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.
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."
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.
started really thinking about how music had expressed
attitudes about sexuality and love and eroticism
historically, going beyond the cliché 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."
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."
idea applies especially to the first chapter, on New
Orleans in the 19th century.
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
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
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."
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