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Is Music Becoming More Cautious When It Comes to Sexual Content?
IT is bloody typical that The Guardian has just published…
a piece I was going to write! Whether there is something in the air or not; they have released their opinions regarding sex in modern music. I have covered this topic a bit but I have been hankering to return to the topic. Past pieces have looked at sexism and exploitation in music videos; whether there is too much sex on show in modern music. Now, I am taking an opposite approach and asking whether things are too muted and conservative! One can look at the scandals in Hollywood and sexual abuse claims as a warning to all artists to think about how they behave. Whilst there has not been the same unadulterated and despicable cases we have seen in Hollywood - Harvey Weinstein, especially – I have heard far too many cases of sexual assault and inappropriate behaviour in music. Bands and artists have been shamed; testimonies revealed and allegations made – there are many more afraid to come forward and so many potential incidents that have not been oxidised. I am not suggesting music has long been the back parlour of Caligula’s summer house: cavorting and flesh-revealing antics mixing with debauched imagination. Musicians, for decades, have used sex to sell and provoke a reaction. I have just finished up writing a piece that included Madonna. She was/is no stranger to causing controversy and stirring people up but, in actual fact, it is people’s misconceptions and overreactions that have been the problem.
Madonna has always been about empowerment and pushing boundaries. Her music, imagery and videos have compelled and inspired generations. There are still artists who put sex into their music and videos but, look around, and things have gone very quiet. I can still recall when Miley Cyrus was tarred and feathered for her Wrecking Ball antics. Others, including Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, have been accused and judged before for revealing flesh and dancing provocatively in their videos. It seems, in most cases, it is female artists receiving most of the moralising and judgements. Men, on the other hand, approach sex in a different way. Whilst a lot of females have been in the press for empowerment and body confidence; a lot of male artists have been accused of inappropriateness, sexism and lewdness. There are definite gender divides and moral lines we need to consider. In any case, I feel modern circumstances and times have dictated how sex is discussed in music. Many current Popstars are writing about relationships in more sorrowful and diary-like ways. They are chronicling heartbreak and self-reflection rather than the joys of passion and the quest of lust. Some genres, like Hip-Hop and Rap, still boast physically assertive and sexually defiant artists (both male and female) but the goalposts have moved.
There are no rules written that have dictated this sea change but it is interesting to observe how sex is less potent and visible than as recent as a few years ago. To quote from the competing Guardian article; they have looked at ‘sad/sexy’ – how nihilism and a more introspective version of sex have infiltrated music:
“As the decade progressed, sad/sexy spread everywhere: the melancholy libido pulsing through the music of the Weeknd, James Blake and the xx (Intro became ubiquitous), you could hear it in the mumbled force of the self-styled Scandinavian sad rappers such as Yung Lean and Spooky Black. Gay culture was gifted a sad/sexy icon in Frank Ocean, who wrote a mini-anthem to the restless dissatisfaction of pharmaceutical cold coupling with Novocaine – a kind of dress rehearsal for sad/sexy’s own three-tier Bohemian Rhapsody, Channel Orange’s Pyramids. The boyband milieu gained its own sad/sexy pinup, too, as One Direction lost their resident weed magnet, Zayn Malik, who went on to pick up the sad/sexy cues of his immediate heroes – Drake and the Weeknd – in Pillowtalk, hooked by the none-more sad/sexy parentheses of “fucking and fighting”.
Not that mainstream heavyweights like Drake and James Blake have gone all soft and lost their libido. Sex is, as the article explores, complicated in this decade. Artists are concerned with mental-health and social media’s effect on the mind.
Whilst we are still engaging and exploring sex as before; perhaps the digital takeover has changed the way we think, interact and spend out leisure time – have artists the time, energy and focus to even think about sex?! It seems the projection of quick-fix and sexual release is rather ill-judged and cloying at a time when sexual indiscretion and abuse of power is in focus. Maybe we are all too sucked into the machine and guiding our lives through technological eyes. Dating apps and the Internet have changed the way we date – not always for the better, it seems. I am not suggesting we are interacting less but modern musicians, new and mainstream, have less free time to socialise and are relying on the Internet for communication, dating and hook-ups. One can still find male artists writhing and thriving with their trousers down; there are female artists promoting empowerment and their femininity…others are more direct and happy to show curves and a sly smile to get YouTube videos up and their key demographic engaged. Many Pop and mainstream artists are making music for teens and young minds. A more sanitised and moral-minded scene has to come in to ensure the wrong messages are not being put into the world. How explicit an artist should be is a difficult thing to judge.
I agree that sex and relationships are becoming defined by anxiety and a more thoughtful approach. Scandal, accusation and thrills still can be found in music but, largely, heartbreak and rebuilding broken foundations play a much stronger role than tantalisation and getting your rocks off. You are spoiled for choice when it comes to the list of best sex-themed songs ever. NME produced one last year - and a lot of the inclusions (sixty-nine in total, appropriately!) are from an awful long time ago. Modern(ish) songs like Lana Del Rey’s Cola take a rather direct and unapologetic tact – the title refers to the taste of her pussy – but that is rather tame in comparison to what we have witnessed previously. Once was the time when groupies surrounding the biggest bands are there were hellacious and eye-watering stories of sex and excess. Those days have gone (for the most part) and musicians have to be a lot more cautious and responsible in this day and age. There is, too, a line between sexiness and explicitness. One can claim a lyric from Lana Del Rey is more provocative than it is sexy. One does not need to talk about sex in a juvenile and pornographic way: the sheer tease and sense of allure can be much more potent and powerful.
From Beyoncé, Kelis and Ciara making demands and making their intentions known to some of the biggest male Hip-Hop stars boasting of their exploits and ‘measurements’ – there has been a definite decline when it comes to discussing sex in music. Maybe the content is still there but it is not as spicy, memorable and evocative as once was. For those who feel this decline happened at the start of the decade; there is proof to suggest, in 2011 at least, there was plenty of sex in the music mainstream:
“Get your heads out of the gutters, America's musicians. We always knew that with all your nipple-showing and lesbian-kissing and crotch-grabbing that you're obsessed with sex, and today we have the science to back it up: "Approximately 92% of the 174 songs that made it into the [Billboard] Top 10 in 2009 contained reproductive messages," says SUNY Albany psychology professor Dawn R. Hobbs in Evolutionary Psychology. That's right--"reproductive messages," our newest favorite euphemism.
Those 174 top-selling songs were analyzed in order to determine how many sexy messages they contained in any of 18 sexy categories, including "arousal," "sexual prowess," and "genitalia." There was an average of 10.49 sex-related phrases per song, with R&B being head-and-shoulders(-and-maybe-some-other-body-parts) above the two other musical genres analyzed, country and pop. "Sexual appeal" was the most popular theme among both R&B and pop songs, while "commitment" (yawn) was most prevalent in country music”.
Sex is more readily available on the Internet and the media. We have sites that offer cheap hook-ups and stringless-sex; the raciness and thrill we once got from music videos and Pop, in comparison, seems a bit tame – or it is too overloading, perhaps? Another article, from earlier this year, differentiated between ‘love’ and ‘sex’. Plenty of artists can articulate the complexities of love and how it has positive and negative effects. Sex, in many ways, is a less complicated area of study. Many songs fit in an overlap where sex and love intersect: many solely discuss sex whilst others do not bring it to the table.
A lot of the most provocative and sexually revealing Pop artists have got older and, with children and marriage, changed their worldview and are focusing on more family-orientated themes. Modern Pop acts like Dua Lipa and Tinashe are stirring and alluring – able to show flesh and lick their lips without getting too ‘detailed’ and explicit. Male artists, especially, in modern Pop are straying away from the topic. There are genres where sex is freely explored but look at the modern charts and how many songs on the rundown look at sex? This article asks whether sex sells and looked at its (sex) prevalence through the decades. They answered the big question:
“Okay, so I know I’ve really been riding my luck with guessing what you’re thinking, but how else do I link my points? Here’s to hoping you’re thinking DOES SEX REALLY “SELL” THEN?!?!?!? Interestingly, sex mentions follow a consistent up and down cycle, peaking for a year or two before falling dramatically, suggesting that sex sells until people get fed up with over-saturation.
…Additionally, artists who largely mentioned sex but did not mention love would have maximum 50 weeks on the charts, yet artists mentioning sex spent much longer on the charts if they also mentioned love. Also, many artists did well on the charts with many mentions of love with few or no mentions of sex. This once again reinforces the idea that sex itself doesn’t sell, but love definitely sells”.
Look back through music’s history and you can see a gradual decline – with a few peaks and dips here and there – when it comes to sex in the mainstream. Love, as I said, is still burning bright but more often than not artists explore intimacy and emotional connection as opposed physicality. Why, then, do I bring up this issue?! I am happy with what is happening in music and am not a sex-craved listener who wants to get his fix anywhere possible. I feel, however, we are in an uncomfortable and difficult time when we must tread carefully and be aware of the consequences of what is being put into the world. Recent scandals, coupled with a changing lifestyle that is more technology-driven and less ‘human’ has changed how we date and bond with one another. I do worry we have gone too far and are being too safe. I am not suggesting artists are puritanical and have lost their libidos altogether – it would be nice to see a bit more expression, boldness and risk-taking from artists.
I understand caution should be employed and artists need to be responsible for their content. Taking precautions should not replace expression and being honest about sex. We all have it – speak for yourself! – and there is nothing wrong with it at all! Rather than use it as a commercial selling point and push too many boundaries for the sake of streaming/video success; talking about sex in a very real and relatable way is perfectly acceptable. Confident females are not afraid to express their sexuality and empower their peers. Male artists, in some genres, are discussing sex but making sure it is not too seedy and crass. Perhaps we have become too guarded and are not really sure where lines should be laid and what is seen as ‘too much’. I know there is sex out there but I would like to see more of a spark and revival. Artists can talk about sex in a very inspiring, empowering and educational way. One assumes any sexual reference is lurid and offensive: when done right, it can be incredibly powerful and memorable. From songs like Teenage Kicks (The Undertones) and Like a Prayer (Madonna); Love to Love You Baby (Donna Summers) and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones) – music is stocked with sexy and arousing songs. Whilst we do not need a full-on sexual revolution and awakening; I would suggest a bit more expression and optimism is needed from modern artists. It is okay to write about melancholy and heartbreak; talking about love’s capriciousness connects with listeners and is as honest as anything. It would be nice, once in a while, for an artist to lock the door, turn the phone ringer off…
AND let the postman knock the damn door down!