There always comes a point, when someone asks me to write for them, that I decide it’s time to write about sex.
When it comes to a column about music, that’s not as difficult as you might think. Sex is everywhere in pop music—rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop, r&b, they’re full of it. From the moment Elvis shimmied his hips on television, there’s been something not just sexual, but transgressively sexual about music. From the moment there was a youth culture around music, we’ve used it to tell our parents that we were thinking about sex whether they liked it or not.
For me, there’s two bands that I identify above all else with that moment in my own life. There was innocuous pop and my own adoption of my dad’s love for Elvis, there was even some fairly safe rock, but I think I finally allowed myself to own sexual feelings with my crush on Axl Rose.
Yeah, that’s right.
There was a boy that I dated in that way that you date boys when you’re in sixth grade, which mostly consisted of giggling phone calls and maybe some hand-holding. He was sweet and safe, but he liked this MUSIC. That was loud and nasty and talked about SEX. And he’d tease me by blasting “Shotgun Blues” from the Use Your Illusion II record at me over the phone, and I’d pretend to be horrified and slam the phone down, then pick it back up right away and he’d be there, laughing, because you can’t hang up on someone who’s called you until they hang up too. And he knew I didn’t really want to hang up.
Eventually I listened to the album myself, bought it I don’t remember how because I was definitely too young and I can’t see my mother purchasing it for me but maybe she did. It was a long time ago.
Those videos, though, featuring a snaky-hipped Rose and shirtless Slash with his guitar slung low, those were as dangerous as it got for a good suburban girl. And then, a few years later but still in the days when MTV played music and the radio didn’t suck (about 1994), there was this other song.
Even on the radio, we knew “Closer” was dirty. Really, really dirty. It’s not just the bleeped-out words, it’s that lowdown groove, the whisper-in-your-ear softness of Trent Reznor’s voice like his darkest, nastiest thoughts were a secret just for you.
The Downward Spiral was probably the album that sent me off in the black-clad clove-smoking sneaking-fishnets-in-my-backpack-to-change-in-the-bathroom-before-school direction I went in. I mean, “Reptile” was even filthier than “Closer” and yet even more compelling. I played it over and over. I had another crush that summer, on an older boy who worked with me at a big outdoor concert hall and who was there with us when we went to see Nine Inch Nails with David Bowie (oh, I did not appreciate Bowie then, and that is a tragedy), and I was still too shy to touch him so I never did.
There was more Nine Inch Nails with the boy that first really touched me, and maybe that’s why I let them drop after that whole thing blew up in my face. I moved on, on to music darker and creepier still, stuff that had never played on the radio and certainly never would now. Lost my virginity with Skinny Puppy playing in the background.
There’s a lot of not-secret sexism in a lot of the music that I associate with sex, and that’s probably not accidental. Claiming that masculine swagger for myself, dancing to those songs at high school dances or alone in my room, helped me be less scared of it.
Sex was still something that boys wanted and girls had to give, and maybe it was the ability to identify with the howling/whispering desire in that music that let me know it was OK for me to want it too.
I was old enough to critique it, working in a restaurant in New Orleans in my last year of college, when Trent Reznor came in with a small entourage and sat in my section. I was nervous at first, but he seemed even more nervous and sat quietly while his friends chatted, drank, tipped well. And I was nothing so much as disappointed when he left, watching this pale, slightly beefy guy in a New Order T-shirt and sandals walk out, that this idol of my teen years was so unassuming, so…nerdy.
(I’m a little older now as well and I could tell you that the nerdy boys are the sexy ones, but that too is a story for another time.)
And when I think about it, how could the real guy ever compete with this creature of videos and songs that taught me what sexual desire was?