How to Talk About Sex and Love in Pop Music
feuilleton 002: When does erotic art become erotica?
Pop music talks a lot about sex.
It’s the sweaty, curvy backbone of the Billboard Hot 100.
Despite the frequency with which songwriters use sex as a key element of their work, the industry at large appears not to have evolved or improved their discussion of sex in any definite sense. If anything, pop songwriters have highlighted the falsity of that old maxim that “practice makes perfect”.
In truth, practice makes permanent.
The constant recycling of old, existing ideas of sex — without any attempt to re-imagine, or take personal perspectives — is marching (quite unsexily) towards permanence. And so, I write to address the ubiquitous, problematic sex in our pop music.
Defining the Problem
Before we can attack the thing itself, I must assure you of my good and honourable intentions.
My argument for the exclusion of sex from pop is not — repeat, not — rooted in some old-fashioned appeal to prudishness. Sex could be everywhere in pop music without bothering me in the slightest — if it were done correctly.
My issues with the use of sex in pop music are — in fact — deeply skeptical of the supposed shock-value or titillation sex provides. This idea was much more eloquently put over 25 years ago, by the late Irish playwright John B. Keane:
“Anything of such a short duration should not be reckoned as a very important commodity.” John B. Keane, The Late Late Show (1989).
It’s with good reason that I have — so far — written the word sex in italics.
I want to make a clear separation between the sex that real people have, and the imaginary sex that Jason Derulo’s falsetto has with nameless, faceless women with no inner lives of their own.
The beauty of Keane’s words above is that they contrast these two, sex and sex in a single breath. Throughout this essay, we will refer to the sex your parents had to conceive you as ‘sex’, and the sex in ‘sex sells’ as ‘sex’.
The Problems of Sex
There are no less than three problems with sex in pop music.
First, sex is often violent and / or misogynistic. I use the word ‘violent’ here to include songs that imply or endorse: Non-consensual sex; sex-shaming; subjugation of women; objectification; homophobia; transphobia; etc.
Second, sex is often idealised and normalised. The expectations of young people are constructed based on the available information — unrealistic information sets up unrealistic expectations. An excellent example of the problem of ‘sex as ideal’ comes to us via wonderful comedian Stewart Lee (who I’ve written about, previously).
“If you look at depictions of teenagers in television today, they’re […] really, really at home with sex and drugs. When you look at portrayals of teenagers in the 70s […] they’re really terrified of the world, and they’re uncomfortable, and alienated, and alone — and I think that is much truer to what it’s really like to be a teenager…” Stewart Lee, Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe (2007).
Third, and (from an artistic standpoint) most seriously of all: Sex is used as a placeholder for love. All of these problems are widespread in pop music, and all will be detailed — with examples — below.
Detailing the Problem
I’ve told a little lie.
I won’t be examining these problems with examples (plural). I will be examining them using one song.
I hope you like Jason Derulo’s smash-hit Want to Want Me.
Problem the First — Violence
The violence in this song is of the non-physical, subtler variety. JD is a shade more romantic than the boys of Blurred Lines, but still, the girl who is the object of his desires is — it seems — just lying around, ready, and waiting for him. Having just rushed over to her place, in the middle of the night, Derulo surveys the scene that greets him:
“You open the door:
Wearing nothing but a smile — fell to the floor
And you whisper in my ear, ‘Baby I’m yours’”
You might feel that I’m being overly harsh on Derulo here—that there may be some ambiguity of meaning, or deeper symbolism. As with all of the points made here, each individual example is made more vivid by watching the accompanying music video:
This girl’s only purpose is to give JD something to fantasise and sing about, and then — when he feels the need — to BE PREPARED (spoken / sung as Scar from The Lion King).
Problem the Second: Normalising
This requires even less parsing than the first.
In reality, the woman would likely be confused, jarred, and / or angry that any man would arrive to her place with so little regard for her as anything more than a warm body.
Please, please, don’t be the person who writes me that Derulo probably sent her a text-message beforehand.
Even if he did — he definitely didn’t — why on Earth would he leave this out of the song? He made time to tell us that he tipped the taxi-driver, and — crucially — that he’s naked in bed. Also, in case you were wondering (I know I was) the sheets are on the floor. Other useful information includes the exact temperature of the room and that he had to search for his keys. The stars are just like us, folks.
At best, this is bad, artless writing.
Problem the Third: Sex ≠ Love
That sex is not the same as love is a tired, tired idea. It is nonetheless true, and nonetheless important to remind ourselves every so often.
Let’s (hastily, simply) re-imagine the story of Want to Want Me:
What if, instead of Derulo rushing frantically to see some apparently thoughtless, soul-less sextoy, he was in a great hurry to re-connect with his girlfriend, having been away for so long on tour?
Apart from being a far more human story, this would be — ultimately — more emblematic of love than the existing version.
Would this be the pinnacle of original plot-writing? No.
Would we be able to keep the existing framework (vocal melody, production, general direction)? Yes.
Will removing the weirdly oppressive / self-centred parts ‘ruin’ the song for me? If it does, you’ve gained a valuable piece of self-knowledge.
Sex is so often used as shorthand for love that we can sometimes forget how much more interesting, and human love is.
This whole essay was incited by two ideas that I collected some five years apart. The first was an excerpt from a Joanna Newsom interview in which, when asked why there were no (serious) swear-words on her records, she replied:
“Copious use of swear-words […] sometimes is shorthand, where, like, the person writing the song wants to quickly transfer a feeling, without actually conveying the feelings.” Joanna Newsom, Nardwuar Interview (2010).
The second was from legendary film director Andrei Tarkovsky, who wrote:
‘‘Everybody says that if there is no ‘love’ in a film, it is because of censorship. In reality it is not ‘love’ that’s shown on screen but the sexual act. The sexual act is for everyone, for every couple, something unique. When it is put into films, it’s the opposite.’’ Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (1986).
These ideas help to make clear for ourselves the difference between art that has erotic elements and erotica. That is, pop songs that contain sex, and pop songs that contain sex.
The use of sex in pop music is — overwhelmingly — a crude substitute for the thing itself: Love.
As it might be of some use (for both you and I) I’ll finish with this — a guide to when it is OK to include sex in your pop song.
You may sing about sex if:
- The song is about sex, sexuality, or politicised bodies.
- Sex is not the sole subject of the song. — AND —
- The song depicts sex without undue distortion of reality.
This is a plea for thoughtfulness and consideration.
With a little effort, we can uproot the current default of violent, idealised, heartless sex — we can move towards a place where the form and function of sex in pop music is better understood and more artistically employed.
Until next week ❤
These essays are part of a weekly series on music criticism called feuilletons. This is only the second one. If you haven’t read the first one, it might help you to know that I impose such strict standards on other writers, so that I might practice holding myself accountable in a similar fashion.
If you’d like to try your hand at imposing severe standards on some of my songs, please do so HERE.
If your thirst for critical analysis remains unquenched, please practice patience: I have a new release due out this Autumn.