Reviews

Ann Powers' 'Good Booty' and the Connection Between Eroticism and Popular Music

This is how American music got its sexual groove on.


Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music

Publisher: Dey Street
Length: 448 pages
Author: Ann Powers
Price: $26.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-08
Amazon
Good Booty 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.
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.

9

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image