Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music

by Jeff Booth

Review of Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music written by Ann Powers. 453 pages. Kindle, Hardcover, and Paperback.

 

Music has long been associated with sexuality, censored for its sexual content, and banned. Some music is just too sexy for those who believe that sexuality has to be constrained. Even so, they have not been able to stop the music, and it continues to move us sexually.

The history of sexuality in modern music is chronicled in detail in Ann Powers’ excellent new book, Good Booty. Ann Powers knows her stuff. She is the NPR Music critic and correspondent, and a true enthusiast of the sexual power of music. She writes about becoming sexually aware by listening to records.

The title comes not just from the phrase as a euphemism for sex, but also from the fact that it was an original line from Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti, which was replaced in the recording with “aw rooty.” The need to censor music for public consumption has long been a necessity to enable distribution and avoid prosecution.

Subtitled Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music, it focuses on the music and not just the cult of personality that typically surrounds popular music artists. It does not look just at contemporary roots, but goes back to its roots in the 1800s.

She describes how the roots of eroticism in music travel back to early nineteenth century New Orleans, with its unique mix of cultures. She looks at the impact of Jazz, and also at the more surprising impact of Gospel music. She writes, “America’s musical-erotic revolution still mostly lacked a key element: the kind of depth that could turn profanity profound. The musical erotic needed a reckoning with spirituality, the other fundamental human activity through which American came to understand themselves.” Without the strong influence of Gospel music, we would not have had Elvis Presley and Little Richard and many others.

This is an expansive and big picture view of the history of sex and music, delving deep into lesser known subjects, and placing well-known figures in a broader context. It is also a personal view, from someone with a deep knowledge of her subject focusing on that which interests her most. This makes sense, as a completely inclusive account would need to be encyclopedic in scope.

“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,” she notes. “American music originates in the bodies of its people, in the pull of a moan from the throat and spine-loosening roll of the hips. From the beginning, it scandalized those who didn’t understand it, or maybe felt it’s impact too well.”

I am very familiar with Josephine Baker and her contributions to erotic dance during the Jazz era, but this book introduced me to her contemporary, Florence Mills, also an African American performer in a very racist America. She was a singer, actress, and comedian who became famous through her role in Shuffle Along, a musical with an all African-American creative team and cast. Mills was billed as the “Queen of Happiness.” Powers writes of her overt sexual longing in her performances, and that “She was not vocally the same as previous stars. She had a kind of different physicality, she’s youthful and modern. She was a huge star and she’s almost completely forgotten.”

The history of music and sex incorporates many a hard-fought battle for sexual and racial liberation. While she writes about these positively, she is less enamored with the growth of misogyny in popular music. Nor is she a big fan of the pornification of music videos.

The book covers New Orleans throughout the 1800s, New York from 1900 to 1929, Chicago, Birmingham and Memphis from 1929 to 1956, the Heartland from 1950 to 1960, New York, Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles in the 60’s, London, Los Angeles and New York in the 70s, New York, San Francisco and Seattle from 1977-1997, and Cyberspace in the 21st century. While there is a lot from the past, there is also a lot of material on more contemporary artists.

There is a ton of great material here. If the subject is at all interesting to you, this would be the one book I would suggest you include in your library.