Thinking About Sex and Music
In his biography of Louis Armstrong
, Louis Armstrong
: An American Genius, James Lincoln Collier wrote:
Precisely why white Americans have been drawn to black entertainment is not easy to explain, but two factors are evident. First, the black subculture as it existed in the slave cabins and then the big city ghettos has always seemed exotic to whites. Second, blacks were seen as more erotic than whites. They were not expected to abide by the sexual proscriptions of white society.
Collier may be a bit disingenuous in his claim that it “is not easy to explain” why white society was drawn to the entertainments and art of black culture. Black music, dance, song, and most other forms of expression stood in marked contrast to white expressions in many ways. Where white expressions were often characterized by constraint, restriction, and inhibition, black expressions were frequently characterized by openness, freedom, inventiveness, and a level of frankness seldom encountered in white society. It is also relatively easy to point to the “erotic” in black art as being part of what drew white society to black culture ??" if one sees an acceptance of sex as an acknowledged and celebrated part of life as “erotic.”
However, the openness of black culture extended far beyond sex. The blues was an open expression of an important human emotion that had no real counterpart as an expression in white culture. Similarly, the Negro spiritual and later gospel offered an open expression of religious enthusiasm and spiritual ecstasy that, again, had few correspondents in European white society. The idea of physical, spiritual, and emotional exuberance is central to the experience of black culture and its opposite was just as central to the experience of white culture.
More complex is the linkage between spiritual ecstasy and sexual ecstasy in black culture. It is sometimes difficult to grasp how an artist like Prince can reconcile his blatant sexuality with his devout Christian beliefs. Or how Georgia Tom could become the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey and not reject his former life in the blues. Or how Sister Rosetta Tharpe could sing religious songs as though they were pop tunes…and sometimes blur the distinction between the religious and the non-religious to such an extent that her religious offerings could be mistaken for secular love songs (“My Man And I” is an obvious example). Part of the answer is in the difference between the traditions that came from European religious conceptions of the relationship between god and the physical world and those that came from Africa. Most African religions are pantheistic and see god and the world as one. Consequently, all human acts can be understood as spiritual, including acts of physical love. On the other hand, religious conceptions of god and the world in white America were heavily influenced by Puritanism, which separated the physical world from that of god and saw any preoccupation with physical pleasure ??" dance, song, and most certainly sex ??" as being sinful.
Part of the success of rock and roll, rhythm & blues, blues, and other forms of music that grew out of the African American experience in the popular mainstream was that these songs were more open about sex than songs that came from the traditions of Tin Pan Alley. Where Cole Porter’s songs glorified “the sweetness of sin,” they did so in carefully masked allusions: “I’d love to make a tour of you / The eyes, the arms, the mouth of you, / The east, west, north, and the south of you.” On the other hand, rhythm & blues songs ??" and later rock and roll songs ??" were direct, blatant, and unequivocal in their treatment of sex.
Of course some songs about sex trade in salaciousness for its own sake. Whether it is 2Live Crew’s “Me So Horny” or Lucille Bogan’s “Shave ‘Em Dry,” there are songs with dirty lyrics that are intended to be shocking and titillating because “sex sells” and is a kind of “guilty pleasure.” “Dirty songs” are a significant part of popular music and it is difficult to ignore them.
Some songs that are about sex revel in the ecstasy of sex as an open expression of one of the most pleasurable aspects of human existence. In the same way that the blues revel in the emotion of feeling the blues of B.B. King revels in the musical ecstasy of Lucille when she “sings” back to him, some songs about sex are about the open and unrestrained ecstasy of physical love. A substantial part of Prince’s catalogue ??" and success ??" is focused on songs about sex. Marvin Gaye’s later career was built on singing about physical ecstasy (“Let’s Get It On,” “Sexual Healing,” etc.) and Gaye’s songs became “seduction music” for several generations. Barry White’s deep bass was the background sound for lovers in the 1970s and ‘80s and since then singers like Usher and R Kelly have picked up where White left off. And the list goes on.
There are also songs that are criticized for their treatment of sex. For almost 20 years, rap, in general, and gangsta rap, in particular, drew criticism for their treatment of women and sex. From N.W.A’s “A Bitch Iz A Bitch” in 1989 to the present, rap has been accused of sexist and misogynist lyrics and it’s very difficult to take issue with much of that criticism.
Sex is a substantial segment of modern music and it comes in many shades and colors. Like sex itself, it is sometimes soft and sometimes rough, sometimes “good” and sometimes “bad,” and sometimes just cheap and dirty. In any case, sex is hard to ignore when dealing with popular music and, consequently, deserving of critical attention.
Identify, explore, and critique any aspect or facet of American popular music that deals with sex and that you feel is significant and worthy of examination. Your topic can deal with popular music from any variety of sources ??" blues, pop, country, rock and roll, etc. You can focus on songs that you believe are exploitive, voyeuristic, sensationalist, misogynist, or sexist. You could also select songs that you believe are examples of a genuine, meaningful, and positive expression of things sexual in music. It is wise to compare and contrast musical examples to give support to your argument. You should discuss whether or not you believe that the topic area you have selected has negative effects on our culture or society or not and explain why you hold such beliefs. It is, of course, advisable to cite outside sources for support and frame your argument in the form of a formal essay (Look over “Presenting Arguments,” “Tips On Writing Papers,” and “Critical Thinking” in the Syllabus).
[ Order Custom Essay ]
[ View Full Essay ]