Top 5 Songs about Sex

I’ve been involved in the Brighton Hub of ‘Sexology and Songwriting’, a collaborative project that brings together academic researchers with songwriters and young people.  The workshops are attached to to Wellcome Collection’s sexology exhibition and inspired by the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL III).   We got some additional funding from the Amy Winehouse Foundation.  The aim of the project is for the young people involved to become active researchers and song-writers, disseminating their research in the form of their own songs, performed locally and potentially included in recorded form at the Sexology exhibition in February 2015. The workshops are based at the Brighton Youth Centre and in the performances will be developed collaboration with Brighton Dome.

Each team member in the Brighton Hub represents a different elements of the project, academic researchers (Prof Rachel Thomson, Ester Mcgeeney and myself), musicians (Marina and Zoe in association with Rhythmix) and youth worker Jo from Safety Net.  To some degree we also represented different agendas, filtered through our own skill sets and our institutional comfort zones.  Luckily Ester from the Good Sex Project is equally comfortable in practice and in academic research, I used to be a youth worker, Rachel has done tons of work with young people and Jo had already been involved in the inspiring Miss Represented music project.  This really helped close down the artificiality of the divisions between training, supporting young people, and research supervision.  For the young people involved in this project the reality is that their motivation was to be involved in a music project, either as performers or as song writers.  One of the tensions in the project was the competing agendas in a project about song-writing, and about the history of sex, and about learning to be a researchers.  The danger, I felt, was that the research methodology and sexology in particular was to some extent the hoop that the young people would have to jump through in order to get to do the bit they really wanted; make music.

Considering I’ve never been an adherent of any rigid methodological barriers, I’m not sure why I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that research methodologies were somehow outside the questions we ask, ideas we share, and practices we learn.  Over the first two days of the project it became clear that the lines between music, sexology and research practices are imposed externally, and not by the young people involved in the project.

When I met the group on the second day of the workshop they were already well established, aided by the close connection between the young women and Jo.  (Ester has written a more detailed description of the planning and process of the workshops in her Good Sex Blog.)

The workshop split into three groups, one looking at sex in the past, one in the present, and one in the future, which they built into verses.  Listening to the young women present back their group’s work, made it clear how song-writing and sexology could be such a productive way to work together.  Song-writing was, and has remained, a central way in which sex has been experienced.  Songs are the sound track to our sexual experiences.  Song writing lets us explore ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable. Idealised prescriptive roles have been set out in song, as have women (and men’s) refusal to engage with those roles.  Songs are more than an echo of the past, they are a way of writing its history.  In the workshop the young women’s ideas for verses, and their responses to the music that I shared with them, opened up a number of ways to measure change over time.   Songs about sex inhabit the space between imagined change in the past and experienced change in the present.

I shared two songs with the workshop with two goals in mind.   The first goal was to show how cultural analysis is a form of historical research.  The second was to understand that the group members were already functioning as researchers.  I shared two songs about sex as a way of dispelling ideas that ‘in the past’ people didn’t talk about sex at all, and that now everyone talks about it all the time.  I chose Bessie Smith’s Need A Little Sugar in My Bowl from 1931, and Salt N Pepa’s Let’s Talk about Sex from 1991.  As a historian I was impressed by the complex ways in which the groups of young women talked about chronology.  Rather than having a sense of historical narrative around date order and big events, they were thinking generationally.  So Bessie Smith correlated with their great-grandparents’ generation in most cases, and Salt N Pepa with their parents.

Smith’s song is filled with sexual agency, scarcely hidden behind metaphors, whereas Salt N Pepa sang a lot about the need to talk about sex, they didn’t really have that much to actually say about it.  We talked about the ways in which rather than telling us what people did or didn’t do sexually at the time the songs were written or recorded, they tell us a lot about the ways in which sex was talked about.  Bessie Smith begins by singing that she wants a man to talk to, ‘to tell [her] troubles to’, the rest of the song demonstrates that she has clear sexual goals in mind. Whereas in the Salt N Pepa track despite the celebration of open discussion of sex in the chorus, if you dig a bit deeper into the lyrics sex is largely seen as a threat rather than a pleasure.  The apparently more open song, speaks of its context in the wake of HIV and AIDS.  It was less about sexual agency and more about giving women a vocabulary to resist sex. The Bessie Smith track was coded but it was explicitly sexual.  In fact this was the song that shocked the group the most. Bessie Smith was ‘a bit creepy’.   Perhaps the generational association of the period that they had already set up didn’t help. Perhaps the idea that people didn’t used to talk about sex is so strongly resonant that it becomes literally uncomfortable to hear them do it. But this wasn’t just about temporality and there was also something about the power of the metaphors in Smith’s song.  ‘Steam Heat’, ‘a hot dog in my roll’ and a bowl of sugar are perhaps too domestic images for sex compared to a more familiar recent vocabulary of sex as public performance.

The young women shared songs with me as an example of their present.  They added their own songs to the messy historical narrative I’d set up from the 1930s to the 1990s to now; Rolling in the Deep by Adele, Ed Sheeran’s The A-Team and  Lily Allen’s Smile, these all fitted in with the singer song-writer genre of the workshop.  But using their mobile phones young women were also able to share much more explicit songs, less broadcastable songs.  These were often from a male point of view, that summed up the contradictory nature of the ways in which sex is represented and the way in which it might be experienced, often around imagined levels of power in girls.

Having listened to the three groups’ verses about sex in the past, present and future, I was struck by how the young women had a sense of progress in the way that they talked about sex.  I am looking forward to seeing the ways in which the young women involved in the project revisit the two songs I shared with them in the songs that they produce out of the workshop.  They already seem to be bridging the songs’ two agendas.  They were able to follow Bessie Smith’s example and find ways of saying what it is they want, and Salt N Pepa’s example of engaging in public debates around sex.

So here’s a top 5 of songs about sex that illuminate the complex relationship between prescription and resistance, practice and pleasure, cultural production and market forces. These are songs where women sing about their own sexuality, rather than criticise other women’s.  They are not revenge songs. (Pax Lily) They are also songs where shame is not internalised. (Hence the disappointing lack of Taylor) They are not songs that replicate the sexual experience, but explain and analyse it. (ditto Je T’aime)  These are songs in which women have got more to do than to give voice to their sexuality, they have to make sense of it, and make it work for them too.

1961 – Shirelles – Will You Still Love me Tomorrow?

This is the ultimate song of the double sexual standard.  The unity of The Shirrelle’s voices behind the story telling solo make the universality of this clear.  This isn’t just one woman’s tragic tale of lost virtue, this is the impossible bind of young women’s sexual desire is a shared narrative. The anxiety is that if a woman falls for a ‘moment’s pleasure’ she will ultimately lose the object. To an extent, the reflection and active negotiation in each verse cuts through the overall idea of women as victims of social norms. At least she isn’t falling for his charms blindly.  She’s weighing them up, and working out whether its worth it or not.

1971 Carole King – I Feel the Earth Move

It might be a love song, but this is very much a woman’s narrative from King, as song-writer and solo performance. Although framed as an outline of the feelings inspired by the face of the man she loves, King’s lyrics catalogue the physicality of the orgasm.  Each emotion is read through its physical impact.  This might be a classic love long but it is one with the physicality of women’s desire at the heart of it.  In time for sexual liberation and more open accessibility to contraception, and women’s evaluation of exactly how liberating sexual availability was, King reminds women what they could be getting out of it.

1992 TLC – Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg.

If Salt N Pepa ultimately didn’t get much further than asserting we should talk about sex, TLC get down to saying what they need to say.  For TLC sexuality and sexual pleasure is key to engaging with ‘society’ and to being happy. Sex isn’t something bestowed on women by men, or that needs to be resisted or treated with suspicion, it is something that women can ‘call [their] own’.  TLC set the style and pace of this video, backed up by male dancers and occasional tongue in cheek touches of objectification and allusion to Freudian castration anxieties. Lisa Left Eye Lopez’s rap sets out what this might mean in bodily terms.  Engaging and embracing genital, oral and a whole body eroticism with ‘both sets of lips’

1996 Spice Girls – 2 Become 1.

A classic Christmas condom song, 2 become 1 takes the Spice Girls status as role models for their young girl fans to its logical conclusion.  They became sex educators. Not only does the song acknowledge girls’ own sexual desire ‘wanna make love to you baby’, it locates pleasure in ideas of mutuality, ‘Any deal that we endeavour, Boys and girls feel good together’.  This is contextualised by Baby Spice’s safe sex advice ‘Be a little bit wiser baby, put it on, put it on’.  Pleasure and responsibility in equal measure pretty much sum up the Spice Girls as the perfect girl fan product for the 90s.

2011 Lady Gaga – Born This Way.

Gaga is, for me, a reminder that the important questions to ask about sex and popular culture are not necessarily the obvious ones. Asking to what extent she is original, or to what extent she is able to construct a ‘liberating’ sexuality doesn’t strike me as that interesting. Any more than asking whether contemporary sexuality is ‘new’ or liberating is that interesting. To me what is interesting is why these are the perennial questions about sex and what do people do about them when they arise.  She certainly exemplifies notions of gender as performance and of the possibilities of inverting objectification that I picked up from queer theory in the 90s. In the introduction to the video, there are gendered roles in Gaga’s Mother Monster persona positioned against Evil, but it is an explicitly sexualised form of motherhood. Furthermore evil, is ambiguous and the sexuality ambivalent.   Gaga’s claim to be ‘born this way’ does sit somewhat uncomfortably with me as someone who spent a long time rejecting pathologised ideas of sexuality or gender, but when combined with explicitly performed gender, it seems to work pretty well as a an act of defence and defiance. Its pretty hard to be blurry icon.

3 thoughts on “Top 5 Songs about Sex

  1. This is an explicitly academic analysis of trends in popular-music lyrics, but I would say the analysis would have been better suited to a more vernacular presentation style.

    I do not doubt Robinson’s academic bona fides and I am glad she’s out there publishing articles like this on her blog. But the points she is making are not clear at first reading.

    First, she says that she set her young colleagues straight when they assumed that women’s lyrics had evolved into a more straightforward vocabulary and understanding of sexuality. Robinson provided examples that demonstrated just the opposite — that songs from as early as 1931 were plenty sexy, and in a deeper, more empowered and feminist way than plenty of modern songs.

    Robinson’s second point is that there have always been songs in which women don’t merely “replicate the sexual experience, but explain and analyse it.” In these songs, she says, women don’t merely give voice to their sexuality, but make sense of it and make it work for them too.

    That is actually a very modest claim, and it is easily supported by the five songs Robinson cites.

    However, Robinson never makes the claim that we want her to. She doesn’t say that there has been progress. (In fact, her examples suggest there has been as much feminist backsliding as progress.) Nor does she say anything explicit about the value of taking ownership of sexuality through lyrics as the performers she cites do. In fact, the five songs from the article’s title aren’t linked to any argument, feminist or otherwise. They are simply five songs in which women sing about sex.

    I wish Robinson had applied her insights into such songs as Britney Spears’s “Work Bitch” or Beyonce’s “Partition.” Or “All About That Bass” or “Title.” These songs embody different takes on feminism and sexuality, but in each case they are reactive, not proactive. The lyrics focus on how it is the relationship with a man that gives life value. A second listen, or a closer look at the lyrics, reveals that none of these songs are as empowering or sex-positive as they appear to be.

    And that’s before we get to “Blurred Lines” and “Steal My Girl.”

    There are many strong arguments to be made about how song lyrics reflect women’s experiences and how they project ideals, feminist and otherwise. There are many substantive, worthwhile discussions to be had about those topics. But Robinson didn’t take part in any of them. This article is ultimately disappointing in its lack of real analysis.


    Edit: I’ve read Robinson’s piece a couple more times now, and I have come to think that my criticism is unfair. I still wish she had written a different article, but that doesn’t mean the one she wrote is bad. In my eagerness to get to the substance of the piece, I only skimmed Robinson’s introduction the first couple times I read the article. In it, she sets forth a sort of frame around the piece: It’s a progress report about her work with the “Sexology and Songwriting” project. The songs she presents in the article are not the ones she would present to us to support an argument; they are the songs she shared with young songwriters who are working with her on the project. The purpose of the songs seems to be to spark creative flow, not to support a thesis. I am much less interested in a personal account of what it’s been like for Robinson to work on this project than I would be in a real analysis of the songs and the social trends behind them. But I did enjoy watching over Robinson’s shoulder as she mused upon the difficulty of communicating a historical perspective to her young colleagues.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to post and read (and reread) the post. Sorry its not the article you wanted to read, but it is the one I wanted to write. You are right that I’m not really interested in measuring progress through music, my thesis, if I have one, is about how we can work together which I think is also a pretty important an issue for feminism. Your response does a great job of filling in the gaps and has got lots of interesting leads in it for anyone who is interested in thinking about how we can track feminism and attitudes to sex through song.

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