Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the forthcoming book Strange Stars (Melville House). Twitter: @jason_m_heller
Sex has become so much a part of the fabric of popular music, it's easy to overlook it or take it for granted. Ann Powers, NPR Music critic and correspondent, rectifies that with her new book, Good Booty. In it, she paints a portrait of America's obsession with sex as it manifests itself in music — and how that obsession has much to tell us about our collective desires, fears, inhibitions and beliefs.
Rock 'n' roll might be the most obvious genre for Good Booty to tackle — the term itself was originally a euphemism for sex — but the book strikes out much further. Powers explores the Creole sounds of New Orleans in the early 1900s, the free-love rock of the '60s, the horny punk of the '70s, the pop fantasies of the '80s, and the competing urges of hip-hop and grunge in the '90s. She goes all the way up to the 21st century's "cyborgs," as she calls Britney Spears and Beyoncé — both of them artists who broke out as the rise of social media and online identity led to a futuristic kind of sexual expression in popular music.
Throughout this timeline, Powers unveils the ways social norms, androgyny, sexual fluidity and queer identity have factored into America's hot-and-heavy love affair with popular music. Often the most obscure artists reveal the biggest truths — as in the case of Willmer "Little Ax" Broadnax, who sang tenor in the Spirit of Memphis Quartet and whose autopsy in 1992 revealed that he had been assigned female at birth over 70 years prior — a secret he had kept his whole life.
As the book's subtitle — Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in America — indicates, race and spirituality are also part of Powers' story. She traces the transition from the predominantly African-American forms of jazz to R&B into rock 'n' roll in the first half of the 20th century, and how these styles paralleled the particular ways socialized courtship — particularly the unleashing of teenage sexuality as pop-culture force in the '50s — held sway over American life prior to the sexual revolution.
She singles out Elvis Presley, naturally, but she places him in a broader context — namely the mingling of black and white singers, audiences and pop culture in midcentury Memphis and how that melting pot fomented blues, soul and rock 'n' roll, three intertwined styles that funneled erotic force in their own ways. And in her loving, sweeping look at gospel's storied past, she uncovers the way sacred hymns and secular songs merged, as far back as the early 1800s, to set the tone for American music's soulful sensuality — or as Powers calls it, "an erotic exchange that's at the heart of American popular music."
Through the stories of Elvis, Broadnax and myriad others, Good Booty pieces together a composite sketch of sexuality in American music history. It's not a comprehensive account — that task would have have required volumes; instead it's a survey of vivid examples, "a collection of scenes," as Powers puts it in her preface. As such, it spans three centuries while cohering into an electrifying narrative — a tale that shakes and heaves with the rhythm of her subject matter. She also punctuates her scenes with concise insights into her true-life characters that shed fresh light on even the most overexposed pop stars. Speaking of Presley's hip-swiveling, taboo-straining sex appeal in the '50s, she says, "The sizzles comes as much in the cruelty of his self-suppression as it does from the revelation of his lasciviousness."
At times, Good Booty's scope is overwhelming. Everything from feminism to technology to David Bowie to AIDS appears in the book, and some of these angles fly by too quickly to take hold as deeply as they should. Mostly, though, Powers superbly balances smart criticism and theory with the primal humanity behind the thump and grind of America's homemade soundtrack. "The real reason American popular music is all about sex," she states, "is that we, as a nation, only truly and openly acknowledge sexuality's power through music." It's a strong claim, but Good Booty backs it up with purpose and passion.