Ann Powers has made it her lifework to complicate our conventional understanding of how pop culture intersects with gender and sexuality.
From her book on bohemian America, Weird Like Us, through her monumental writing for NPR, Powers has consistently surprised and delighted readers with radical new takes on the most familiar topics. Her 2017 volume, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music, reorders stories we thought we all knew by heart till they have new beginnings, middles, and ends. The book inserts voices that have been previously silenced and drastically re-centers how pop music listeners view queerness, race, and sexuality, while stringing together grand themes and zeroing in on specific details. Oh, and it’s a good read too.
Powers writes about most of the big names, from Elvis to Beyoncé, but she’s just as curious about those stars to whom history has been less kind, redeeming wobbly reputations that have been damaged by hypocritical American attitudes toward sex and bodies. For instance, Janis Joplin’s legacy has often been reduced to a Mercedes jingle, some vague commentary about San Francisco psychedelia, and a stray Leonard Cohen anecdote or two. Powers digs beneath the conventional misogyny that’s obscured Joplin’s brilliance to recapture the singular power of her sexuality and her performances, rightly raising her as a pivotal figure in rock history alongside Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin.
Powers also credits lesser known musicians with more influence and significance than historians have allowed them. Especially women – in places this work seems like a historical attempt to follow that old riot grrrl credo, “Girls to the front.” Powers rescues Florence Mills, a dancer and singer in New York from the 1920s, from undue obscurity, setting her up as a little known ancestor to the stars of today. When she describes how Mills moved onstage it’s like reading the first chapter in a secret history of pop music.
When Powers writes about sex, she’s not just discussing physical acts, but also the way those acts are understood culturally. This method comes to the fore in her discussion of Jim Morrison, which uses the notorious 1969 “Miami incident” – during which police hauled the Doors front man off stage after he queried “’Why don’t we have a little revolution here?” and allegedly whipped out his cock -- as a lens through which to view the relationship between sex and power at the close of the ‘60s. As Powers jokes, “Morrison recognized that it was just a little revolution.”
About the brutal refusal of punk desire she’s much more biting. “On an ordinary East Village night in 1976, Stiv Bators of Cleveland's Dead Boys got a blow job onstage at CBGB’s,” she writes. “Unlike the all-male sexual explorations happening blocks away at the baths on St Mark’s Place, Bators’ oral trip was an act, not destined for completion -- an unfinished blow job; in many ways, that was the spirit of punk. This subculture’s erotic energy was fitful, frustrated, and deliberately crude. “
Punk was supposed to be violent and sexy, with an erotic power to its self-destructiveness that was more authentic and less ridiculous than Morrison’s shtick. But just as Powers reassesses Joplin’s complex artistry or places Mills at the head of a pop lineage, she reinvests Morrison with his sex appeal and skewers punk’s inability to perform. Powers dismisses Bators with concision and clarity: She loves what she loves, but she won’t ignore the misogyny and racism bound up within.
It’s a joy to spend days in the hands of an ace storyteller, but Powers isn’t just someone who knows good dish – she contextualizes gossip and anecdote into a revolutionary reworking of how we tell the history of pop music. And Good Booty comes along at an ideal time, when it’s essential to remember that pleasure has always been a kind of resistance.