Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music
US: Aug 2017
As history has shown, conversations about sex in American society tend to be complicated and polarizing affairs, a reflection of conflicting views on what Americans might consider appropriate or obscene. Many times, society has sought to control and even suppress how sexuality is conveyed in culture. However, as documented in Ann Powers’ new book Good Booty, popular music throughout the years has served as an effective vehicle to express our romantic and erotic feelings—with varying degrees of titillation and shock with each successive generation.
Powers, a critic for NPR Music, is perhaps one of the best persons to address this subject matter, having written extensively about women in music (she co-edited the anthology Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap with Evelyn McDonnell, Plexus, 2014). Good Booty, whose title borrows a line from the original version of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”, spans more than 200 years’ worth of American history in highlighting the music and the artists who projected sexuality, as well as the social climate that inspired or informed the art.
In the introduction to her 400-plus-page book, Powers writes about the different stories presented: “These scenes show how eroticism, at the deeper level of physical and soulful joy enriching people’s understanding of themselves and connections with one other, has given American popular music its central force of meaning. These same stories show how music takes on forbidden topics, opens them up, and makes the irresistible.”
The natural assumption is that eroticism in American popular music began in the early blues and rock ‘n’ roll eras. But according to Powers, that relationship actually dates back to 19th century New Orleans. In that racially-mixed and lively city, enslaved African Americans danced in Congo Square on Sundays where they could express a brief moment of freedom, albeit under the gaze of white onlookers. The story then moves on to the Jazz Age, a period when sexual attitudes loosened up in the US through such dance trends as the “hootchy-kootchy”, the “shimmy shake”, and the “Apache” (pronounced A-POSH). That period also represented the arrival of modern mores, as exemplified by the story of African-American singer Florence Mills, a contemporary of Josephine Baker. Powers writes: “She was a modern woman, acting like one…her irresistible naturalness allowed her to express overt sexual longing in a way that made audiences identify with her.” (69)
Perhaps the most surprising point from Good Booty is how gospel music played an important role in the dialogue between sex and music during the period of the ‘30s to the late ‘50s. “America’s musical-erotic revolution still mostly lacked a key element: the kind of depth that could turn profanity profound. The musical erotic needed a reckoning with spirituality, the other fundamental human activity through which American came to understand themselves.” The author highlights examples of that, such as the powerful singing by Dorothy Love Coates, who is described as having perfected “spiritualized eroticism”; and the male vocal gospel groups, whose showmanship mirrored the charisma of future rock bands. Gospel, of course, was also crucial in the development of rock ‘n’ roll, as stars like Elvis Presley and Little Richard were raised with the music.
The book’s sections on the ‘50s and the early ‘60s covering the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and its connection with feelings of (sexual) excitement within American youth is pretty much a given and self-explanatory. In addition to the obligatory mentions of Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Beatles, the book also also probes other unique aspects from that period, such as the fraternization between these early rockers and their young female fans (i.e., teenager Genie Wicker’s revealing letter about her encounter with Presley backstage). As a counterpoint to the excitement and fantasies conveyed by these aforementioned rock pioneers, Powers also posits how the music of such artists as Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers addressed the romantic concerns of confused teenagers on the verge of adulthood during that time of the post-war boom.
There are plenty of other moments in Good Booty for music and pop culture fans to discover and savor. Those instances include how Grateful Dead concerts in the ‘60s contributed toward making pop music as “a more sensual, emotionally open-ended experience”; and how Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison—the three musical sex symbols of that decade—experienced pushback even within the era of the counterculture. The most interesting period belongs to the ‘70s, when hard rock, glam rock, soft rock, and disco, with their erotic undercurrents blossoming in the same decade that gave us porno chic.
However, if the ‘70s were marked by sexual liberation, then the ‘80s brought it to a tragic halt with the AIDS epidemic. With that sobering reality, the songs and music videos of Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson provided a space for people to exercise their erotic fantasies, if only in the mind. Flash forward to the ‘00s, modern-day forces of nature like Britney Spears and Beyonce took erotic expression to a whole new, even superhuman, level. Powers writes of Beyonce, who is cited for her uncanny ability to balance between projecting a sexual image and maintaining her privacy in our social media culture: “In a time increasingly dominated by virtual experiences, her nimble advances and self-preserving retreats made her the queen of pop.”
Don’t be mislead by the book’s title and assume that the subject is treated with fun and lightheartedness; Good Booty also addresses how America’s erotic musical journey is inseparable from other important issues such as race, gender, cultural appropriation, and sexual harassment that goes beyond just getting off in the bedroom to the ultrasmooth sounds of Barry White. They include the different perspectives of the ‘70s groupie culture; the popularity of Auto-Tune, and the question of authenticity (see T-Pain’s “I’m in Luv (Wit a Stripper)”); and the controversy surrounding Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”. “The everyday experience of American eroticism arises from buried prejudices and violent impulses as well as tender ones. In specific places and times, including within the space of a musical recording or live performance, all that hunger and rage, yearning and hope, becomes visible and audible,” writes Powers.
Given how much musical-sexual history there is in Good Booty, it’s impossible to cover all the bases. To her credit, Powers follows the stories she believes are most important as well as underrepresented, especially in giving voice to musical genres like gospel, punk, hip-hop, and alternative rock. The fun lies in rediscovering the music and the artists responsible for this 200-year journey.
Intelligently written with plenty of examples to support her arguments, Good Booty provides a lot of food for thought when it comes to matters of the heart, soul, and body. In addition to those interested in music and pop culture studies, readers interested in gender and multicultural disciplines will find Powers’ work illuminating as well. As Americans continue to debate the latest issue pertaining to sexual expression, at least the music, as Good Booty demonstrates, will always be there to serve as a vessel for romantic pleasure, sexual pleasure, and the joy that brings people together.
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