Superfunkycalifragisexy: The Demise of Sexually Explicit Lyrics

By Matteo Tiratelli

“I once knew a girl named Nikki / I guess you could say she was sex fiend / I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine”

In 1984 these notorious lines provoked Tipper Gore to set up the Parents Music Resource Group and fight for the creation of Parental Guidance ratings for albums. And yet, instead of protecting our innocence, over the last twenty years explicitly sexual lyrics have become more and more ubiquitous. Even with PG ratings, Rhianna can sit at the top of the US Billboard Charts for five weeks with a song which straightforwardly asks “Rude boy can you get it up?”. Despite this proliferation of sexual lyrics, I feel that somewhere between Prince’s Darling Nikki and Nelly’s Tip Drill, we forgot how to sing about sex. There is little that’s actually sexy about Kyjuan singing “You lookin’ good in them shorts, but they look better on the flo’” or Ali threatening “Now come on girl, you know what we came for”. Sex has become ubiquitous, but it has also become as bland and as vacuous as Chris Martin’s darkest fantasies; as boring and predictable as Miley twerking. We are saturated with naked flesh and sexual invitations but they’ve never been less appealing.

To start in a vaguely chronological fashion, in 1969 the Beatles scored their eighteenth US number one with Come Together. The ambiguous chorus invites you to “Come together, right now, over me”; quite what John Lennon had in mind I’m not sure but it definitely sounds sexual. Not quite as sexual, however, as the music (a component we largely ignore today when the same mechanical R&B beats are used underneath sweet love songs and incongruously crude come-ons). Over the course of four verses (without chorus) Come Together teases and entices. This is a perfect four minutes of ecstatic reveals, withdrawals and eventual release.

Today much of the mystery and ambiguities which John Lennon so successfully employed has been lost. We are heading towards some “horror of intensification and extremity” (D. H. Lawrence), where the only way to make your songs stand out is by exponentially increasing the levels of explicit lyrical content. Even in this race to the bottom though, it is still possible to have fun in a way which preserves its sexiness. For me the master of this will always be Prince. He combines the surreal with the sexy in a way which is both comedic and erotic. Lines like “So you take them to your crib and you tie them to a chair / Then you pull funny faces till they get real scared / Then you turn on the neon, and you play with yourself / Till it turns them on” exemplify this. The verse is funny but also sort of sexy, with the rhyme of ‘scared’ and ‘chair’ somehow holding this absurd scene together. Prince has never shied away from this area; as he makes clear on Cindy C “I’m sure you’re quite intelligent / A whizz at math and all that shit / But I’m, I’m a tad more interested in flyin’ your kite tonight”.

Looking at that line written down I realised that it’s worth noting the peculiar advantages of singing about sex. Prince’s gasping, seductive delivery elevates these lines far above their written form. In writing, words have a solidity that makes describing sex extremely difficult. Someone once told me that the reason we enjoy sex is that it’s one of the only times that we stop thinking about the future or the past. These ephemeral, passing moments gain mass when written down and so often seem laughable. (If you want proof take a look at the recent winners of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award). Lyrics on the other hand are sung and performed; they are intrinsically fleeting . As a medium they therefore seem much more suited to the subject matter than clunky, heavy prose.

Someone who really pushed the sexual boat out was Kool Keith, whose unique style he named porno-core. Here the level of fetish and obscenity reaches unprecedented levels. Under his Dr Octagon guise, whole elaborate scenarios are dreamt up for the time-travelling gynaecologist. The funniest is Visit to the Gynaecologist where Keith affects a high-pitched female voice and prescribes his patient an exercise: “Two times a day for four minutes / Put one finger in / Stir it around and around / And then another finger / And then when you’ve run out of fingers / Move onto vegetables / The appropriate size and shape of course”. I won’t ruin the punch line but this should show what Dr Octagon is about. The scenes are ridiculous, uncomfortable and gratuitously sexual (often in the most depraved ways); but they’re also hilarious.

One of the worst culprits in the tragic loss of sense of humour and romance in this area has been house music. This is a scene has always prized itself on its sultriness. And yet it is rarely truly sensual. Instead we’re left with deep house tracks set to terrifying montages of soft-focus, American Apparel style, softporn. Softly spoken, but soul-less, female vocals set over repetitively funky four-four beats are only sexy in the most bland and stylised way. How much is lacking can be revealed by looking at one of the sexiest house tracks of recent years: Moodyman’s Freaki Motherfucker. The song reeks of sex, lust and desire in a way that so many of its contemporaries clearly lack. Despite its heritage R&B is another obvious culprit. Looking just at Rhianna: she manages to move between the icy, threatening challenge on Rude Boy, to the strangely pathetic “sticks and stones may break my bones / But whips and chains excite me”. The first is a powerful use of sexual explicitness (in a manner that I’ve failed to address here at all but which is alive against all odds in much Caribbean music). But the second holds no power to shock or provoke (following as it does the poignant refrain “Na na na na na” and opening line “Feels so good being bad”).

There’s no simple formula to making good, but explicit, sexual lyrics. But it still amazes me how crass and crude many of them are. It’s not as simple as separating the pornographic from the erotic, or about making sex something to laugh about. I’m inclined to think that part of the recent decline might be due to the collision between hyper-sexualisation of everything and the infantilisation of society. Miley Cyrus seems to sit at the intersection of these two ideas: shouting loudly about her burgeoning sexuality while shaving her hair to make sure she looks like a prepubescent boy. (A note of self-criticism: even our own discourse here reveals this infantilisation, she is 21 years old but we continue to talk about her as if she’s just hit puberty). This demeans sex by turning it into a cheap, glossy, imitation of desire while stripping it of any of its adult passion. The result is an infantile, glamorous and passion-less sexuality. This clearly can’t be the whole explanation. And neither is the trend as clear cut as I have made out – there have always been poor lyrics and good lyrics. But it does seem that we’re lacking anyone with Prince’s verve and originality. And I, for one, am sad he came too soon.

5 Responses to “Superfunkycalifragisexy: The Demise of Sexually Explicit Lyrics”
  1. Henry Shmastley says:

    ‘part of the recent decline might be due to the collision between hyper-sexualisation of everything and the infantilisation of society’

    Well put! But I’m a little unsettled by the idea of a John Lennon bukkake party. I think the line was in reference to a Timothy Leary campaign. Actually, knowing Tim Leary there might have been some indirect glorification of bukkake.

  2. Joe Sykes says:

    Is it not important to talk about gender here as well? Miley Cyrus shouts about her own sexuality because she feels the only way to express her independence within a music culture that expects its female artists to double as soft porn stars is by hyper sexualising herself. Perhaps the reason of this sense of a “passionless sexuality” is an industry that attempts to turn women into passive objects. I suppose Lilly Allen’s clumsy video was a misguided attempt to express what are legitimate and valid concerns.

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