The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

Pop music critic Ann Powers searches for the language of rock and roll

Monday, September 19: 1:45 p.m.
Posted by Ann Powers
Ann Powers. (Photo credit: Mito Habe-Evans)

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will introduce the annual Jane Scott Memorial Lecture Honoring Excellence in Rock Journalism with a talk by pop music critic Ann Powers titled “Rock and Roll Started with the Shimmy: The Erotic Engine of American Pop” on Wednesday, September 21 at 7 p.m. in the Museum’s Foster Theater. Click here for more information and details on how to attend this free event.

As a music critic, I am preoccupied with sex. I’m human, and happen to be heterosexual, so I have noticed the charms of certain rock and soul seducers from Robert Plant to Maxwell, over the years. But that kind of desire only goes so deep. What I’m talking about is more serious: the quest to understand how rock and roll, and really most of American music, became the main metaphorical space where we pursue ideas about sexuality, and flesh out our emotions.

American popular music has been “dirty” pretty much since its beginnings in the illicit vulgarity of the minstrel show, described so well by Eric Lott in his classic book on the subject, Love and Theft. Yet as it moved through the decades, American music retained its ability to shock. The ribald blues of 1920s queens like Ma Rainey gave way to the lascivious croon of Frank Sinatra; Elvis Presley’s snake hips and Little Richard’s whoops; the teen-baiting tunes of the British invasion; 1970s “cock rock” and omnisexual disco; New Wave androgyny, and so on all the way to Britney Spears.

What’s strange about our moment, in the second decade of the 20th century, is that the shock effect has somehow faded. Sexual content is arguably more present in the mainstream than ever before: references to oral gratification, S&M, multiple partners and even encounters with aliens have recently graced the Top 40. We absorb these assaults on propriety and move on; little girls dance the hoochie coochie to Beyonce songs in their school recitals while parents applaud. The taboos of old all seem to have been abandoned.

Yet one restriction remains. We don’t really talk about what these songs are saying, not only in their lyrics but in their rhythms and through the performances they inspire in both the artists who co-author them, and in the fans who respond.  We still have no language to really describe and analyze the erotic nuances of popular music. Sure, there’s groupie lore; there are “Sexiest Rocker” lists and intermittent scandals. We sometimes stop to debate whether a certain song or performance goes too far (Super Bowl 2004 – Never Forget!). But none of these brief forays really go anywhere; they only skim the surface of what is deepest and most fundamental about rock and roll: its eroticism.

My goal is to make a start at finding that language, by reaching for a new origin myth for rock and roll and finding different markers for following its history. Rock and roll, as I see and hear it, began more than a century before Elvis sang “Hound Dog,” in the sung dances of African slaves working to preserve their culture under the oppression of industrialized labor. There was a seed of sensuality, of hips and shoulders connecting with spirit, in those ring shouts. It cross-pollinated with other secular celebrations of the mind-body connection and lived on in social dances and the music invented to serve them. Music and dance together formed a new lexicon; lyricists found the words to help it along.

It may seem obvious to say that rock and roll – which I define as the dominant strain of American popular music beginning with the African diaspora and continuing all the way to today’s global dance floor – is all about sex. To thoroughly interrogate that statement, however, requires a major shift in perspective. I hope that my inquiry begins to take us toward that new place, where we can really feel how the music kept bringing sexy back.

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