American Booty: Ann Powers on Sex and Pop Music

The critic appears at Books, Inc., on Thursday Sept. 7 to discuss rock music as America's preferred erotic art form.

Ann Powers (Courtesy of Lucent Vignette Photography)

Long before Elvis Presley’s hip gyrations shocked America, and before Little Richard wrote a song whose raunchy original lyrics went, “Tutti frutti, good booty,” there were Black churches where music moved the body — and the booty.

Intensely stirred by spiritual songs, those 19th-century Philadelphia churchgoers would dance long into the night, much to the horror of John F. Watson, a white Methodist minister who wrote an account of what he saw.

“They were shaking it, baby, shaking it,” music journalist Ann Powers writes in the introduction to her new book, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music. Those worshippers’ moves shared a lineage with secular, celebratory dances — particularly from Africa, but elsewhere, too.

In Good Booty, Powers reveals a direct, if necessarily complex, thread connecting those swaying Christian hips to Miley Cyrus twerking on the MTV Video Music Awards. But don’t dare call it “primitive,” as Watson’s description of “animal spirits” implied.

“There’s this habit of thinking that when music gets at our raw emotions, that it gets to this ‘primitive’ part of ourselves,” Powers says. “That’s racist — to equate music with the primitive and to relate the primitive to African-American culture.”

Powers has served as a keen cultural critic since the 1980s, contributing to The New York Times, Village Voice and Los Angeles Times before joining NPR’s music team in 2011. She was a senior curator at the Experience Music Project museum (now the Museum of Pop Culture) in her native Seattle, and now helps orchestrate that museum’s annual Pop Conference, which her husband, fellow music critic Eric Weisbard, founded. Earlier this year, she spearheaded a project at NPR called “Turning the Tables,” a list of the 150 greatest albums written by women.

The 53-year-old Powers, who now lives in Tennessee with Weisbard and their daughter, will be at Books Inc. Sept. 7 to talk about Good Booty, a work 10 years in the making. In her preface, she describes discovering music’s sexy side at the age of 9, when the Beatles and the Jackson 5 made her “think hard and respond deeply and jump like a jelly bean.”

If there is a central argument in Good Booty, it is that music has always been physical — and sexual. It’s a subject Powers has pondered and researched for many years, but by the time she began putting words on the page, the Black Lives Matter movement was underway. She initially planned for Good Booty to begin in the early 20th century, but BLM made her realize, “I had to go back further — to the foundations, to people surviving through slavery and how that’s affected our culture — in order to tell the whole story,” she says.

So the book begins in early-1800s New Orleans, where slave cultures and European ones mixed, where dance and music were everywhere. And it returns to New Orleans again and again; the city is where Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti,” where bounce music and dance originated, and where Beyoncé’s “Formation” video was set.

“Bounce … takes the quadrille’s rum-teacup hip roll to its logical extreme in the motions that Miley Cyrus will come to know as twerking,” she writes. But Beyoncé gets the final word on New Orleans, making clear that “in this century, no white observer can adequately speak for those dancers in [Congo] Square, who had voices, too.”

Powers admits that, as a white woman, it’s challenging for her to write about African-American culture. As much as possible, she works through the voices of Black writers and scholars, as well as Black figures from history to the present day.

As Good Booty moves into the 20th century, it follows how gospel celebs became rock stars in their own right — and how Presley was inspired by their balance of tradition and a “quickening eroticism” that he, too, wanted to express. Presley gained his star power just as teenagers had been defined as a separate demographic in America, and teen girls, in particular, were throwing themselves at him and at contemporaries like Buddy Holly. It was through their interactions with pop music and the stars who made it that teen girls came to understand their sexuality, Powers says — a phenomenon that continued into Beatlemania, the sexual revolution, and the groupie culture of the 1970s.

Beatlemania “became representative of girls’ energy and power, and also not being able to control girls,” she says. “They could crawl into a hotel room, tear up the sheets, or even sleep with someone.”

But the downside of girls expressing their sexuality with adult rock stars is that adult rock stars were having sex with teenage girls, many of them quite young. Although past depictions of groupie culture are often romanticized, hindsight is getting clearer. Runaways guitarist Jackie Fox came forward in July 2015 to reveal that the band’s manager, Kim Fowley, had raped her. When David Bowie died last year, many decried his sexual relationship with 15-year-old Lori Mattix.

In Good Booty, Powers is very frank about those relationships. “Many young women were violated. The mere presence of underage girls required a web of adult complicity,” she writes. That informal system required managers, booking agents, hotel managers, tour bus companies, musicians and even sometimes police — pretty much all of them men — to look the other way, she says. “At any point, someone could have said, ‘This isn’t cool that a really drunk 14-year-old is passed out in the lobby of a Hyatt in Ohio.’ But that so rarely happened. Everyone played along.”

At its core, Good Booty digs deep into the ways pop music both reflects and veils Americans’ collective erotic consciousness, from those dancing churchgoers to Nicki Minaj’s ode to her own good booty, “Anaconda.” Because of music’s ability to reflect those sometimes-subconscious desires, and because it so often reconnects us to our bodies, she considers it one of America’s most important erotic art forms.

“Music loosens the screw. It lets out the tension,” she says. “It puts us in mind of our bodies, and connects us with our erotic energy.”

Ann Powers, Thursday, Sept. 7, 7 p.m., Books Inc., 601 Van Ness Ave., booksinc.net

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