Putting the Sex back into Rock ‘n’ Roll

So, I think virtually everybody in the world now agrees that Lady Gaga is the best thing in mainstream pop for absolutely ages. I think she’s brilliant. If you haven’t already picked up The Fame Monster, then it’s high time you did so. Each track is as infectious as swine flu, with a slightly longer incubation period. It takes me about 4 listens to fall in love with each song – which isn’t bad since I’ve pretty much hated each track the first time I heard it.

Still there’s one track that I find hard to hear, and one video that I find hard to watch, and that’s LoveGame.

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The song might have the most absurdly catchy hook I’ve heard in years, but I just can’t get past the whole “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick” thing. It’s even more eye-watering to me that she claims to have come up with the lyric after saying that to someone in a nightclub once.

We all know that Gaga is very sexual, and it’s a major part of her persona, but it’s just so aggressively portrayed in that track that that even the least prudish among us might allow ourselves a wide-eyed “gosh”. I realised yesterday that it’s because it’s a long time since rock ‘n’ roll had much sex in it.

What? What? I can see you staring incredulously at the screen wondering what videos I’ve been watching in the past 10 years, but I can start by saying that what I’m absolutely not talking about the likes of the Pussycat Dolls and their botty-wiggling ilk. I mean, the entire body language is different. In the Pussycat video, they present their posteriors in submission; they parade in front of men waiting to be picked. Can you imagine Lady Gaga wiggling her butt subserviently in front of some guy? Nope – all the men and women in her videos – and the audience – are there for her gratification; she is not there for ours.

There’s something incredibly intimidating about that.

Of course, the whole crotch-grabbing thing isn’t her invention – Madonna groped herself shamelessly on Top of the Pops, which was pretty shocking back in the 80s. The thing is, that was 25 years ago and since then the sexuality in music has been either contained in polished, skanky-but-unthreatening marketable packages, or just eliminated altogether. How did that happen?

Or, to look at it another way, how did we get there in the first place?

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Elvis has never done anything for me sexually – he was too androgynous, for a start – but to the audience of the 1950s, he was like this:

The entry in TV Tropes under ‘memetic sex god’ reads:

If you have seen Labyrinth, then you are not a virgin. In fact, if you’ve seen Labyrinth, then you never were a virgin. It’s the power of David Bowie’s Area that, even through a recording, even in a family friendly movie, it can reach out and completely burn your virginity from the fabric of space and time. If you ever will see the movie Labyrinth, then you’re not a virgin on credit, because your virginity will be retroactively destroyed in the future. In short, the moment that David Bowie appeared in that movie, in those tights, his Area became super powered, and devirginized the entire world.

Sarrolyne on the power of David Bowie‘s Area, Metaquotes

There have been plenty of memetic sex gods in rock ‘n’ roll – and that’s pretty much what it’s about. I mean, you can have sex ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll without the drugs – for one thing because the musicians tend to die horrible deaths if they keep taking them (c/f Elvis, toilets, burger) – but sex is a pretty massive component and always has been.

Take an icon from the 60s, for another example:

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That clip had a pretty profound impact on me when I was 13 – as well as feeling powerfully attracted to a rock star in a way I’d never been before, I had another equally powerful reaction: I wanted to be him. Well, him as a her, at any rate.

Plenty of others wanted to be Jim Morrison, too. He was the Build Your Own Rock Star template for the next 20 years – every leather-clad hip thruster has been channelling Jim Morrison, because Morrison also was this:

The great thing was it didn’t really matter what genre you were into, almost every rock ‘n’ roll star was powerfully, commandingly sexual. Hell, they had two memetic sex gods in The Sisters of Mercy: Andrew Eldritch and Patricia Morrison. That’s the beauty of music – you don’t have to be conventionally handsome – if Lady Gaga’s attractive-but-not-pretty then Eldritch is downright eldritch – but enough girlies wanted to fling their black lace panties at him anyway. It’s that feeling you get when watching a gig that if you stand there long enough, you’ll be screwed by the singer from the distance of the stage. In terms of David Bowie’s Area, nobody who saw an early Suede gig has ever been a virgin. If you had more mainstream tastes, Michael Hutchence from INXS strutted and writhed, and if you preferred things loud and heavy, you could take your pick from the likes of leather-clad Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails, Pig/KMFDM’s Raymond Watts … and since he’s my musical crush of the moment, here’s a clip of Jim Thirlwell fronting Wiseblood:

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That man is not performing with his voice.

Although, if you really want a wide selection of oversexed rock gods to choose from … well, there’s really only one genre to look in: heavy metal.

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Ah, hair metal was silly – really silly – but it was entertaining, and it was sexy. Oh, and sexist too, a lot of the time – but if you could just laugh at it and roll your eyes at those silly boys, then it was also a lot of fun.

Since grunge and the death of hair metal, there hasn’t been a whole lot of sexy in music. There have been good-looking vocalists, and many near-identical tanned-and-polished girls with fake boobs singing through the autotuner. Even the likes of Gwen Stefani might have been pleasantly unusual, but ultimately she still smiled coyly while wiggling her butt. The boys in pop and metal have been a strangely bloodless, po-faced bunch. All of Linkin Park might have been attractive guys but you didn’t really want to sleep with them … well, in case you broke them – they were so frail and polite. Slipknot’s Corey Taylor is no less handsome than Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, but it just doesn’t cross your mind to fancy him, and – dammit! – that’s what rock stars are for!

So now, what do we have? We have Lady Gaga.

There was a moment at the V Festival last year when – during the guitar solo in Poker Face she picked up a drum stick and stood there bashing away on a cymbal – elaborate costume and makeup long gone; hair all over the place – looking like a wild thing and not remotely conscious of how she appeared. A minute later, she tossed the drumstick into the crowd, delivered a throaty scream … and then resumed the carefully-rehearsed pop dance routine that accompanies the video. The latter looks jarring, false, out of place. She’s masquerading at this pop lark. What’s real is her at the drumkit; her triumphant scream. That’s why it doesn’t matter if she fits some artificial “ideal”, or whether she can hit all the high notes. At that moment, we saw her as she really is:

She’s a rock ‘n’ roll star, and she’s bringing sexy back.

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