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Race, Sex and Repression on the Airwaves

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Little Richard performs during a halftime show at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn., on Dec. 31, 2004. (via NPR) (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

In 2003, home for the summer after my first year at college, I worked at a day camp run by the City of Albany. I’m aware that today’s Bay Area kids attend astrophysics day camp and pole-vaulting day camp and second-wave feminist day camp, but in Albany in 2003 we had what was called the Friendship Club. We went bowling at Albany Bowl. We took field trips to Scandia to play Skee-Ball, and to the Jelly Belly factory, and sometimes just over to Codornices Park in Berkeley to go down the big cement slide on pieces of cardboard. We had Cheez-Its and Capri Suns. It was simple and pure and great.

One of my regular tasks on these field trips was to drive the City of Albany van. I’d make sure everybody’s seatbelt was fastened, put the key in the ignition, and turn up the volume on the only radio station we were allowed to listen to: Radio Disney, a family-friendly station aimed at the under-14 set. What this meant, in practical terms, is that I spent the summer of 2003 inadvertently learning the lyrics to “clean” versions of every pop and R&B single that had charted over the previous decade. Usually the girl campers wanted to ride with me, so often I had a van full of girls ages 6 through 12 belting out absolutely ludicrous, neutered mutilations of pop songs whose entire original point was to be overtly sexual.

I had these Disney Radio edits on the brain this week as I read Ann Powers’ excellent book, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul In American Music. It’s an impressively thorough look at how American popular music, sex, and race have intertwined over the past two centuries — or, rather, how our history of complicated and repressive attitudes toward sex and the painful history of racism in this country have been and continue to be audible in pretty much every pop song on the radio.

It’s an ambitious topic, one that would feel unwieldy in the hands of a less skilled writer, but it helps that Powers a) is one of our greatest living cultural critics, and b) doesn’t promise an exhaustive record. What she does offer is an impressively cohesive narrative, considering the book’s breadth: the reader is carried from New Orleans to New York to Memphis to Chicago to Detroit to San Francisco, from the early 1800s through the present, following the ways music and dance have always, in Powers’ estimation, served as the place in which Americans are most honest about the power of sexuality.

Ann Powers.
Ann Powers. (Lucent Vignette Photography/HarperCollins)

There’s the shimmy; there’s twerking; there’s unspoken eroticism in gospel. Musicians and performers themselves aren’t discussed as human beings so much as they are conduits, time capsules, tangible artifacts of The Way We Lived and how we thought about sex, gender, race, religion and politics at a given time. There’s Little Richard, Elvis, and Prince; the holy counterculture trinity of Jim, Jimi, and Janis. Beyoncé’s “Formation” gets its rightful due as a landmark work of complicated art about black Southern womanhood; it’s no coincidence that Powers kicks off the book with a chapter presenting New Orleans as the historical soul of popular music.


But Miley Cyrus’ twerking phase and her bodysuit-clad VMA sexual rebellion, it might be noted, appear just as academically, cast as the logical result of centuries of thoroughly American — which is to say thoroughly mixed — messages about sex and race.

“Historically, music has become this vessel for hidden realities and for expressions of pride and dignity for the most wrongly oppressed in our culture and society,” Powers recently told Rolling Stone. “That’s how, tragically, we treat eroticism as well. We marginalize it, we try to repress it, we pretend it doesn’t exist and we treat it like an evil force. Music has been the place where people who had been treated in that same way can speak.”

Despite the book’s chronological breadth, the section of Good Booty I found myself returning to concerned recent history, an event I lived through but was too young to understand: the AIDS crisis. In painful stories, Powers describes how, following a period of sexual liberation, and of disco and community built inside gay clubs, the music birthed during and after the AIDS epidemic’s peak naturally reflected a substantial shift, casting sex as something to be feared. I’ve always known, of course, that AIDS irrevocably leveled scenes and families and subcultures, and that many — especially here in San Francisco — really never bounced back.

Beyonce and Nicki Minaj perform onstage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, 2015.
Beyonce and Nicki Minaj perform onstage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, 2015. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for TIDAL)

What I hadn’t understood was just how clearly the pop culture I grew up on in the ’90s and early 2000s was still shaped by these aftershocks. Between the AIDS crisis and Reagan-era conservatism, it’s no surprise that the generation who came up during the grunge era understood sex from a young age to be dangerous: something that could kill you. There was Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” which ties sex to drug addiction, self-loathing and suicidal depression. TLC’s “Waterfalls,” in part a cautionary tale about promiscuity leading to HIV leading to death. Nirvana’s “Rape Me” (subsequently repackaged as “Waif Me” for sale at Walmart).

And what of the generation just after that? I finished Powers’ book thinking about teen pop idols, whose sexuality is their main marketing point, and who are arguably all about fear as well: the Madonna-whore complex set to music. The lyrics to “Genie in a Bottle” — young girl trapped inside container, desperate to be sexual but only as a gift to the right suitor — are practically an ode to sexual repression, the terror our culture feels toward the prospect of young women in charge of their own sexuality.

After the summer of 2003, I never saw most of those Friendship Club campers again. The young girls I used to drive around are all in their early 20s now, no doubt shaped more strongly by Nicki Minaj (whose use of sexuality Powers rightfully notes might warrant its own book) than I ever will be. I’m left with sensory memories: smelly markers, a kid’s empty juice box in my purse, some sunburns.

And, of course, the lyrics to those oxymoronic clean versions of pop songs wedged stupidly into my brain — along with the sound of a chorus of young girls’ voices, all eagerly singing along, not giving a damn about the mangled lyrics. Gleefully oblivious to innuendo. And unaware they were in even remote proximity to something they were supposed to fear.


Emma Silvers lives in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter here.

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