In “Good Booty,” NPR’s widely acclaimed music critic, Ann Powers, has written a sweeping history of popular music in the United States from the points of view of how it shapes fundamental American ideas and beliefs, and how it allows us to communicate difficult emotions and truths about our most fraught social issues.
She places special emphasis on sex and race. Powers’ thesis is that pop music and sexuality are inextricably intertwined, with the former serving as a conduit to the latter. Powers argues and demonstrates how music has adjusted to adhere to the sexual norms of each time period in American history. She pays particular attention to the role of gender as well as race. She discusses why sexuality in pop music matters, what pop music says more broadly about American culture, and what we can take away from all this.
Powers has tackled her topic with an ambitious historical breadth that spans from the 19th century to the 2000s. She begins with old New Orleans, comes up through the dance-crazed Jazz Age, moves to the mid-20th century teen-scream years of rock ‘n’ roll and into the cutting-edge ventures of today’s web-based pop stars. She draws on her deep knowledge to recount stories of forbidden lovers, wild-shimmy shakers, orgasmic gospel singers (I had never really given much thought about the connections between divine and bodily sublimity), counter-cultural perverts, soft-rock sensitivos, punk Puritans, and cyborgs like Britney Spears in her efforts to show us how eroticism — not merely sex but bodily freedom, love and liberating joy — became entwined within the rhythms and melodies of American music. She uses well-known artists and some not-so-well-known to drive home her points. Her purpose is not to titillate but to educate.
Often in nonfiction, the author bogs us down with tons of facts and statistics, too often more than we care to know. But in Powers’ book we have a fun and well-written chronicle that was enjoyable to read. It is so broad and sweeping as she jumps through eras of American music that it is not conclusive and leaves you wanting to know more.
One weakness is that her discussions concerning race dwell mostly on the black-white matrix of power relations. She largely ignores major immigrant groups like Latinos, Caribbean islanders and Asians. All of these groups have contributed to America’s music culture. Powers’ focus is not so much on the music itself but its social and political context, and its performative aspect. She perhaps mistakenly eschews some developments in American music history like instrumental jazz because it figures to be too abstract to register as overtly erotic. I guess it seemed much easier to cite a performer’s body presentation or the innuendos of a performer’s lyrics rather than preach some esoteric music theory about how tonality elicits some physiological analogue or out-of-body experience leading to arousal in the listener’s brain.
This book has made a definite contribution to the topic of music’s place in our culture, and while there are arguably plenty of other ways to view that place other than through the prism of sex, Powers, in my opinion, makes a clear case for considering the complexity of historical and contemporary reactions to music through that prism.
Reviewed by David Beckwith, author of “A Cover-Up Conspiracy.”