There are countless songs about sex. You could even argue that almost every song has an underlying sexual theme. In the past, you couldn’t write about it in a candid way. Writers had to resort to to symbolic language, sometimes coming up with gems such as I want a little sugar in my bowl♾ by Nina Simone, or Let Me Play With Your Poodle☊ by Lightin’ Hopkins. Since the 60s sexual revolution, things have changed; again, you could argue that the change was for the worst, and that instead of the poetic (albeit often rather obvious) metaphors of the past, now we have explicit lyrics that need warnings. Let me try to disprove this idea, with a selection of explicitly sexual tunes that I find, for various reasons, interesting and relevant.
Isaac Hayes: Rock me baby (1973)
This tune goes way back to the early days of African american music, another time when black artists were free to sing very explicit lyrics. The history of the Blues (which is by nature the Devil’s music) is full of sexual references, and so are all the genres that come from the Blues, including Rock’n’Roll. “Many songs from the 1920s through the 1940s have some combination of Rock and Roll in the title or lyrics. Big Bill Broonzy’s 1940 Rockin’ Chair Blues makes frequent use of the phrase “Rock me baby”. Arthur Crudup’s 1944 song, Rock Me Mama, is also based on Broonzy’s song and repeats the same refrain. Curtis Jones’ 1939 song Roll Me Mama shares a couple of phrases (“like a wagon wheel”, “ain’t got no bone”) with Rock Me Baby.” (edited from Wikipedia)
The song’s history is complex, as it often is in Popular music. in 1950 Lil’ Son Jackson recorded Rockin’ and Rollin’☊, which is basically a (beautiful) blues version of the Rock Me Baby we all know (and incorporates bits of all the tunes mentioned above). Several subsequent songs are based on this track, including Muddy Waters’ 1956 single Rock Me☊ (which includes some verses from his 1951 song All Night Long, also based on Jackson’s Rockin’ and Rollin’)* and finally Rock Me Baby, the 1964 hit single by BB King. This is the Rock Me Baby that is most often covered: King himself released many versions throughout his career – with☊ or without☊ Eric Clapton. The lyrics are very explicit:
Rock me baby, rock me all night long
Rock me baby, rock me all night long
I want you to rock me baby, like my back ain’t got no bone
Roll me baby, like you roll a wagon wheel
I want you to roll me baby, like you roll a wagon wheel
Want you to roll me baby, you don’t know how it makes me feel
Rock me baby, honey, rock me slow
Yeah, rock me pretty baby, baby rock me slow
Want you to rock me baby, till I want no more
My favorite version is Isaac Hayes’, from his 1973 Live at the Sahara Tahoe. I love the story about his uncle playing this tune, back in the woods of Tennessee: “He and this chick had a theeeng goin’ on… And whenever he wanted her to turn him on, y’know, he played this song – he played this song about three or four times a day”. Plus I love the way the band plays it slow and steady, laid back, taking its time. Just like you should, when you’re doing what Isaac is singing about.
* Sex, women and himself are among Muddy Waters’ favorite themes: I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man, Mannish Boy, I’m A Natural Born Lover – the list is endless.
Prince: Head (1980)
Prince’s third album, Dirty Mind, was a radical departure from his romantic previous releases, and at the time it shocked many fans. No surprise: this was 1980, and perhaps the audiences were not ready for songs such as the title track, Sister (whose theme is incest) or Head. I’m pretty sure they weren’t ready for Prince’s new image either: high heels, panties and stockings. Since then, being visually ambiguous (but strictly straight) and subverting gender roles have become some of his trademarks. He certainly widened the notion of what an heterosexual man could be, and bravely paved the way for more subversion and gender mixing. Considering that he wasn’t an Art school educated white englishman, but an African-american who grew up in Minneapolis in the 1960s.
It’s interesting how both Prince and David Bowie pursued a similar ambiguity (not too many years apart) coming from very distant backgrounds and inspirations, and achieving entirely different creative results (yet remaining very relevant to the Pop culture of their time). Bowie came from Genet, Lindsay Kemp, the Avant-garde. Prince is a direct consequence of Little Richard, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. Yet both had stage personae (which changed throughout the years), both worked hard at the visual aspect of their work, and both starred in (sometimes questionable) movies. And of course, both used gender subversion as a poetic vehicle. (You could also add that they had very long careers, and aged very gracefully.)
Head, like the rest of the album, is almost entirely played by Prince, and was recorded in his home studio (another trademark) with keyboardist Dr Fink and singer Lisa Coleman. It’s classic Prince Electrofunk, with sublime interlocking keyboards/guitar parts and male falsetto vocals opposed to Coleman, who sings in a lower register: musical gender subversion. The theme (lyrics here) is, predictably, one of the many exciting things you can do with your head:
I remember when I met u, baby, you were on you’re way to be wed
You were such a sexy thing, I loved the way you walked, the things you said
And I was so non-chalant, I didn’t want you to be misled
But I’ve gotta have u, baby, I got to have you in my bed
And you said: “I’m just a virgin and I’m on my way to be wed
But you’re such a hunk, so full of spunk,I’ll give you
Head, ’til you’re burning up
Head, ’til you get enough
Head, ’til you’re love is red
Head, love you til you’re dead.
Digital Underground: Packet Man (1990)
Full disclosure: when Digital Underground’s first album Sex Packets came out, it made me very happy. Here was a light, entertaining, hilarious Hip hop band from California (home of G rap) that managed to be both really cool and funny. Their music took George Clinton’s humorous vein and translated it into the Rap language. They had a cool name, a world class flow (the first standard by which any MC is measured) and were hilarious: both singles from this album, Doowutchyalike♾and The Humpty Dance♾, have a humorous tone. Plus, their “leader” is Shock G (aka Humpty Hump): “His main persona, Shock G, utilized a more natural voice, while he altered his voice to become Humpty Hump, an iconic character with an over-exagerrated buffoon persona, colorful clothes, and a Groucho glasses-and-nose disguise.” (from Wikipedia) How could I not love them?
Packet Man was not a single. A pity, because it’s my favorite Digital Underground track. The concept of the album is simple, yet prophetic in many ways: a substance, sold as Sex Packets, that will make you feel like you’re actually having sex with an imaginary partner, or more. In Packet Man, we hear how this revolutionary product is marketed:
Excuse me trooper, will you be needing any packets today? (Yo, B, don’t be throwin’ on my jacket, ok?) Cool, just trying to get your attention so you can take a look at this invention. Now peep these, I got some more in my jacket. (Man, what are these, condoms?) Uh uh: Sex packets. It’s like a pill, you can either chew it up or, like an Alka-seltzer, dissolve it in a cup And get this: see the girl on the cover? You black out, and she becomes your lover. (You’re trippin) No, I’m serious, these are authentic (Yeah, well I don’t take hallucenogenics) Wrong again, my man, this is way more real. But since you know everything, I’ll make someone else a deal. Packets, got them packets, who needs packets…
We’re obviously witnessing some kind of drug deal, and the customer is interested:
(Well now you got me curious, I’m kind of thinkin ’bout buyin’ it) Three for ten dollars, it can’t hurt to try it. (Well what exactly do I get?) Well read what it says, look at the picture: (It says Chinese girl, age 17, waist 24, hips 33. Hmmm, this one here says young black virgin! Man this is crazy, I’m gonna have to splurge and get me a few of these things. How long do they last?) Well it depends, let’s see. These cheap ones here are ten minutes, but these are extra power, they last about a half an hour. And these here sell for bout 40 ’cause you get two girls (Yeah it says orgy). Right, and if you’re married, it’s no big deal, you’re not cheating at all, you’re just poppin’ a pill. And if your wife’s got a headache and wants to hit the sack It’s cool, take a packet, fool. Biochemically compacted sexual affection, now here, take a look at my selection.
By the end of the song the customer is hooked, and tries to swap his VCR for more Sex Packets, while the pusher leaves us with these words of wisdom:
Here’s my number, in case you need to reach me again, and remember, you need to be as safe as you can. There’s only one thing safer then using your hand: dial that beeper number, and call the Packet man.
A funny, visionary, prophetic tune, delivered with razor sharp metrics and killer flow over a fantastic groove, sampled from Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns’ tune Four Play☊ (produced by Bootsy Collins and George Clinton). Unfortunately, the band’s later material wasn’t as strong (and as successful). But this album is a true masterpiece, and it still works – 26 years later.
George Michael: Freeek! (2002)
What? George Michael? Well, yes. Freeek! is a pretty song, full of 2002 zeitgeist, and with a monster beat: they had to remaster it for Michael’s 2004 album Patience, as the original is almost chocked in layered drum loops. It has clever lyrics, a pretty chorus and a high budget video with Bladerunneresque shots, futuristic costumes, Dobermann dogs and latex by the mile. Also, Michael had previously written I Want Your Sex♾ and Outside♾ (which is about his arrest for having sex in a public place), so I felt I had to pick one. And for me, Freeek! is the best of the lot – by far.
Kelis: Milkshake (2003)
To conclude this (very incomplete) selection, here is one of the prettiest sexual metaphors of the XXI° century, so far:
My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,
And they’re like, it’s better than yours,
Damn right it’s better than yours,
I can teach you, but I have to charge
Milkshake is the Neptunes at their very best, pushing the boundaries of what is possible within the R’n’B form, and Kelis delivering the song with finesse: a ghetto school of seduction or, if you prefer, how to become a smoothie tycoon.
James Brown: Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine (1970) Although not exactly a sex song, Sex Machine was a torrid affair, especially when he played it live. Watch him perform it♾ on Tv in Rome in 1971, with an impossibly tall Bootsy Collins on bass.
N.W.A.: Just Don’t Bite It☊ (1990) Although their most famous track is Fuck The Police (which is, in a way, a song about sex too), they also wrote this sexist tune on “The art of sucking dick”. For some reason thou, it isn’t in the movie.