American Pop Music Is a Story of Race, Sex, and Power

Ann Powers's new book, 'Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music,' charts the complex relationship between bodies and music, and it manages to do so without descending into objectification.

by Judy Berman
Aug 31 2017, 4:55pm

Photos via Wikimedia Commons

The original lyrics to Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" would've short-circuited the Brave Little Toaster. Three decades after its release, the early rock 'n' roll hit from 1955 was deemed tame enough to soundtrack the adventures of animated home appliances. But before producer Bumps Blackwell hired the songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to tone down the song's explicitly sexual content—an act of censorship that made Richard a star—the rocker's ecstatic screams punctuated such X-rated advice as, "Tutti frutti, good booty / If it don't fit, don't force it / You can grease it, make it easy."

Ann Powers, the NPR music critic and author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, has resurrected those lyrics as the title of her new book, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music. In a history as ambitious as its name implies, Powers follows the intertwined themes of race, gender, and sexuality through more than 200 years of American pop, beginning with the mythical "quadroon balls" of antebellum New Orleans and concluding in the only way imaginable in 2017: with a close reading of Beyoncé. Good Booty turns out to be the perfect title, not only for the obvious reason, but because the book recounts how a country founded on Puritan values and scarred by slavery has simultaneously expressed and suppressed its libidinal urges over the years. As Powers observes, "The real reason American popular music is all about sex is that we, as a nation, most truly and openly acknowledge sexuality's power through music."

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The only problem with this thesis is that American pop's unifying obsession with sex also makes Good Booty an impossible undertaking. There is no way to condense two centuries' worth of dialectic between black and white musicians into 350 pages without making egregious omissions. Each of the book's eight chapters could fill a lengthier volume, and the oversights become increasingly conspicuous as the pop landscape expands and internationalizes in the second half of the 20th century. Chapter 7 covers the years between 1977 and 1997 in a 50-page sprint through Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, punk, hip-hop, gay dance music, riot grrrl, and alt-rock. The sexual politics of Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga are allotted a single, inadequate paragraph in the book's final chapter. Salt-N-Pepa, who taught girls in the 90s more about sex than we ever learned in health class, get two sentences.

To her credit, Powers understands that her account is far from comprehensive. "Another volume would give Latin music much more of its due, and reach across the ocean to England more often, and go into inner space on the electronic waves of techno and rave," she writes in the preface.

Still, it's hard to imagine any other writer tackling this mammoth subject with more success. A consistently insightful veteran critic whose work combines Ellen Willis's freedom-loving brand of feminism, Greil Marcus's deep knowledge of American archetypes, and her peer Rob Sheffield's talent for taking pop seriously without ever sounding juvenile, Powers chooses the subjects of her in-depth portraits wisely, spotlighting musicians and movements that capture each era's carnal zeitgeist. Her perceptive writing about individual performers' bodies, sexuality, and the controversies they've incited make up for the book's hectic pace and many exclusions.

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As Morrissey—and the many distinguished novelists who've won Literary Review's annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award—can attest, it's hard to write about sex without sounding sappy, mechanical, or emptily pornographic. These days, any critic whose description of a female performer can be interpreted as objectifying also faces weeks' worth of social-media backlash. Sometimes, it's warranted: Readers recently attacked New York magazine's David Edelstein over a Wonder Woman review that noted the character's S&M history, favorably compared star Gal Gadot's superheroine to "Lynda Carter's buxom, apple-cheeked pinup," and featured the inexplicable aside, "Israeli women are a breed unto themselves, which I say with both admiration and trepidation."

Rock critics have always been notorious for their horny appraisals; in the mid-60s a writer for the LA Free Press famously gushed that Janis Joplin "makes it for me, like holy mojo lips caressing the dick of my soul." The profession has grown up substantially since then, but five decades and an influx of female writers haven't entirely ended this tradition. A few months ago, SF Weekly's Jessie Schiewe (a woman, for what it's worth) got roasted for a calendar listing that opened, "I hate to objectify her, because she is a talented musician regardless of her physical attributes, but Colleen Green is hot. And not 'big-boobs, blonde-hair hot'—she's beyond that."

These pile-ons tend to end with free-speech absolutists fretting that any sort of writing about sex and bodies is now verboten. They correctly point out that physicality is central to pop stars' and actors' crafts, but overlook that the descriptions they're defending simply constitute bad criticism. Edelstein's fantasies about Israeli women, Schiewe's identification of Colleen Green's particular brand of hotness, and the dick of some hippie hack's soul don't reveal anything about the creative work they're supposedly interpreting.

Janis Joplin in 1969. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Contrast the holy-mojo appraisal of Joplin's sexuality with Powers's in Good Booty: "Joplin presented womanhood as a form of excess—a performance of the state of being 'too much' that defies rules made by men, but which also presents feminine desires as dangerously, irresistibly insatiable." Just a few pages later, she finds the connection between Jim Morrison's physical presence and his endlessly mythologized death spiral. "Committed to wreaking havoc upon orthodoxies of desire, he couldn't help but fit within them," she writes. "He wanted to be love's terrorist, but he looked, moved, and sounded like a teen idol." Jimi Hendrix completes her triptych of 60s sex symbols who died young and ties the post–Civil Rights era to an ongoing discussion of how music blurs racial borders. As Powers sees it, "To be the only black man white women could desire was to become a new kind of invisible man, accepted as a cipher, not a real person born into a black community." She isn't rating her subjects' bodies or sex appeal; she's demonstrating how they used those things, willfully or otherwise, in their art.

Britney Spears and Beyoncé are probably the two toughest contemporary pop stars to critique—the former because she hasn't been a free woman for nearly a decade, and the latter because she's become the ultimate avatar for black, female identity. Powers is sensitive to these contexts, but not so cautious as to shy away from provocative insights. "Spears's ability to inhabit multiple identities—teenybopper queen and hardcore vixen, or, to put it in classic sexist terms, virgin and whore—lifted her beyond those categories, or even negated them," she argues, describing Britney's depersonalized sexuality as "something she generated and could manipulate, but which was not natural to her and therefore not confining." Beyoncé's sexy, self-titled 2013 album, meanwhile, illuminates how a canny artist balances privacy and candor in the internet age: "She was solving the problem of the celebrity sex tape, feeding the insatiable demand for public knowledge of famous people's lives with divulgences that satisfied but remained in her grasp," Powers writes. "Beyond that, for the average listener or viewer, Beyoncé fought back against the assumption that to live online was to surrender any real control over one's private life. It showed how a person could reveal herself without being violated."

Britney Spears in 2011. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Powers is similarly bold yet balanced on music's murkiest and most fiercely debated controversies. Powers was reconciling her feminism and love of "nasty" art, searching for a way to differentiate between "what's truly transgressive and what's merely gross," years before the internet exhausted that topic, and in Good Booty, she's refreshingly clear-eyed on the teenage groupies of the 70s: "That adults would observe and take part in blood sport waged by drunk high school sophomores raises not only the obvious questions about agency and power, but more complicated ones about the way people avoid responsibility within situations that seem predetermined by established positions and rituals." This, not the clickbait screeds that crop up every time a male rock star dies, is what useful feminist music criticism looks like.

Although she rarely finds space to explore them in depth, Powers has a knack for drawing out archetypes that span generations. She demonstrates how women gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson "invented rock and roll performance" with vocals that "overrode the mind-body split that kept the sacred from the profane" and traces the flamboyant, visionary candio archetype from its origins in the 19th century through contemporary dandy innovators like Andre 3000 and Kanye West. Powers is hardly the first critic to observe that just about every notable genre and trope in American popular music originated in the black community before being appropriated, usually without due credit, by white performers whose skin color allowed them to access mainstream audiences. Her contribution is to follow this pattern all the way back to America's earliest years as an independent nation, when so many rock critics are happy to stop at jazz and the blues.

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There's no question that this narrative is incomplete, that a book that doesn't mention Sly Stone or Grace Slick or Fleetwood Mac or Bad Brains or the Beastie Boys can't claim to be the last word on race and sexuality in American music. But since we're bound to keep hashing out these issues for decades to come, we're lucky to have Ann Powers's knowledgeable and humane perspective to ground a conversation that too often devolves into ahistorical polemic. It is not such a bad thing that, like Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison, Good Booty leaves us wanting more.

music criticism
Ann Powers
Broadly Culture