In her new book, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul, Nashvillian and NPR music critic Ann Powers traces the long history and power of giving your tail feathers a little shake when the music moves you. From the earliest moments of the Republic, when white people were watching black people dance in New Orleans’s Congo Square, through the jazz era, past the joyful naturalism of the days of flower power, to Britney Spears and Beyoncé, Powers shows how music has been providing a space for Americans to mix and how that mixing has an overwhelming erotic charge.
I’m just going to say this right up front. I got choked up as I finished this book. It ends on a tough but hopeful note about the power of music to change our lives and transcend circumstances, about how being together and dancing together can move both body and our mind. Powers’s whole discussion is about the ways in which people have come together during hard times through shared musical experiences, and I guess I really needed to hear someone say, “We have been in tough situations before, and look at this deeply flawed but incredibly important way we have of getting through it. We still have that way.” If for no other reason—though there are lots of other reasons—the book is worth a read for its mapping of the way hope and joy are present even in the darkest times.
The book’s title is spot-on. (I can only hope that Powers will enter every reading she gives in support of this book to Bubba Sparxx’s song “Miss New Booty” and that her audiences have sense enough to sing, “I found you, Ms. Good Booty.”) The book is about love and sex and body and soul and race and boundary crossings. But it’s much more than a recounting of popular music’s naughtiest moments. Powers’ writing is deeply compassionate and nuanced. She never loses sight of her main argument—that there’s an important discussion about sex and bodies and joy that we’re constantly having through the medium of American music—but she also does a masterful job of complicating her argument. The ways one person might find salvation in music are the ways another person might be destroyed by it.
In this book, women’s experiences with music are central. The girl groups of the early 1960s get the same consideration as the teen-boy doowop groups. The erotic power of female fans—girls who wet their seats waiting for Frank Sinatra to come on stage rather than lose their spots; organized groupie networks in the 1970s—also rate nuance and respect. Powers comes back, again and again, generation after generation, to teen girls’ complicated relationship to popular music and musicians. She does a great job of making clear the ways that underage girls were, and often still are, exploited by artists and people in the industry, but she also respects the girls’ understandings of their own stories.
For Powers, dancing provides a way for people to touch in public who otherwise would not have been allowed to and allows people to play with intimacy without having to have sex. She presents this history chronologically, so you can watch one era’s scandalous dance—the one you simply must not do, lest you be overwhelmed by the dangerous urges—become another era’s staid dance of moral safety. In both eras, the dance steps are exactly the same.
Since Powers treats the taste of young teenage girls as something of great value, the book also skips over people, often very sexy people, who already have their advocates: you’ll find very little discussion here of the importance of The Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen, for instance, and somehow there’s not a chapter called “Muddy Waters. Sigh.” But she spends a lot of time really trying to get at how, say, Britney Spears’s music works. I found her argument for Spears as one of the first true artists of the digital age really thought-provoking.
Good Booty is a very interesting book about the history of an impulse in music, but I’d also recommend it to people looking for a good introduction to U.S. social history. Powers moves her readers through a lot of information about the country and how, since its earliest days, it has conducted itself in a lively and engaging manner, and I think it’s fun for music fans and history buffs alike.
Betsy Phillips writes for the Nashville Scene, and her fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine and Fantasy & Science Fiction.