Did The Runaways start pop's sexual revolution?

Cherie Currie's knickers changed the course of popular music history. When, in 1976, she appeared on stage in a basque, fishnet stockings and her pants, which might have been the standard attire if you're handing out cocktails at a Brewer Street clip joint but not so much if you were a 16-year-old girl straight out of a high school in Encino, she prematurely and unknowingly fired the starting gun in a sexual arms race which has dominated pop ever since.

This may be difficult for younger readers to get their heads round, but before The Runaways' brief, not terribly glorious streak across pop's night sky, there were very few sexually overt female performers in pop. When Melody Maker readers were called annually to name their top female vocalists, the readers would hastily scribble down the names of hard-wailing mamas like Maggie Bell, wild-eyed bosom-baring hippy queens like Grace Slick, the odd stool-perching folk sister like Bridget St John and after that they'd be sucking the end of their pencils. There had been attempts to launch an all-female rock band in the guise of Fanny (David Bowie said they were "as important as anyone has ever been, ever, it just wasn't their time", which just shows how much cocaine he was taking) and Birtha (unhappily marketed under the slogan "Birtha has balls"), most men carried a torch for Stevie Nicks, while the beerier persuasion counted the days until the Reading Festival, when they could have an annual look at Stacia's breasts when she appeared with Hawkwind. After that the pickings were slim indeed. The Runaways' appearance in Britain was like a tongue thrust down the throat of legions of young men who could suddenly combine their fantasies about being in a rock band with their fantasies about attractive young women performing for them. Men, as the young Cherie Currie sagely observed, are pathetically grateful. What she probably didn't realise is the extent to which in the future women would be as much in thrall to the same kind of titillation.

One of the rites of passage for a modern parent is reacting when you come downstairs in the morning and find your seven-year-olds watching a hectically cut promo video for the latest bunch of moppets. This video would remind you of Kim Basinger's Salome-like dance for Mickey Rourke in 9 1/2 Weeks if only you had seen it. A thousand examples of pop erotica will have flickered across the screen of the young mind before big school: Kylie looking at the camera just after handling the gear stick in "Can't Get You Out of My Head", Madonna in "Justify My Love" leaning against the corridor wall in her five-star hotel, her hands rummaging through her crotch in a pantomime of sexual yearning, Janet Jackson on the cover of Rolling Stone with a man's hands cupping her breasts (thereby introducing "the hand bra", the subject of hours of frantic negotiation between PRs and men's magazines ever since), Britney Spears and her phalanx of dancers bumping and grinding in-between lessons, their school uniforms hastily customised to get past the doorman in a Weimar strip club. Ten-minute exposure to any one of today's video channels will introduce you to a cornucopia of flesh and enticement that was previously only found on the hotel's adult entertainment channel.

When Cherie Currie took to the stage in her underwear it was the not very thought-through decision of a young girl who wanted to get the audience's attention and raise a little hell. It wasn't the act of a slavering string-puller keen to peddle her flesh for profit. Even Kim Fowley, who was a specialist in morally dubious advice, didn't suggest it to her. She did it herself. That's the thing that's interesting about the sexualising of pop. It's been driven by women, very often with the enthusiastic participation of stylists, many of whom are gay. They've all leaped gleefully into culture's dressing-up box and, in the perpetual search for novelty that is the inevitable consequence of the video age, tried everything on. The things they have robed themselves in most often are the traditional habiliments of sex. Pop music since The Runaways has embraced the outward forms of the lap dancer, the porn film, the bump-and-grind of New Orleans jazz, the burlesque show, the stockings and suspenders of the Parisian demi-monde, the jiggling girls in bikinis round Hugh Hefner's pool, even the gay strip show. The appetite for Naughty has never been as well served as in the last 30 years.

The cruel irony about Cherie Currie's corset is that it came along before video, the medium that might have made The Runaways as big as it subsequently made Blondie. By the time Joan Jett was doing much of the same act with "I Love Rock'n'Roll" in 1982, somebody had worked out how to package that same "chicks in leather playing pool" look and launched it on the career that has seen it a fashion template ever since. Sex became a major part of the video revolution in the Eighties for the same reason it did in TV commercials – because it works. Sexual display became a major part of the live business in the Nineties in response to its growing scale. Whereas most forms of performance may disappear into the orchestra pit in a stadium show, if you wheel out a giant inflatable phallus or have 50 oiled and toned dancers miming sexual congress, then you've got the undivided attention of even the people in the cheapest seats, as the Emperor Nero could no doubt have told them.

At the recent Grammys, Beyoncé performed "If I Were a Boy" wearing an abbreviated metallic rah-rah skirt that was a long way above what Smash Hits, in a more innocent time, would have called "perv boots". She was surrounded by dancing storm troopers as Shirley Bassey would have been by dancers in white tie and tails. When she sang the line, "I swear I'd be a better man", she reached down and grabbed her imaginary penis and thrust her hips, just like the male rappers do. At the same event Lady Gaga appeared in a lime-green sequinned dancer's outfit with its neckline down to her navel, the legs slashed to her hipbone and her buttocks exposed. At one point she was picked up by a handsome male dancer and flung bodily into a fiery furnace. This was the kind of fantasy iconography that used to occupy the front page of lurid men's comics that were read in the Vietnam war. Who's it for? The guys, the girls, the gays? Who knows?

There's a strong element of just simple wish-fulfilment about all these performances. When teen queen Miley Cyrus performed her hit "Teens in the USA" at the Teen Choice awards, which probably means the audience was eight years old, she climbed on top of that all-American icon of innocence, an ice-cream cart, and then danced round the pole somebody had thoughtfully provided. Because she was 17 at the time and clucking about teenagers and sex has become the national sport, this caused a fuss out of all proportion to when the younger Cherie Currie was leaping around in her smalls.

The Cheryl Cole video for "Fight for This Love" is an extended commercial for the tiny body of the nation's pocket sweetheart. The camera lingers over her leather leggings, the hot pants above thigh-high boots, the diaphanous cat suit, her red mouth flexing like a sea anemone, her hips undulating in sexual invitation. You can probably see a less polished version of the same performance in a pub near you as the local girls get down to enjoying themselves in a way that once only the boys did – "parading" or "showing out", as it's known in some corners of the culture.

The question of whether all these performances are intended to titillate a male audience, empower a female one, sell records, celebrate Girl Power, score one of those lucrative fragrance contracts, invite every one to admire their personally trained upper arms, make an artistic statement, get written about in the following day's papers or drive up the ratings going into the ad break has been blurred for too long to admit of any simple solution. It's beyond sexism or any other ism. It's now part of the room temperature of pop. It is the element in which they all swim. The Runaways in many ways started it and then, not long after, missed it.

The full version of the Chris Salewicz and David Hepworth articles appear in the current edition of THE WORD. For more information: Wordmagazine.co.uk

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