Think about sex and pop music and you probably come up with images of Prince, or Madonna, or Jay-Z and Beyonce. Maybe Miley Cyrus, twerking. And of course the tall Memphis kid whose gyrating hips scandalized a nation.
You'll find all those usual suspects in Ann Powers' substantive new book "Good Booty" (HarperCollins, $26.99), a lively study stationed at the intersection of the musical and the erotic. But you'll also find scenes from 19th-century New Orleans, a hothouse of interracial desire skirting the propriety of the times. And the shimmy craze of the jazz age, when booze was illegal but sex was everywhere. And the sharp-dressed gospel quartets of the pre-rock 'n' roll era, which "ran on the shared, sensual, blessed charisma of men who might have otherwise never let loose in the same way."
The real treasures here are the ones you probably don't know about. There's a real sense of scholarly discovery in "Good Booty," a willingness to go beyond the obvious and mess with conventional wisdom, especially in the book's revelatory first half.
"I started really thinking about how music had expressed attitudes about sexuality and love and eroticism historically, going beyond the cliche of 'the blues and county had a baby and made rock 'n' roll,' " Powers says by phone from her home in Nashville. "I wanted to go a little deeper and get a little more specific and think about how, at different points in our history, our attitudes about sexuality were expressed through music and also formed that music and then, in turn, were formed by music."
The book, which takes its title from original lyrics in Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," touches on matters of race, technology, gender, cultural mores, and, of course, sex. To Powers, a longtime music critic who now works for NPR, the subject of sensuality runs deep. Among her touchstones is Audre Lorde's essay "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," a sort of treatise on sexual self-definition. "She talks about how eroticism is really about that power within yourself that cannot be destroyed," Powers says. "Even when your own body is threatened you can still have that energy and power, of joy and pleasure and dignity."
This idea applies especially to the first chapter, on New Orleans in the 19th century.
This was a time and place of taboo racial mingling, both public and illicit. Congregations at Congo Square offered sights, sounds and dances to arouse the senses. As Powers writes, "these gatherings made room for women and for welcoming music's sensual effects." Not that such effects were confined to the square. "Music played in the streets and at home could trip into anyone's life. It could feel like a gift, or a violation."
"Good Booty" moves through the 20th century and into the 21st, spotlighting figures obscure — the black stage sensation Florence Mills, who became a '20s megastar before basically touring herself to death at age 31 — and more familiar. She drills deep on a pair of troikas: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, who wore sex on their sleeves and ended up trapped within their public images (and dead at age 27); and Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson, each of whom responded differently to the angst of the AIDS onslaught: "Jackson's eroticism was soaked in the sexual anxiety of the 1980s, presenting a potent, troubling counterpart to Prince's antic utopianism and Madonna's message of self-love."
Powers took a swim through academia early in her career, earning a graduate degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and she brings a degree of learnedness to her criticism. But there's no need to hack through verbal thickets of theory here. Her writing is smart but lively and accessible. "Well, it is about sex, so maybe that helps," she jokes. "Not that there can't be boring writing about sex, because there certainly is."
Not here. "Good Booty" is pleasurable reading, which is only appropriate for its subject. As Powers writes, "Every moment's pleasure illuminates whole worlds of need, conflict and possibility, and its own way, sets the stage for the next." The marriage of music and sex may mutate with the times, but it never really ends.