Ann Powers is one of the most well-known pop-music critics in the business. Since the 1980s, Powers has cast a feminist, gender-conscious eye on rock and pop music, writing for the Village Voice, NPR, and the Los Angeles Times; and co-editing the groundbreaking anthology Rock She Wrote. Sexuality has always been in the subtext of her writing, and with her new book, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul, Powers tackles the subject head-on. Traversing from the 1800s to today, Good Booty is a comprehensive look at how music shaped American cultural norms around sex.
While she could have offered a whitewashed version of that history, Powers is more interested in addressing the longstanding and disturbing relationship between race, music, and sex in America. Ultimately, Good Booty tells the story of the Black bodies that were exploited to build popular music. Powers sat down with Bitch to discuss the process of writing Good Booty, her motivation for discussing sexuality, and being a white woman writing about intersectionality and sexuality in popular music.
What inspired you to write Good Booty? In the foreword, you talk a lot about your own sexuality and upbringing. How did you come to that idea?
Well, first off, my daughter is horrified by the first sentence of the book. She’s 13 and she finds it horrifying that her mom is talking about how she found music exciting and sexual. So I risked embarrassing my family, but you know, I’ve written about music and gender and women in music for many decades. Yet, I found that the topic of sexuality—the way that sexuality informs popular music—is a subject that was hidden in plain sight, even in my own work sometimes. Sure, we describe music as “sexy” and we acknowledge that music is raising erotic feelings within us. [Music is] allowing us to have conversations about sex, but rarely do we talk about how music has pushed forward that conversation in our culture or how music has been influenced by our willingness to express desire or our freedoms that we culturally experience.
So writing this book was sort of a magnum opus—it’s really me summing up of a lot of what I’ve done in my career in some ways. It was a natural topic because it was the thing that I’d always addressed subtly, but rarely head on, and this gave me the opportunity to do that. That was sort of the motivating factor: both to understand how the erotic potential of popular music has been reinforced in my own life, but also how it runs through all of what I’ve written about for many years.
While writing this book, did you run into any limitations when it comes to music and sexuality? You have to really think about the ways Black bodies operate in music and how Black people have been sexualized in that space. How did it feel to approach that as a white woman?
Great question, and definitely one that was at the top of my mind when I was writing this book. I hope that I have done justice to the voices that echo through this work. Obviously, as a white person, I don’t have the ability to speak for people of color at all. But there’s no way to tell this story without talking about race, about oppression, about the dignity and resilience of people of color, and about how music has given people of all kinds a stealth way to express what others would try to hinder. So while I do think it’s a big challenge, the project couldn’t happen without those themes being central. I realized that very early on, before I even started doing research. That’s one reason why I initially intended to start the book at the dawn of the 20th century, but I realized I would have to go [farther] back to explore the fundamentals of both the beauty and the horror of our culture and how they intertwine and are expressed through music, and [through] all of our art forms.
Also, I was living in Alabama for six years while writing this book, and when living in the South you are living with that history every single day. You’re standing in the places where the confederacy once stood. It’s impossible to not think about that every day. So that also, I think, is brought up, especially in that first chapter, which focuses on New Orleans.
I thought the book did a wonderful job of connecting the strings of how modern sexuality—which I think is so often attributed to just rock and roll—actually came from these Black rhythm and blues singers. People don’t often think of Big Mama Thornton and how she did what Prince and Bowie did way before they ever did it.
Oh yeah, and even before that. We can go to Aida Walker, Josephine Baker. We can go to Ethel Waters, and that’s just in the early 20th century. We can go as far back as those men and women whose names we’ve lost. I think there’s a persistent habit of thinking in music and culture writing—few people would want to claim this habit in 2017, but it’s still a habit—of thinking, “Well, you know, popular music is rooted in instinctual feelings. Instinctual feelings—both physical and emotional—and we think these moves and feelings are best expressed by people of color.” But we have to examine that! That’s so problematic. That is basically saying, “These primitive, rhythmic people,” right?
That’s why we have to dig into the history of the cultural practices of communities and what was really happening in a place like Congo Square, for example. How did we create that myth of this place in New Orleans where supposedly wild, primitive African slaves performed this dance from straight out of the jungle? That’s not what was happening. It was a marketplace. It was a place of preserving legacies and preserving customs that were so important. So, I mean, I’m fighting those habits of mine every day and I hope that this book helps overturn some of those habits for others.
Do you think that most music writing has turned from general music critique to more of a cultural examination?
Yes, I think the whole history of what used to be “rock criticism,” but let’s call it “pop-music criticism,” has been at the heart of [music writing] since at least mid–20th century. Many of the great early writers about popular music were getting into that, and I feel that in some ways music writing as cultural critique has moved into the academy. But a lot of it is happening now with the advent of the internet––god, I sound like an old fogey. Because we’re all living online and we’re all living in a state of constant cultural conversation and interconnected commentary—you know, what everyone decries as the “hot take.” I get frustrated with that too, but I also think it’s awesome that we’re always trying to interpret the puzzle of culture and read that map. So I think generally it’s a really good thing. Do I wish we all had a little more time to make our critiques a little richer? Yes. But I actually think this is a golden age of music writing because the opportunity is around in a way it wasn’t when I first started out.
I came up through alternative weeklies, and that was a great place to kind of hone my craft and learn how to [write about music], but now you can just do it on Tumblr or on your blog. I see some of the best writing out there just on people’s personal sites.
Coming up in alt-weeklies, was there any sort of pressure as a woman in this industry about what you could write? Did you ever fear being pigeonholed?
Definitely. I remember a point when I was working for the Village Voice in the 1990s where I announced, mostly to myself, “I’m just going to write about guys. I’m just going to write about male bands.” I think that resulted in exactly two pieces: a piece about Pearl Jam and a piece about Metallica. I definitely, at the time, was concerned that I was getting pigeonholed as a person who wrote about women in rock, you know? In the ’90s, particularly, that was a great blossoming of women’s voices in popular music that happened for lots of different reasons. It was an extremely rich time to be writing about women in popular music, but yeah, you become the go-to person. There were a few of us in New York City at the time, and it felt like whenever any publication wanted that annual article about how “this year was the year of women in rock”— pick a year, you know—one of us would get that phone call.
That’s one reason why the first book I wrote, Weird Like Us, wasn’t a music book and wasn’t strictly about gender and sexuality. At the same time, I also feel that there’s absolutely no shame in making that one’s focus because it’s an important political act to write about gender and sexuality. Even when we think we’ve covered the topic, it feels like we’ve really only just begun.
I thought it was really impressive how you made sexuality a universal theme in the book. I’d imagine my upbringing as a Black woman was very different from yours, but I still related to that “sexy music feeling” you describe. How important was it for you to write about sexuality in a way that wasn’t gendered or exclusive to one race? How did you try to access other people’s experiences?
That’s so interesting. I don’t know if I have a method. I think using primary source material—the words and images that history has given us—helps a lot. Really delving into materials that give a strong sense of what it was like to be a male arena rocker in the early ’70s, for example. That’s not my experience. I can more easily empathize with women in that scene, but I read tons of magazines and rock bios and autobiographies, trying to get a sense of what it was like for guys then. I looked at [other people’s] letters and diaries just to really absorb their words. There’s always going to be a barrier, and I’m always coming to the material from my own experience, but trying to let history speak is the main way. Also, I’d say, listen to the music.
In terms of letting history speak in your writing, how do you approach that in our current political climate? What do you hope to define about this time period?
I’m going to answer that in two ways. I obviously agree that the current political climate is incredibly polarizing and it is having an effect on people’s daily lives that’s very intense. At the same time, I try to think about the big picture, beyond a particular moment of electoral politics. That’s why, for the chapter on the 21st century, I focus on technology. I think the most profound changes in the way we perceive our bodies are being brought up by technology. That’s the way people are living now—through the internet and their phones. That, to me, is the most profound difference in our time, more so than a particular political moment defined by who is in office.
But it is very much connected to late capitalism and corporate capitalism and how we’re becoming inseparable from the products that we consume. That’s very disturbing to me in some ways. But I think there’s fascinating potential because of the fluidity of identity on the internet. You see that with younger kids today. In my experience, young teenagers today seem much more able to articulate a fluid gender identity than I ever could have when I was that age. I think that’s marginally because of the freedom to inhabit different identities on the internet. But we also have to examine how that means a certain type of body is being sold to us—through plastic surgery or through the wellness craze—all of this is happening because of technology that is sold to us. I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying that I don’t know what people are becoming and that fascinates me! That’s the most interesting thing—how music and culture express these radical changes in identity. [That’s] one thing I’m going to be watching in the future.
I’ll add that there are profound social struggles and there’s a greater awareness again. We are at a point in the cycle of awareness of the kinds of oppression the state has long wrought on marginalized people in our culture. That’s why, after I the manuscript, I went back and wrote the afterword, which is about Lemonade and Black Lives Matter. It’s also about technology because the ability to record these crimes makes us aware of our bodies and the bodies of people who have been victimized by violence. Those crimes have always taken place. This is a long history, but now we have a different way to witness it. So, I think that influences how we speak about our bodies, including through music.
In terms of writing a book about pop culture, it’s hard because when you’re writing it, you won’t know what’s going on by the time it comes out. In the book you focus a lot on Miley Cyrus and her recent “sexual awakening,” but now she’s backtracking on those sentiments. How do you work through that?
Well, it’s a book, so at a point you just have to stop writing it. It’s definitely true—books are immediately outdated, especially in our fast-moving culture. But I think my thoughts on Miley hold true. When I talk about what happened with her, it was just a couple years ago. It also still exemplifies something, so it’s not important that she stepped back from it. She still expressed a particular moment of how her generation experienced their sexuality.
There was an interesting theory that came out after Miley: When white pop artists need to age themselves up or get more sexy, they mimic Black culture and get closer to hip hop or R&B. But the second it no longer benefits their career, they just drop it. Justin Bieber is an example of this. Katy Perry’s brief moment with Migos during her attempted rebrand is another example. What do you think about that?
Yeah, I quote Mae West in my 1920s chapter when she talks about going to a Harlem nightclub. It’s interesting because what West did in the 1920s, Katy Perry is doing today, but in a different sense. It’s the same in the ’60s. It’s a disturbing attribute of racism that these old stereotypes and habits of mind hold true even in a time when, demographically, our country is changing and we’re supposedly more liberated. For me, I would read that as a sobering sign that what has afflicted us as a nation continues to afflict us.
I think most artists, for better or worse, think mixing cultures is something that they’re entitled to by virtue of their existence as a creative person. They think they have a right to cross those lines. I hope that artists, especially white artists, think about the privilege that allows them to [believe] they have that right inherently. Musicians are quick to say, “Well, it’s all music!” It can be difficult for them to hear or see it. I don’t know that a white artist like Perry thinks to herself, “I’m going to sex it up by being more Black.” She doesn’t think about it that way, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a long history of people doing exactly that.
Music is a site of pleasure, and oftentimes people don’t want to think too much about their pleasure. It’s supposed to be a space where we can relax, but that’s problematic. I think the best pleasure is pleasure with awareness, and that’s true when you’re having sex, when you’re playing music and—hopefully—when you’re reading my book.