Does Sex Belong in Music? - EMusician

Does Sex Belong in Music?

Absolutely. No question about it. Case closed. Good night, ladies and gentlemen. See you next month. (Okay, picture this: I've just finished clicking
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Absolutely. No question about it. Case closed. Good night, ladies and gentlemen. See you next month.

(Okay, picture this: I've just finished clicking the Send button on this month's “Final Mix,” and in less time than it takes a plug-in to process a four-letter word, an e-mail from the “First Take” guy pops up in my In box, pointing out that while the publisher will be tickled pink to have the extra ad space to sell if my column ends after five short sentences, the “Letters” column, which he, as editor, must deal with, will be a living hell.)

Well, I suppose there's always more to say about sex, isn't there?

The rhythms of early rock 'n' roll caused an uproar because, it was alleged, it inspired prurient interest within Our Youth and caused them to engage in obscene dancing and other sexually explicit behavior. But although the music may have embodied, and even crystallized, a movement toward more overt sexual behavior, the actual causes sprung from much bigger and broader issues in the social landscape.

Today, few people raise objections to the sexual suggestiveness of rhythms or any other aspect of instrumental music. Music is a primary as well as primal expression of a culture, and besides, sexual content in music certainly predates Ed Sullivan's conniption over the motions of a Memphis truck driver's danger zone.

From its very beginnings and up through the big-band era, jazz had many distinctly sexual elements, from the nasty wah-wah trumpet of Bubber Miley to the wild frenzy of the young Gene Krupa. Krupa's music is as good a reminder as any that the drum — probably the world's second-oldest musical instrument (next to the voice) — has carried a sexual message since the dawn of humanity.

Expressions of sex through instrumental music draw their fascination and effectiveness from the fact that the instruments themselves are physical in nature. This is expressed not only in the way that musicians play their instruments but also in the motion that is implied by a slowly bent note, the bump and grind of a pounding tom, or the naked lust of a brash, spitty trumpet.

The voice, on the other hand, while capable of all of the suggestiveness of an instrument, can also make direct verbal expressions of sex. That is where a lot of controversy lies.

Personally, I love lyrics that are sexually suggestive — the more so the better. The blues tradition offers especially fruitful pickings, whether it is B. B. King singing “I got a sweet little angel; I love the way she spreads her wings” or Lowell George growling about the rocket in his pocket.

On the other hand, I have very little use for sexually explicit lyrics. Not that I am offended by explicit language; I just don't find it very sexy outside of the bedroom.

My view is that the elements of hip-hop lyrics that some find objectionable stem more from underlying attitudes about power and misogyny than from sexual explicitness.

If the question is where should one draw the line, then the answer is easy: wherever you wish. The question of where the law draws the line is where societal pugilism comes to the fore. To even ask the question invokes the never-ending fun of battles about free speech and censorship versus community values and decency. The incredible penetration of media into the daily lives of people of all ages greatly magnifies the issue.

However, this an issue of public language, not of sex in music. Those who are offended by explicit lyrics would likely also pose the same objections in all arenas outside the musical context. Remember Lenny Bruce?

Sex at its best is one of the highest expressions of love a person can experience, and music is uniquely capable of expressing that. Sex at its worst is something I'd rather not experience at all, but it can make a great song. That alone is a good reason for sex to belong in music.