Monday 5 December 2016

Have today's pop stars got too much XXX factor?

As a music mogul complains that today's chart hits are too sexually explicit, Ed Power says rock lyrics have always revelled in steamy couplets

Published 21/08/2010 | 05:00

The songwriting genius behind I Should Be So Lucky, Never Gonna Give You Up, and all those Jason Donovan hits you've spent 20 years trying to forget, reckons Lady Gaga is a threat to the moral well-being of your children.

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Mike Stock, of '80s hit-factory Stock Aitken and Waterman, has accused the Poker Face singer of peddling glorified smut, via lyrics that reference sado-masochism and videos which, with their acres of flesh, pervy gyrations and lesbo-orgy intimations, stray into the territory of soft porn.

In fact, Stock believes the entire modern pop industry is conspiring to corrupt a generation of kids. From Rihanna to Britney Spears, Katy Perry to Christina Aguilera, pop doesn't have the X Factor so much as the XXX Factor, he argues.

"These days you can't watch modern stars -- like Britney Spears or Lady Gaga -- with a two-year-old," he said in an recent interview.

"Ninety-nine per cent of the charts is R'n'B and 99 per cent of that is soft pornography."

Setting aside the rich irony that the man who had a hand in the career of Sinitta presumes to critique the modern pop business, Stock raises an interesting question. When it comes to protecting childhood innocence, do we lower our guard in regards to music?

Switch on any Irish pop station, after all, and chances are you'll hear Lady Gaga declaring she "likes it rough", Katy Perry admitting she kissed a girl "and liked it", and Christina Aguilera announcing, "I'm a genie in a bottle, you've gotta rub me the right way".

Yet parents who would never dream of allowing their children near post-watershed television or an 18-rated movie, seem to have no problem with their tweenagers singing along to Rihanna as she wonders aloud "Come here, rude boy/Can you get it up?"

On the other hand, it's not as if popular music discovered innuendo just yesterday. It's all of 40 years since Led Zeppelin's The Lemon Song yielded the Joycean couplet, "Squeeze me baby, till the juice runs down my leg/The way you squeeze my lemon, I'm gonna fall right out of bed."

And what do you think Elvis -- his hip-wiggles so suggestive that TV stations were forbidden showing him from the waist down -- was on about in Hound Dog? Incidentally, anyone who thinks the early Beatles were a picture of guileless charm should Google the original lyrics to Day Tripper, which is emphatically not a ditty about going on a ferry trip with that nice girl you fancy. In fact, part of the wonky charm of pop has always been its facility for smuggling steamy subtext into outwardly wholesome songs.

As far back as the 1930s -- the era of chaste ballroom dances and maidens at the crossroads -- popular music's dirty mind was getting the better of it, as demonstrated by Bessie Smith's I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl ("I need a little hot dog, on my roll . . . Looks like a snake! C'mon here and drop something here in my bowl.")

By the '60s, the fear that songwriters were attempting to subvert young people with suggestive lyrics was so widespread that, in the US, the FBI felt it necessary to step in.

Rumours that The Kingsmen's Louie Louie contained a hidden dirty message revealed only if the song was played at a slower speed -- the words are indecipherable in the normal version -- prompted a full-scale bureau investigation with everybody involved in the recording of the track collared for a grilling. Actually, Louie Louie is perfectly chaste -- but that didn't prevent an urban myth springing up that the song is a cornucopia of filth.

Not that the FBI's paranoia was exactly misplaced. There was plenty of smut going around, with the Rolling Stone's Satisfaction and Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love ("I'm gonna give you every inch of my love") among the multitude of songs steaming up the airwaves. As mentioned, even the saintly Beatles were at it: "Please me, whoa yeah/Like I please you/You don't need me to show the way, love".

It was as bad in the late '70s when disco brought us gay innuendo (the entire catalogue of The Village People), S&M references and, on Donna Summer's Love to Love You Baby a reported 22 simulated orgasms (plus the line, "Do it to me again and again/You put me in such a awful spin").

Side by side, Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side wove a none-too-subtle tale of transvestite degradation and Rod Stewart's Tonight's the Night single for the album of the same recounted the libidinous warbler's attempt to relieve his girlfriend of her virginity. It would be remiss, too, of us to overlook The Who's 1975 hit Squeeze Box ("Mama's got a squeeze box she wears on her chest/And when Daddy comes home, he never gets no rest").

The '80s saw the great moral crusaders Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sweep to power in the US and Britain, the countries which have done most to shape the sound of modern music.

However, the conservative push-back did little to clean up the pop industry. In short order, the public's eardrums were assailed by Peter Gabriel's Sledge Hammer ("You could have a steam train/If you'd lay down your tracks") and Grace Jones's Pull Up To the Bumper, which turned out to have very little to do with parallel parking ("Pull up to my bumper, baby/ In your long, black limousine/Pull up to my bumper, baby/And drive it in between").

Most disturbing of all, perhaps, was Heart's All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You, in which a woman with an infertile partner embarks on a series of one-night stands in the hope of falling pregnant ("I told him I am the flower, you are the seed/We walked in the garden we planted a tree").

This was also the decade when the two great laureates of pop smut, Prince and Madonna, were at the height of their powers. In the case of Madge, the innuendo tended to be in the videos rather than the songs -- you could hardly claim Like A Virgin, from the album of the same name, was anything other than upfront about its subject matter.

Even when she aimed for subtlety, the results were about as understated as a wrecking ball through a living-room window ("I'm open and ready/For you to justify my love").

With Prince, sex marinated his music to the extent it was difficult to tell whether he was trying to be a subversive, or was such a randy old goat that he incapable of writing songs about anything else.

He certainly didn't filter his thoughts for fear of corrupting his audience: no prizes for guessing what Cream, Horny Pony or Do It All Night are about (we'd explain the secret meaning behind Raspberry Beret were it not for the fact you might be reading this at breakfast).

The point being that anyone who thinks modern pop singers are dragging the industry into the basement with their smutty wordplay has an incomplete grasp of history.

Think Lady Gaga is going too far? Be grateful you missed the heyday of Chuck Berry, whose 1972 hit My Ding-A-Ling offers the charming chorus "My Ding-A-Ling, My Ding-A-Ling/ Won't you play with My Ding-A-Ling?" Lady Gaga's Bad Romance doesn't sound quite so shocking now, does it?

Irish Independent

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