreshadowed how we are able to distort our identities daily through technology, particularly on social media. Power says: ""I'm 'n Luv (Wit a Stripper)" [is] a pretty deep song: 'I'm never going to get this girl.' That's what [T-Pain's] voice became...the expression of the tragedy of our inability to transcend our physical and social realities, even when it we feels like we can, because we have so much control over our image."
10. Beyoncé represents a perfect balance between her sexy public persona and stable private life
Unlike stars such as Britney Spears and Rihanna, both of whom experienced personal scandal, Beyoncé is a rare star who conveys sexuality in her performances, yet also maintains a tight rein on how much of her personal life is up for public consumption and, says Powers, a sense of dignity in the social media age. "Her performances are about setting limits and saying no to being violated," says Powers. "She can get up on the stage and do the same dance that hasn't been done in 200 years in the U.S., derived from the dances that enslaved people were doing in Congo Square. Those dances were originally about dignity and staying free in the face of your oppressors. And she's doing the same thing now. That's why she's the greatest artist of our era."