FEATURE: Playing It Safe: Are Musicians Too Cautious When It Comes to Sex?



Playing It Safe

PHOTO CREDIT: @emilianovittoriosi/Unsplash 

Are Musicians Too Cautious When It Comes to Sex?


THESE are tough times in many ways...

and one cannot talk about sex in music without addressing something dark and unsettling. I will put aside Michael Jackson – as nothing has been proved and I am not comfortable mentioning him in this context – but there have been high-profile musicians, including Ryan Adams, who have been accused of sexual assault and inappropriate behaviour. One cannot talk about sexual content in music and ignore the fact that, in the case of a couple of artists, it is rather unnerving listening to their music now and realising what a lot of their content was about – the women they are accused of abusing. That is fine and I accept that but I do wonder, in many ways, the industry has become too soft. I am definitely a supporter of the #MeToo movement and do not feel like we should ignore the drive for equality. One does need to be cautious of the current climate and how sex is portrayed in music. I look back at heroines I often mention on these pages. From Kate Bush’s provocative descriptions of sex right from her debut album, The Kick Inside, to Madonna’s Erotica (or her entire career); Prince leaving little to the imagination, and moving into modern times everyone from Destiny’s Child and Britney Spears pushing boundaries and creating these very sweaty and physical songs. Part of the reason why these songs resonated was not for salacious reasons: the women were expressing themselves and showing that confidence.

Men have never shied away from sex in music and, from the Rock bands of the 1970s through to 1990s Popstars, they have had their say. In many ways, women have been judged when they show that confidence, reveal some flesh or talk about sex in the same way. I look at music now and there is that lack of spark; very few artists are actually talking about sex: instead, love and broken hearts are replacing that. I am not suggesting talking about relationships and passion – in a very safe way – is wrong but I do worry, in order to be seen as respectful or not cause controversy in bleak times, many artists are ignoring primal urges and taking the torch from their predecessors and discussing sex. I think music has the power and influence to talk about sex in a very positive way. Salt-N-Peppa wanted us to talk about sex in 1990 (Let’s Talk About Sex was released on Blacks’ Magic). It was rare for a group to talk about safe sex and put that message out there. Look back from the 1980s and 1990s and it seems like there was much more bravery and liberation happening. Maybe it is the shadow and smell of disrepute and controversy that means, at this moment in time, we are ignoring sex altogether. I know there are artists still talking about it but look at the mainstream and some of the big artists – when was the last time there was a real moment of release?!

Sexuality is a topic, too, that can be discussed and the sexual spectrum itself is broader than ever. L.G.B.T.Q.+ artists are a powerful force but, again, maybe their voice is not being encouraged at the top of music. I realise talking about sex in a very bold way can be quite unwise when you consider young listeners could be impressionable but using music to promote safe sex and, in fact, discuss the rainbow of sex itself is vital – and reaching further and stretching the conversation to include every aspect of sex and relationships. As I said, we had Pop artists like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera who would create these eye-opening and honest songs in the 1990s and 2000s but there are fewer cases of this happening today.

PHOTO CREDIT: @joshrobbie/Unsplash

I know Hip-Hop and Rap is still producing plenty of salaciousness and steam but, even so, there has been a decline there. I think about those genres and feel the men still portray women in a very diminished and disrespectful manner; talking about sex in a very casual way. Maybe that is a stereotype but I do wonder where the flame has gone. You can live in a time where we are fighting against tarnished artists and promoting gender equality and still talk about sex in a very human and, yes, extreme way. It is funny to think that the industry has become stricter and more nervy since the 1990s.

I remember growing up and watching these very alluring and envelope-pushing videos where male and female artists were frankly discussing sex and desire. As a teenager, that sort of thing was quite powerful and it did not send the wrong message to me at all. Even if you are a youngster, I do not feel music is going to lead you astray and be any worse an influence than T.V. and film. An artist, if they are bold about sex, is not causing issues and controversy when it comes to the allegations against artists like R. Kelly. I am not sure that is what is holding people back. I feel, in many ways, with fun and energy (in music) disappearing more and more that is taking away some of the braver and more engaging artists. I feel it is important to discuss relations and relatable topics in your songs but why should that come at the expense of the other side of things? I mentioned how artists can use their voice to talk about the sexual spectrum and, in a heteronormative scene, that would be vital. You can have songs about motherhood and family and, the more I think about, the more I realise how narrow the lyrical spectrum is – if one can call it that! Aside from a few mainstream artists producing these exciting moments where they are revealing and to-the-point, I am seeing more who are showing confidence in other ways. Maybe that is an aggression against bad lovers or a declaration of independence and strength. The conversation has switched slightly so that we still have strong artists who are unafraid to be open but I feel it is more to do with the before and after, rather than sex itself.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Led Zeppelin (like many of their peers, the band were not afraid to bring sex into their music)/PHOTO CREDIT: Rex

This feature is not based on me desperately needing to hear about it in music and needing that outlet for myself. I have been studying different artists for articles I am writing and, in a lot of cases, they have mixed conventional subjects but never been afraid to talk about their physical side. One must tread carefully in these times but I do not feel artists being expressive about sex is muddying the waters or steering the discussion in the wrong direction. There is no huge evidence to say music has become more complex regarding sex and, in terms of talking about love in general, I am finding more artists talking about it in a very passive, resigned and defeated manner. Many say that sex is still alive in music but I think it is still very genre-specific. One might not expect to hear anything too explicit in Folk or Jazz but, with the mainstream changing, so too has the nature of sex. There are far fewer Rock bands at the forefront than once was and, unlike 1960s and 1970s pioneers, sex is not necessarily as big a part of the agenda. The fact that a lot of the Pop icons of the 1980s and 1990s have either stopped recording or matured means that it should fall to the new breed to take their place – they do not need to be too overt when it comes to sex but I have seen a definite dip.

One of the reasons why I am so cold when it comes to a lot of the mainstream is because the colour has drained and there is so much sameness. I am not judging everyone at the top but Pop and bigger genres have become more introverted in a way and we hear a lot of heartache and regret – where is the more pleasurable side? Maybe Hip-Hop and Rap is still in rude health but, listening to a lot of music from the past year or so, and there is a change there. Perhaps there has been a change in dialogue and a fear that, if artists are quite unflinching regarding sex, they are stepping into dangerous territory. Love, as always, is still more powerful and influential than sex when it comes to subject matter but I think music is too straight-laced and sanitised. I do not feel artists talking about sex is vulgar and, so long as you are sensible and responsible, then what is the harm?! Perhaps music has lost an edge in general. I am hearing very few artists that catch my off-guard with their lyrics or are showing swagger; very few who have that really potent image and can stand in the mind. Perhaps the industry is too crowded and, in order to succeed, artists need to be wary about what they are talking about. What happened to the legends like Elvis Presley and Madonna; the girl groups who were able to show strength in the bedroom and on the streets and the last thrilling throes of Pop?!


Whatever genre one looks at – whether it is Rap, Rock or Pop – I think there was a definite period (maybe it ended about five years ago) when there was a lot more sex in music. The concern regarding music losing an edge extends to more than sex. Look at the rush one gets when listen to Punk or someone like Jimi Hendrix shredding it. We have some bold artists now but things have become a lot safer and less explosive. One can tread carefully and be decent but still open their top shirt button once in a while! There is still too much misery in music and songs have become slower and more repetitive. Pop in general has really lost so much spark and I do feel like we need to put some passion and punch back into the mix! People will always accuse artists of being too lewd or reckless if they dare bring sex into the fold but, so long as you are not sexist or irresponsible, then I do not see a problem. I do appreciate that sex has not disappeared from music but you can definitely see a change; it being confined more to specific genres and not being as common. One can talk about sex responsibility and broadly and actually help to educate and instruct. What we have now is a mix of the odd moment of fire but, largely, things are very safe and downbeat. There is nothing wrong with being compassionate and talking about love but, against this rather gentle and moody wave, you do wonder where...

PHOTO CREDIT: @mrwong/Unsplash

THE fire has gone.