Tuesday evening, for VH-1 and Vogue‘s "Fashion Rocks" show, the Black Eyed Peas performed a hip-hop version of the Rolling Stones’ "Miss You." Turning one of the sexiest songs of all time into a dead-eyed, fake-funk abomination is a real accomplishment, though to be fair, it’s just another day at the office for B.E.P.
Two nights earlier on the MTV Video Music Awards, the night’s loud-mouthed, big-haired Brit emcee, comedian Russell Brand, told one too many jokes at the expense of clean tween stars the Jonas Brothers (and their purity rings), and precious American Idol season six winner Jordin Sparks went off script and shot back: "It’s not bad to wear a promise ring because not everybody, guy or girl, wants to be a slut."
Brand backpedaled. "I’ve gotta say sorry. … I didn’t mean to take it lightly. … I don’t want to piss off teenage fans. … Well done, everyone." He then added, "It’s just, a bit of sex occasionally never hurt anybody."
A bit of sex, occasionally, is the rarest thing on offer in the pop sphere of today. Just a bit is that magic amount where an artist summons something subterranean, gets your heart rate going, makes you blush, puts a thrill into you. It only takes a bit to be sexy.
It’s that bit that infused Bowie’s "Rebel, Rebel," Gaye’s "Sexual Healing," Ross’ "Love Hangover," Michael’s "Father Figure," D’Angelo’s "How Does It Feel," and, until a few nights ago, "Miss You."
Sex is by no means the only element in great pop music, but it has never been marginal. A story is often told that modern-day pop consists of the push, pull and meld of the gospel and blues impulses, or the sacred and the profane, or the angel and the devil on your shoulder. When sex enters that matrix, it’s always to some degree about transgression, whether joyfully abandoned or guiltily indulgent, but it’s also the merging of the private element of sex with the public sphere of singing and listening. These tensions create the dangerous world of sexiness.
But on the current pop scene, sex is an "issue," its stars prone to making these stultifyingly two-faced high-school civics class presentations on the topic rather than actually sing about it. Neither the goody-two-shoes bubblegummers nor their counterparts, the limit-pushing filth specialists (also regular characters in the high-school menagerie, though their presentations are generally made in the locker room), are nothing new. But their stranglehold on pop has never been stronger.
It wasn’t always all this predictable. Nobody expected the Carpenters to make you feel funny inside, nor for 2 Live Crew to be romantic. Madonna, Prince and George Michael took a little bit of sex (or in Prince’s case, more than a little) and made desire palpable, and sparked outrage and ecstasy in the process. Janet Jackson embodied a fearsome sexiness, Mariah a kind of naïve tease, and while Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears came on the scene acting the part of bubbleheaded jailbait, they also ultimately played with those identifications, neither giving it all up before the first chorus nor saving it all for the wedding night, and left behind a few genuinely sexy numbers. Yet it was Spears whose split personality may have established the current sorry state of affairs, claiming she was, like, a virgin while her music (and Justin Timberlake) told a different story. Since then, the sex lives (or lack thereof) of young stars has become a media obsession (did anyone ever care whether Tiffany was getting laid?) even if there’s nothing particularly sexy in the details. At this point the celebrity sex tape is about as shocking, or arousing, as a blooper reel. Today we have Fergie selling her "lady lumps" (uh, swoon?) and Ms. Sparks selling … well no lumps, that’s for sure.
A few years ago, when Justin Timberlake brought "sexy back," many wondered "from where? It’s freaking everywhere!" Except that J.T. had the right idea. The term itself is more often employed today as a synonym for edgy or glitzy than as something to do with actual sex. It’s a marketing term more than anything felt by listeners. The alchemy of what’s sexy has fallen by the wayside, lost in the deluge of numbing porniness (think Pussycat Dolls), glitzy overproduced pap (think Black Eyed Peas), morally superior chastity pop (think Jonas Brothers) or self-obsessive, psychology-rock (everything from Radiohead to Fall Out Boy). For all the women who inhabit rap music, it’s never been less sexy, in part because of the rise of crack rap and stripper rap, which leave little room for romance (seeming to forget that other word that goes next to "strip"—"tease"). R&B would be the exception, but for its practitioners, so anxious and baroque (R. Kelly), or overly slick and determined (Usher). Ne-Yo’s hit "Miss Independent" offers a paean to women who have good jobs, turning sexiness entirely corporate. Kanye would be a cool boyfriend — he’s got great clothes and the latest electronics — but he’s usually too busy thinking about himself to push the right buttons. The whole concept of "grown and sexy," so integral to a portion of the R&B market, takes mature sexiness and laughs it off as cougarism.
Rock may be the most flaccid genre of all, from Coldplay’s simpering introspection to Nickelback’s steroidal male hysteria to Arcade Fire’s needy art-rock. Emo sure isn’t sexy (sex is usually why everyone is so sad!), and nor is any of its introvert progeny. Rihanna, Amy Winehouse, Feist: they come closest, but when was the last time any of them made you feel dangerous, scandalized, thrilled that sex exists?
At the same time, we are living in an era where we barely hiccup at the kind of raunch that would have launched congressional hearings a few decades ago. (Lil Wayne’s "Lollipop," for example: "That pussy in my mouth / Had me loss for words") But because of the endless repetition, like "Girls Gone Wild," the result is boring. Making love in the club seems less taboo-shattering than unhygienic. When you reach a place where nothing titillates, where all that swearing ceases to unsettle anyone, maybe it’s time to rethink the game. Other realms, like that of Ms. Sparks and the Jonases, are almost entirely sexless. It need hardly be pointed out that songs about mutual respect, abstinence and the like aren’t all that sexy, either. (Jermaine Stewart’s hit "We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off" comes to mind. A fun song, but more of a public service announcement than a recipe for fun sexy times.)
So how come there hasn’t been a full-scale war between the opposing camps? You’ve got stars defending chastity: How long before those stars start throwing bombs at those around them?
More to the point, who was Sparks calling a "slut?"
Katy Perry, who had a big hit this summer with her male fantasy vacuity-fest "I Kissed a Girl," is a pretty good candidate, except she used to be on the other team. The daughter of two pastors, Perry released a Christian album in 2001 under the name Katy Hudson, before a makeover into a kind of cheesecake Kelly Clarkson. Her other big hit is "UR So Gay" (not about gay rights, it turns out). At the awards, where Perry was nominated, she performed her girl-on-girl hit as well as a (kind of) cheeky cover of Madonna’s "Like a Virgin." Yet all the awkward, soulless performance really proved was how far removed a singer like Perry is from the bona fide, troublemaking sexiness of her foremamas.
What is lost when music becomes a choice between clean asexual fun, moody asexual neurosis and sensory overload surface thrill is the transformative quality that sexiness brings to the table, the ability to live through culture, to form identity, to relate to the world through more than a lifeless, decorative accessory. That Black Eyed Peas cover felt like a soda commercial, and the VMA spat felt like a fight over the marketability of virtue. Sex is nowhere in sight, perhaps because its over-commodification means nobody knows what it feels like anymore. No wonder they sell CD’s at Hot Topic now.