Seattle-born culture critic Ann Powers—who will be discussing her expansive new book, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music, on September 8 at the Summit—discovered sexiness in music at age 9, with formative tunes making her "jump like a jelly bean."
"The first two albums I bought," she recalls in an e-mail interview, "were Maybe Tomorrow by the Jackson 5 and Osmonds by the Osmonds. This was music designed to get young girls thinking about love and sex! I remember the inner sleeve of the Jackson 5 album had an offer to buy these stickers where the top of the Jacksons' Afros were cut out so their faces looked like hearts. 'Come on over here, little girl, I wanna KISS ya!' Michael sang. Gateway drug!"
Powers found some further clues in fifth-grade Catholic school. "We had a hippie teacher (she lasted only one year) who would play things like the Moody Blues for us in class. Someone brought in Elton John's 'The Bitch Is Back,' and we'd play it on her record player before she got in the room.
"That and the paragraph in [Peter Benchley's novel] Jaws where the main character and his girlfriend talk about how wet her panties got us thinking about sex, those were the level of our explorations of the profane. We were an innocent bunch at Our Lady of Fatima. At home, I had my Paul McCartney dreams."
Steamy make-out sessions ensued eventually, with the bassist from Seattle's Student Nurse, though she spent more time with a cello player, her first serious relationship.
"But I loved the local scene" in the early 1980s, she avows. "My favorite bands were my cousin's Captain Beefheart–inspired group Fred, the very glamorous Mental Mannequin (Gordon Raphael, who'd go on to produce the first Strokes album, was in that band, along with Barbara Ireland and Pony Maurice, women who were just the height of glamour to me), Audio Letter (that was Sharon Gannon, who went on to found Jivamukti Yoga in New York), and the multi-instrumentalist Sue Ann Harkey—arty improvisational music.
"I loved the weird stuff the most!" Powers continues. "So the scene I gravitated toward was pretty intellectual. More like an art scene than a down-and-dirty rock scene. The Blackouts, the Macs band... But I was always wanting to talk about music and art as well as dance. Music nerd from the get-go."
Good Booty started out as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame presentation on the shimmy, which eventually became a book chapter unto itself. She credits the Rock Hall's Lauren Onkey and Terry Stewart for "pushing me off the diving board."
She dug into research starting six years ago—"a deep archive is my idea of heaven"—swirling through the Schomburg and the Lincoln Center libraries in New York, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archive in Cleveland, and the Special Collections at Fisk University in Nashville and the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University.
"Most of the less familiar stories I tell in Good Booty, I found in those archives," she explains. "Eddie Cochran's fan letters. The unpublished manuscript in which Earl Tucker's former dance partner talks about his licentious behavior backstage. The personal papers of Thomas A. Dorsey and Florence Mills. These artifacts opened so many doors for me."
Mills, a black cabaret singer and comedian billed as the "Queen of Happiness," stands out as the most crucial rediscovery within Good Booty. "She was a massive star," relates Powers, "but because she left no recordings, she's mostly forgotten. I was amazed to discover this deeply modern and still contemporary-feeling performer—discover, that is, through accounts of the time and photographs—who's just unacknowledged. In general, I think music writers need to reach back before the rock-and-roll era to really understand all the streams that run into pop today."
Her narrative turns over everyone from Mills to Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé with/without Destiny's Child, Little Richard's run-you-over gender-bending, the quiet case of gospel singer Willmer "Little Ax" Broadnax, who lived as a male after being designated a female at birth.
Asked to name the three most important artists from the story, though, Powers evokes "the African and Creole women and men whose names we don't know, whose music and dance legacies still undergird so much American music, centuries after their forced journey to this country created our music culture; the jazz and blues women of the 1920s, who embodied joy and self-exploration in ways that artists still constantly reference today; and the gospel quartets and queens of mid-century, who are deeply underappreciated, but who both elevated the music that became rock and soul and took it as deep as it could go."
As for the paramount revelation, she laughs, "I'll need readers to tell me that!" She continues, however, "Not so much a revelation, but an obvious truth: Any discussion of America's erotic musical life must confront the complexities of American race relations. American music is African American music at its root. It's the music of diaspora, of mixing under circumstances that have been both structurally oppressive and ideologically liberationist. The contradictions inherent within the development of American culture define the music and our experience of it."
With Trump pissing in the pool, I naturally had to ask who and what are giving us hope now.
"The open conversations going on about the gender spectrum, sexual harassment, women's self-possession, and how creativity and eroticism intersect are remarkable. From Perfume Genius to women in R&B like Syd and SZA to Kesha, to the amazing female-driven rock scene in Seattle (shout-out, Childbirth!), pop performers are just exploding the conversation. It's a really exciting time, which predates the current political administration; music doesn't necessarily operate in sync with electoral politics...
"In my epilogue, which centers on Beyoncé's Lemonade and activism in the age of Black Lives Matter, I write that it can be tough to make room for bodily pleasure and delight in moments of great awareness about how racism and other forms of oppression do violence to people's bodies. One of the main points of Good Booty, however, is to show that eroticism is a force that has helped people—especially marginalized people, including women, youths, LGBTQ people, and people of color—sustain themselves in the face of terrible treatment throughout the history of this nation."
Nevertheless, she asserts, "sexuality and sensuality are inherent aspects of being human. Eroticism—the cultivation of healthy, life-affirming, mindful sexuality and sensuality, and of tender, loving emotional connections with others—is, as Audre Lorde says, the act of turning that kernel within ourselves into something that makes us better and can make society better, too."
Is Powers's own teen daughter reading Good Booty?
"Actually, she's reading a lot of feminist literature now. It does embarrass her that her mom writes about sex, and the first paragraphs—about my own sexual identity and how music shaped it—embarrass her mightily.
"Once she gets over that, I think she'll enjoy the punk section and the 1990s stuff. I hope she sees how women are both central to popular music histories and often marginalized in the telling of those histories."