Let’s talk about sex, baby: How pop music is changing the way we discuss sexuality

Older generations think millennials are prudish and uptight, but Roisin O'Connor argues that sex is everywhere in current pop music, where the subject is more open and multifaceted than ever

Saturday 07 September 2019 07:22 BST
Clockwise from top: Harry Styles, Lizzo, Troye Sivan, Charli XCX, Christine and the Queens, and SOPHIE
Clockwise from top: Harry Styles, Lizzo, Troye Sivan, Charli XCX, Christine and the Queens, and SOPHIE (Getty/The Independent)

When Australian pop artist Troye Sivan called out a journalist for asking whether he was a “top or bottom” in reference to his preferred sexual position, the reaction was, for the most part, one of support. Yet there were some, such as the writer of a now-deleted article in Out magazine, who called the South African-born Australian artist a hypocrite because his album, Bloom, was supposedly “[all about] bottoming”.

It felt like the latest moment in pop culture where different generational attitudes towards sex failed to translate. As proven by Sivan’s interview, it’s easy to accuse younger generations of prudishness (a Slate article claimed millennials were judgemental about promiscuity) without considering that maybe it’s more to do with the language that’s being used. The discussion of sex has broadened immeasurably over the decades, so it’s no surprise that older generations are struggling to keep up. And while news stories, comment and features over the past year have told us that millennials are having less sex – a phenomenon blamed on stress and anxiety caused by the pressures of modern life – sex in pop music hasn’t gone anywhere. We’re just talking about it differently, whether it’s LGBT+ relationships, body image, masturbation, religious persecution, or subverting tropes of masculinity and femininity to challenge social stereotypes.

For queer artists, the subject of religion is a means of subverting negative views of LGBT+ culture, or else to reconcile themes of love and worship. Baltimore-born singer Serpentwithfeet, who grew up in a strict religious household singing for an all-boys choir, now uses gospel music to sing about his relationships with men. It’s a fork in the road that gospel music took to get to pop, which harks back to 1961 when Ben E King released his hit “Stand by Me” – derived from the Soul Stirrers’ “Stand By Me Father”, which in turn included a line from Psalm 46:2c/3c.

“A lot of gospel songs are very erotic,” he told The Guardian in 2016. “It’s such romantic and decadent music about wanting to be possessed and subsumed by this man. It was only when I started dating that I realised I didn’t know the difference between a guy I was interested in and Jesus.”

On the dazzling “Pussy is God”, King Princess takes the idea of how women literally give birth to life and elevates it to a celebration of female sex. It followed the release of Ariana Grande’s 2018 single “God is a Woman” and Janelle Monae’s ode to the vagina: “Pynk”. Taylor Swift’s “False God”, from her new album Lover, references how “religion’s in your lips” and “the altar is my hips”, while on MUNA’s 2017 track “End of Desire”, Katie Gavin sings: “Deep down I know/ I am worshipping a false idol/ Deep down I know/ It’s a false hope/ But I won’t let go of this feeling/ Like I’ve got something to believe in.”

Nakhane, a London-based, South Africa-born singer, blurs the boundary between religious and sexual worship to the point that the listener is unable to differentiate between his lover and God: “Lord in your house,” he sings on “Teen Prayer”. “He pins me down/ He moves in me.” “Reappropriation is a powerful tool,” Nakhane told The Independent last year. “It’s brave to have a staring contest with something that has been used to destroy you. You render it powerless by changing its hate to love.”

Of all the musicians throughout history, no one has reconciled religion and sexuality like Prince. “Every song was either a prayer or foreplay,” fashion critic Michaela Angela Davis said, adding that, either way, his music “made you want to drop to your knees”. Prince biographer Touré wrote: “You can remember Prince as one of the most sexual artists of all time, and you would be right, but he was also one of the most important religious artists of all time.” Ben Greenman, author of Dig if You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God and Genius in the Music of Prince, wrote of how the artist appeared to appeal to God for self-control in the midst of carnal lust on “Purple Rain”.

One of Prince’s natural successors is London-based artist Collard, 24, who was raised a strict Mormon, but whose piercing falsetto cry is pure sex. He calls his music a study of his religious conscience, and while he is no longer an active member of the religious community, his confessional lyrical style and themes of guilt, lust and love feel directly influenced by his upbringing. Two songs from his debut album, Unholy, represent two sides of the same coin: the outrageously sexy opener “Hell Song” is about wanting to burn with your lover, while “Warrior Cry” is about a relationship in which Collard felt “saved”.

In the same way, female artists are taking old tropes of pop music – namely the possessive, selfish attitude of so many male singers who consistently use a dominant narrative in their music – and adapting them to convey their own desires to challenge the way we think about female sexuality. On L Devine’s obscenely catchy single “Naked Alone”, she makes it pretty clear what she wants: “Well I hit up every name in my contacts/ But I can’t even get one text back/ All I really need is some sex, you feel me?”

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“I wrote ‘Naked Alone’ when I was 19 and had just moved to London from Whitley Bay,” she tells The Independent. “I hardly knew anyone at all, so as you can imagine, I was really lonely most of the time, which went hand-in-hand with some sexual frustration. I was quite blissfully ignorant about how much a young girl talking about being horny would become a talking point.”

For Devine, conversations about sexuality are more open and less taboo than ever, and she wonders if millennials have higher standards than previous generations, and this is why they’re having less sex. “Maybe we think we can just do it better ourselves,” she jokes. “I think millennial women express their sexuality on their own terms. Conversations about the female orgasm and masturbation are no longer something to be shy about.”

Female masturbation in pop music has appeared multiple times on the charts in recent years. There was Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself” (“I’m gonna put my body first/ And love me so hard ‘til it hurts”), Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé’s “Feeling Myself”, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Party for One”, and Charli XCX’s “Body of My Own” (“Cause I can make it feel just like I’m hanging on/ Yeah I can do it better when I’m all alone”). Female artists are also being less subtle about their pursuit of sexual pleasure – and their impatience with those unable to fulfil it. “Bitches”, a remix of Tove Lo’s track featuring Charli XCX, Icona Pop and Elliphant, includes lyrics such as: “Let me be your guide when you eat my pussy out,” while the accompanying video showed the group of women teaching a man how to perform oral sex on his girlfriend.

“I think women are increasingly aware of their worth, and musicians have responded to that,” Devine says. “God is a Woman completely embodies what it means to own your sexuality, while Christine and the Queens is constantly bending sexual norms.”

Charli XCX has previous as an artist happy to express her sexual appetite – again in a way that flips the traditional narrative where the woman is the subject of the male gaze. On her 2017 hit “Boys” she enlisted a number of male celebrities, from Mark Ronson and Wiz Khalifa to Stormzy and Jack Antonoff, who performed the “sexy things” that women are usually relegated to in music videos. Ariana Grande broke the taboo of lusting after a man in a relationship for the tongue-in-cheek “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”, as did Hayley Kiyoko on the break-up bop “Curious”: “You say you wanted me, but you’re sleeping with him.”

Christine and the Queens’ “Girlfriend” saw the French artist cut her hair and adopt a form of machismo to address the taboo of women being blunt about wanting sex. The lyrics are cocky to the point of arrogance: “Girlfriend…” she sings, “Don’t feel like your girlfriend/ But lover/ Damn, I’d be your lover.” Lana Del Rey covered American ska band Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” for her new album, Norman F***ing Rockwell!, but flipped Bradley Nowell’s “evil woman” tirade. Doing this, combined with the fact that she was singing lyrics from a man’s perspective, felt like a major power-move that was sung in deliberately dreamy, feminine vocals. St Vincent, meanwhile, riffs on George Michael’s sexually aggressive “Freeek!” with the slinky, bass-heavy “Savior”, which systematically dismantles feminine tropes – virgin, mother, whore, nurse, sexy teacher – with whip-smart lyrics. On “The Man”, Taylor Swift points out the double standards when it comes to the media scrutiny of her love-life with infinite pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio with another 24-year-old model: “We would toast to me, oh, let the players play/ I’d be just like Leo, in Saint-Tropez.”

In her book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music, US critic Ann Powers writes how rock music validated teenage desire but also presented it as something “dangerously, irresistibly, insatiable”, citing Janis Joplin as a lead example. More recently, artists such as Carly Rae Jepsen and​ Jhené Aiko have explored male fear of a woman’s sexuality by referring to obsession, hysteria or violence. On Jepsen’s “Too Much”, you hear her frustration at the squeamishness women face when they express “too much” of certain emotions or behaviours: “When I party, then I party too much/ When I feel it, then I feel it too much.” Aiko’s “Triggered (Freestyle)”, is a meditation on the aftermath of a breakup that jumps from “Wanna f*** you right now/ I just turned the lights out now”, to “Might f*** around and go crazy on cuz/ Might f*** around, have to pay me in blood.”

“One night I was so deep in my feelings, I was afraid of what I might do,” Aiko explained upon the song’s release earlier this year. “I didn’t want to revert to the same bad habits that have set me back time and time again. I realised that instead of running away from my emotions… I needed to sit with them, express myself and say whatever came to mind. It was healing to say the least… and now I feel a bit more free.”

Another kind of “acceptable” being challenged in pop music is the sexuality of fat women. Rapper Lizzo, who achieved mainstream success this year with the release of her third album Cuz I Love You, promotes messages of both body and sex positivity in her music and accompanying videos, such as “Juice” where she asserts: “No I’m not a snack at all/ Look, baby, I’m the whole damn meal,” while a shirtless hunk tries to get her attention. One of the highlights in Normani’s video for “Motivation” is the moment Canadian plus-size model, Nao, walks away with the (yes, another one) shirtless man Normani and her girl-gang are lusting after. Nao later praised Normani for choosing a “big girl” for the role, thanking her for “the inclusivity and representation. Dark skin girls, fat girls, DOUBLE CHIN and all!”

Older generations still have trouble accepting concepts such as pansexuality, or that sex is more than the act of penetration of a woman by a man. Just look at the reaction to Love Island contestant Curtis Pritchard, who was practically interrogated by Good Morning Britain presenters Kate Garraway and Adil Ray who wanted him to define his sexuality. Pritchard said he did not feel the need to “label anything” to which Ray asked: “Are you saying you’re bisexual?” – apparently incapable of understanding that sexuality is not as black and white as this. Former One Direction star and now-solo artist Harry Styles has repeatedly declined to put a label on his sexuality, telling several journalists that he has “never felt the need” to label himself. And on “Medicine”, a song that didn’t make the final tracklist for his debut solo album, he sings: “The boys and the girls are in/ I mess around with him/ And I’m OK with it.” “When it comes to sexuality or gender, I personally don’t ascribe to just one thing,” Lizzo told Teen Vogue. “[There’s] a spectrum, and right now we’re trying to keep it black and white. That’s just not working for me.”

There’s also less of a concern – or want – to be specific when it comes to gender pronouns in music, reflecting the social views of many that traditional gender constructs are, by their very nature, restrictive. “My experiences as a non-binary, black, queer person consciously and subconsciously inform my lyrical content,” Boston-based singer-songwriter Anjimile told Dazed in 2015. “I want my music to reach marginalised communities so that they can see their reflection.” Scottish-born producer SOPHIE, who is trans, makes brilliant, sexually liberated pop songs such as “Ponyboy” (”Spit on my face/ Put the pony in his place” and told I-D in an interview that she has, “always dreamt of creating some sort of community atmosphere, which is queer, fluid, diverse, genderless, dynamic”.

More and more, artists are being ambiguous when they address a lover in their music, not wishing to be defined by one relationship. Equally, queer artists are more confident about expressing same-sex love because of decreasing stigma. British singer-songwriter Marika Hackman steers towards the latter on her new record Any Human Friend and in 2017’s I’m Not Your Man, where previously she kept her sexuality more oblique. “Women’s desire for each other is still a fetish for men,” she said in an interview with the I Paper. On “Boyfriend”, the opening track to I’m Not Your Man, she turns this on its head and taunts a man while having an affair with his girlfriend: “It doesn’t count/ He knows a woman needs a man to make her shout.” On “Hand Solo” she pokes fun at patriarchal values that dictate what “proper” sex is: “I gave it all, but under patriarchal law, I’m gonna die a virgin.”

Just as there is a popular misconception that millennials are entitled, lazy and obsessed with avocado, there is clearly an assumption that, because they do not discuss sex in a way that translates to older generations – they don’t care about it. But really, discussions of sex and sexuality in pop have never been more interesting or more multi-faceted. And only good can come of it.

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