Exploring the subject of how music and sexuality have become entwined in popular culture is the hugely ambitious task which critic Ann Powers takes on in this book ‘Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music.’
Beginning in 1819 when a minister noted the ‘growing evil’ of the music sung in church, the book traces both the history of American music and society’s wider view of sexuality. It’s a fascinating journey from the roots of church music right through the rise of rock and roll and into the twenty first century. Highlights of the book are her discussions of individual artists, particularly strong is her work on Janis Joplin and Madonna. It is intriguing to read how such apparent polar opposite artists used their individuality and sexuality to their advantage in their careers.
The other section of the book I found the most engaging was the discussion of fan culture in the fifties and sixties, which links her research to the wider sexual revolution happening at the time. She does not condemn the macho rock and roll era that often exploited young women but her work begins a much needed reassessment of some of these icons and their behaviour.
Unfortunately despite my admiration for the scope and ambition of this book, I found it overall to be ultimately flawed for a number of reasons. Firstly, because ‘Good Booty’ attempts to be both an academic thesis and an accessible history of music the writing often falters in tone and style, which undercuts many of the strengths of her arguments.
Unlike the straightforward approach taken by Angela Y. Davis in her very readable ‘Blues Legacies and Black Feminism’, Powers’ mix of colloquial and academic writing is often inadvertently hilarious. For example when describing twerking she writes, ‘The dance’s rapid fire hip movements lead to an earthquake of jiggle in the buttocks’ or when discussing the title of the book she writes ‘there is that reference to the ass, the centrifuge in a dancer’s body’. The book is filled with these odd juxtapositions of language, which are jarring and expose how difficult it can be to write well about music, dancing and sex.
For such a talented critic it is also strange how much of this book focuses on the sex lives of musicians and society as a whole, rather than analysing the music itself. Too often the book relies on sweeping generalisations when detailed analysis of songs and albums would surely have been more effective. Furthermore references to random theories and philosophers hinder her work rather than illuminate it – for example she spends a section of the book arguing that Britney Spears is a cyborg rather than just analysing the role of sexuality in her actual career.
And the subtitle of the book also exposes the lack of a clear focus. There is just no possible way Powers can comprehensively cover such a broad scope of ideas in a few hundred pages. As a consequence the book skips clumsily from one era to the next, barely skimming the surface of some artists, songs and genres which you feel are relevant to her purpose. For example country music is almost completely ignored, which is very disappointing. There’s only brief mentions of Motown and hip hop is barely covered at all (and there is no attempt to engage with the misogyny of that genre). I would have also liked to read more about the history of ‘explicit lyrics’ and what that means in a modern streaming world when any kid can instantly hear every uncensored song they want.
Perhaps it is unfair to criticise a book so thoroughly researched and written with such obvious enthusiasm. Powers certainly conveys the joy of sex and music in Good Booty and maybe that is all that matters.
If you’ve read the book let me know your thoughts in the comments or on social media. Next month I will be discussing Wanda Jackson’s biography ‘Every Night is Saturday Night’.