*to be clear, I am never going to revisit that subtitle. It is up there solely because I thought it was funny for .5 seconds.
I picked up Ann Powers’ Good Booty: Love and Sex, White and Black, Body and Soul in American Music at Shake-It Records back in May. I felt inspired by the atmosphere, temporarily cooler and more knowledgeable than I am. It was also ten bucks. Y’all, it took me the better part of the summer to finish this book. This isn’t a judgement on the book itself; my summer was objectively wild and my attention span is a high functioning Twitter addict. Reading it off and on, and most often in public, the title got a lot of attention–from exclusively hipster-adjacent, probably well-meaning white folk pretty much exactly like myself. They really wanted to discuss it, based on the title alone. “Oh wow. So interesting. How is it? Let me write that title down. That’s so up my alley.” And as with anything, I want us to pause and ask: is it?
The repetition of this scene flagged it in my mind. It told me something. Three somethings: I hang out in spaces with mostly people like me (big yikes) , it took me all summer and into fall to read this damn book, and oh gosh was this heavily NPR approved (Powers is a writer for NPR, it should be noted) book really just a “Look How Relevant My Bookshelf Is” purchase?
I’m gonna caution to say…yes. And then I’m gonna unpack a few things.
I wanted a rich exploration of the inextricable and deeply troubled history of (pop) music in America. And, I got it. And, I wanted more. I wanted deeper (and really don’t we all…just want more…and deeper…I digress…). Most of us know enough to know American music is a heavily “borrow” (read: appropriated and stolen) legacy. We know its tied up in the history of colonialism, slavery, racism, and the question of access and acceptability. And this, perhaps, is where I got off on the wrong foot. Powers states in her introduction, “It’s impossible to talk about American bodies without acknowledging the legacy of gross inequality that begins in the enslavement of Africans….[i]t is very difficult to speak of race and sex together in language that’s not corrupted by centuries of violent oppression; terms like miscegenation, conveying legacies of forced unions across color lines, instantly evoke dangerous prejudices” (Powers XVIII) . She’s right, it is impossible to talk about the legacy of race in America without engaging and unpacking grotesque language, imagery, stereotype, etcetera. It’s especially difficult as Powers choses to engage the intersection of race and sexuality, a minefield that goes well beyond the problematic. Jay Gabler for the Current puts it nicely, “If Good Booty makes a single argument, it’s that the body has always been at the center of American popular music — and that it’s through that music that we’ve long channeled subjects that are too hard, for a variety of reasons, to put into words.” I left the book wanting more of that very thing–the exploration of the tension and the unspoken reason for it. Worse still, I left wanting more knowing that the central tension of her thesis is that there aren’t words enough! So we turn to music! Dangnabbit this is a circle we are running.
Except, I think, there are words enough. Somewhere. In all of our lexicon. To name a few things. Just maybe.
Powers’ first chapter calls up an apprehensive history of New Orleans. I say apprehensive not for the information she gives, for she is painstakingly thorough. No one can say her book is not researched within an inch. Rather, apprehensive because of her own…light step? Her writing feels cautious, as if she’s excited about this topic and information, but presents it with a stilted delivery. It feels like she doubles back often, predominately around race, to say “this happened, this was borrowing or stolen, this is clearly wrong, it is wrong, To-Be-Clear-I’m-Not-Condoning-Just-Presenting-Facts”. It felt, to me, that she didn’t or couldn’t access a comfortable voice around the “Black and White” part of her subtitle.
I listened to a podcast with Powers a few days after finishing the book. In it, she reveals that she never once considered the history of race in music until after she began her project. She admits to realizing, “oh gosh, I’ll have to tackle this part too” (this is a gross paraphrase, alright). This struck me as the height of white privilege; the privilege I live in, the privilege Powers lives in. We can approach topics, and I mean big enormous topics, without even considering aspects that should be obvious. To approach music in America and not consider race? By no means was I upset or surprised hearing this, but I did get my answer.
I must say, I feel silly here even sharing this part of my reaction to the book. I would also feel silly not sharing it because it is my whole reaction to the book. Powers is, after all, a premiere career music writer. Who am I to have feelings about her style? Who am I to call her stilted or apprehensive? But I recognized her tone. It was the tone of all white people as they try and tackle the issue of race. It is stilted. It is nervous. But how else are you gonna talk about pop music? Or anything American at all?
In this questioning I dug up more questions. What did I want her to say? How did I want her to sound? And why did I assume a sameness of politic, radical or otherwise, in this book? And finally, is this feeling just the limits of whiteness? An inherent discomfort talking about race?
Ultimately, it is a good book. Powers’ history of music is exhaustively thorough, and I know I’m better for reading it. When her voice takes flight, it truly soars. She revels in her subject matter. This is someone who loves music. The slickest, most memorable bits include her critique of the 60’s and 70’s in Chapters 4, 5, and 6. The “Love and Sex” part of her subtitle jump out as she locates deep cultural critique of the erotic. She cites Lorde, among others, as she takes the reader through the tension in music, the tension between bodies, deep diving on topics such as the birth of the American Teen, the Sexual Revolution, and the AIDS crisis’s affect on pop.
As she winds through the 70’s, her words on Jimi Hendrix and his desire to be truly individual, wholly free from assumptions of place, time, gender, race, and sexuality felt deeply and distinctly American. She hints at a desire to transcend black and white, body and soul, from Hendrix and a sort of internalized racial tension or ambiguity. She discusses how Hendrix suffered at the hands white hippies, “[facing] a kind of blinkered idealism, wrapped in unacknowledged prejudice (Powers, 179)”. She goes on, stating, “he longed for the kind of erotic liquescence Herbert Marcuse had proposed…a way of becoming a new being….but these dreams of transcending the body…contained Hendrix’s fear of losing himself”. The best of our music negotiates that tension, that desire, to be truly individual, authentically sensual.
The worst of our music is found in a passage Powers shares, recounting the tale of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, sent out on assignment by Spin to interview a very young, up and coming LL Cool J. The snippets of Gordon’s reaction to Cool J are allowed room to breathe, speak volumes. They highlight a dismissiveness to Gordon, so far out of her element she’s falling back into herself. In her own memoir, she recalls taking the assignment because, “I had a thing for male Black Panthers…”, immediately sexualizing the very person she’s assigned to interview. I wish Powers had been a bit more opinionated (yeah, that’s the word I want to use) about the cultural commentary provided in Gordon’s behavior. She toes around it, but I wonder if it could’ve bolstered her thesis–the tension of the erotic in pop music, the cultural myths, stereotypes, fears and flailing found in loving, consuming, and stealing music (and bodies) across color lines. She does point out Cool J’s cross-cultural successes in music while Gordon fell into obscurity. And ultimately, I may be overreading. Dangerous Minds does a nice digest of the interview here.
Later, she wrestles with new music in her final chapter “Hungry Cyborgs”. She deploys Haraway and Latin etymology to tackle Britney Spears and the advent of the internet. Here, in a chapter that I deeply enjoyed, comes a conclusion that is lackluster. Powers talks “Blurred Lines”, that infamous Robin Thicke song. She presents the controversy around it without choosing a side, and concludes her analysis with, “…though the song’s true author, [Pharrell] Williams, is African America, the fact that Thicke, a white interpreter of a black style, was its frontman connects “Blurred Lines” to the questions of self-possession and miscegenation at the historic core of American population music. Cultural miscegenation yet again provokes anxieties framed as sexual” (Powers 341)”. Is she blaming the interracial artistic team of Williams and Thicke for the controversies? Or is she simply pointing to the fact that an interracial team found itself embroiled in controversy?
The more I mull over Powers’ Good Booty, the more I think its mission was accomplished. I am thinking differently about the history of pop music in America. And I am certainly thinking differently about the tensions of our American erotic appetites–for black, for white, for young (I totally passed commenting on the 70’s-Rock-Gods-Sleeping-With-Underage-Groupies sections), for what the dominant culture deems subversive or fringe.
Closing the book, I wanted more. And yet reading it, you get a lot. She’s done the work, and for that, I applaud her.
Would I read this again? Maybe. But probably not.
Am I happy to have read it? Hell yeah. Look at all the shit I learned.
I’m going to stay curious about this feeling that came up during reading. For now, I’d strongly recommend Netflix’s Hip-Hop Evolution, Wesley Morris’s piece (okay but seriously read this) on pop music from the 1619 Project, and treating yourself to an evening of watching The Five Heartbeats (RIP John Witherspoon).
If you think I’m all kinds of wrong, okay. If you like what you read, Big Okay sprinkled with some Thank You So Much.
Either way, I love you, you sweet peach. Thanks for reading.