June 8, 2018

Sexual song titles peak in warm-up phase of cultural excitement cycle

One of the most notable changes in pop music recently is the absence of sexually provocative song titles, or song lyrics. There's still innuendo, of course, but I mean words that offer no plausible deniability -- truly on-the-nose titles like "Get Off," "I Wanna Sex You Up," or "Smack That".

Instead, hit songs of the past few years are more likely to refer to physical exhaustion, fitting the mellow, vulnerable phase of the cultural excitement cycle that we've entered, which is like a refractory period after the previous manic phase of the cycle during the first half of the decade.

But we still have memories of pop music being really salacious -- when was that, exactly? Not during the manic phase, as it turns out, but during the restless, warm-up phase just before it. That is when people are no longer in the refractory stage of being incapable of stimulation, and are again able to get excited -- but they're just getting warmed up and doing exercises, not really taking off into the next spike of the manic phase just yet.

Overt sexual references are part of the effort to shock people into activity as they're emerging from the vulnerable refractory phase. We noted in that overview post on the warm-up phase that dance crazes take over, as people want to get their bodies moving again, but are still getting used to not being mellow and emo. So they need color-by-numbers dance motions that everybody can learn easily, and all take part collectively in without standing out as an awkward individual. The Twist, the Hustle, the Running Man, the Cupid Shuffle, and so on.

Something similar is going on with these provocative references -- they're more like a pep rally well in advance of the actual game, to get people in the right mood. Innuendo would not really shock people awake -- they need unambiguous, highly charged slogans to take them out of their ordinary mindset, and put them into a more pumped-up mindset, in preparation for the upcoming manic phase. The cheerleaders at the pep rally don't say, "We're better than we were last time," but "We're number one!" They don't say, "Let's play our best," but "Fight fight fight, kill kill kill!"

One last observation before getting to the history: these overtly sexual songs are generally not what you would put on a "doing it" mix tape or playlist. Since they're mostly from the warm-up phase of the cycle, there's a mismatch between the highly charged lyrics and the just-waking-up vibe that the song gives off. It's understandable given the role they play in the cycle -- trying to shock people awake after they're coming out of a slumber. Still, when you go back and listen to them again, and you're not in that warm-up phase yourself, they sound more cheesy and goofy than they did at the time -- like, what was all the scandal about? Wait until you're in the warm-up phase again, and then they'll resonate more.

In looking over the history of the Billboard Year-end Hot 100 charts, I noted the titles that had a clear reference to sexual activity. It didn't have to refer to full-on intercourse, just physical intimacy -- and something beyond ordinary kissing. That excludes innuendo like using "loving" or "love" to refer to physical activity, since it has a plausible main reading of "feeling love toward someone". I included titles with pronouns whose meaning is unambiguous, like "Touch It". And I included figurative language if there was no ambiguity or double-entendre -- "Ring My Bell" is obviously not about a literal bell that she wants you to ring. But "I Was Made for Lovin' You," for example, allows plausible deniability, and was excluded.

The cultural excitement cycle lasts 15 years, with three phases of five years each, and those five-year chunks match up well with the first half and second half of the decades. The warm-up phases are the early '60s, late '70s, early '90s, and late '00s. Following them are the manic phases of the late '60s, early '80s, late '90s, and early '10s. Then the vulnerable refractory phases of the early '70s, late '80s, early '00s, and late '10s.

Here are the on-the-nose sexual song titles for each five-year period, listed by the first year of the period. The chart conveys the rise-and-fall pattern over time, with the titles legible if you click the image. An appendix at the end of this post lists them all in an easier-to-read text format, if you're curious what all the examples are. Two entries in the chart have "..." to keep the columns from getting too wide; see the Appendix for the full titles.


The first warm-up phase was the early '60s, but did not have any examples because before the '70s, overtly sexual pop culture was largely absent. That was the Great Compression norm of "reining it in" rather than the laissez-faire norm that replaced it in the '70s. If the performers themselves did not refrain from overt references, the censors would have stepped in -- they censored movies, comic books, and TV, why not also music?

Even when the Midcentury censorship began to give way in the late '60s, there still aren't many overt song titles -- only "Hanky Panky" -- because they were already in the mood by that time, being in the manic phase, and didn't need to get whacked over the head to wake up from their slumber.

Then after the refractory phase of the early '70s, overt titles hit a local peak in the late '70s. It was not only disco songs like "Ring My Bell" but soft rock songs like "Kiss You All Over". The '80s had few overtly sexual titles. We understand why not in the emo late '80s, but during the early '80s manic phase, they didn't need provocative lyrics to get them excited -- they already were "So Excited".

Coming out of the late '80s slump, the early '90s had the most sexual song titles of all. But then just as fast as everyone began complaining about these scandalous songs these days, salacious titles fell off a cliff during the late '90s and hit a nadir during the emo early '00s. During the next manic phase of the late '90s, everyone was already in a bouncy mood and didn't need waking up like they did in the early '90s.

There was another "Sexual Eruption" during the "Promiscuous" warm-up phase of the late '00s, the most recent of these peaks. The Britney Spears song "If U Seek Amy" is spoken as "F-U-C-K Me". It's not a clever double-entendre, since the context only allows one reading: "All the boys and all the girls want to If U Seek Amy". During the next manic phase of the early '10s, we see again the lack of need to wake people up -- they already are at that point -- and the continued absence during today's refractory phase. There are still two years left in this period, but we won't see a surge by then. Starting around 2020, though, these on-the-nose references will ramp up again.

Aside from the 15-year excitement cycle, we also see the 30-some year cycle of outgoing vs. cocooning social behavior, which closely tracks the rising vs. falling-crime cycle. So the peaks get higher from the late '70s to the early '90s, and then a lower peak in the late '00s. Generally the outgoing and rising-crime climate is more intense and sexualized than the cocooning and falling-crime climate. The crime rate is bound to start its long rise again circa 2020, but it will only be beginning. So I don't think the next peak will be as big as the one from the early '90s, or perhaps even from the late '00s.

Related phenomenon from the original post on the warm-up phase, dance song titles with salacious body part references:

Before the laissez-faire era of "if it feels good, do it" that began in the 1970s, the dance craze period of the early '60s didn't have salacious body part references, but there was "Finger Poppin' Time," "Snap Your Fingers," and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (not specifically about dancing, but that's the most likely context). By late '70s, there were more direct references: "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty," "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," and "Shake Your Groove Thing". From the early '90s, "Baby Got Back" and "Rump Shaker". And from the late 2000s, "My Humps," "Hips Don't Lie," and "Ms. New Booty".

Appendix

1965

Hanky Panky

1970

Feel Like Makin' Love
Let's Get It On

1975

Ring My Bell
Get Off
Kiss You All Over
Do You Wanna Make Love
Feel Like Makin' Love

1980

Making Love Out of Nothing at All
Making Love
Sexual Healing

1985

Touch Me (I Want Your Body)
Like a Virgin
I Want Your Sex

1990

I'll Make Love to You
Your Body's Callin'
Stroke You Up
Bump n' Grind
Knockin' da Boots
Freak Me
Humpin' Around
I Touch Myself
Touch Me (All Night Long)
Humpty Dance
Rub You the Right Way
All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You
Do Me!
I Wanna Sex You Up

1995

Touch It
Touch Me, Tease Me
Doin' It
Freek'n You
Sex and Candy

2000

I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)
Get It On Tonite

2005

If U Seek Amy
Bust It Baby
Touch My Body
Get It Shawty
I Wanna Fuck You
Touch It
Smack That
Promiscuous
Grind with Me
Birthday Sex
Sexual Eruption
Sexy Love

2010

Bang Bang
Get Lucky
S&M

2015

Love Me Harder

12 comments:

  1. Interest in PUA(pick-up art) peaked in the mid-2000s - going mainstream in 2005 with Neil Strauss' book "The Game", then peaking in 2007-2008 with Mystery's TV show.

    That said, isn't it possible that actual sex, or at least interest in sex, is more intense during the "decadent" phase rather than the manic phase? I've read that libido is high during a resting heart rate; and you can see it as a way for people to rejuvenate themselves, through sex or other pleasure-seeking, after resting during the refractory period.

    Having been rejuvenated, they then set about career-striving and lifestyle-striving during the manic phase. This makes sense because there is a lack of sexual song titles during the manic phase. You mentioned slutwalk as an example of early 2010s exhibitionism, but that had more to do with lifestyle-striving/SJW-striving rather than sex.

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  2. Dancing is more complex during the manic phase, but that could be because it has more of a focus on lifestyle competition rather than getting laid. If the goal is just to find a sexual partner, its better to do the simpler, "fad" dances which are more inclusive and easier for people to do.

    If this is true, than all kinds of lifestyle competitions would become more prominent during the manic phase - organic food, SJWs, online gaming, etc. People would focus more on their careers as well.

    Whereas, the warmup/"decadent" phase has more of a focus on pleasure-seeking, the manic phase has more of a focus on accomplishments, whether in the lifestyle or career domains.

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  3. The last warm-up decadent phase had plenty of lifestyle striving and careerism -- all the things chronicled on Stuff White People Like during the late '00s, and the pre-Financial Crash crap about the banker lifestyle, ballin', bottle service in elite Vegas casinos, etc.

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  4. The PUA phenom definitely fits into the "warm-up exercises" climate of the restless phase. They were coming out of the emo early '00s, and needed explicit step-by-step instructions on how to interact with the opposite sex, including color-by-numbers routines to open, neg, etc.

    Just like the explicitly instructed dance fads of a warm-up phase, rather than spontaneous dance styles.

    Not sure whether the PUA thing had earlier incarnations in previous warm-up phases, but seems likely. Early '90s, late '70s, at least.

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  5. PUA may also have been tied to the brief period of outgoingness in the mid-2000s, from about 2003 to 2006. People weren't just becoming more active, but also more social.

    That said, the only thing I can come up with why there are sexual song titles during warm-up phases, is because, in the 90s and the 2000s, warmup phases tended to correlate with outgoingness and crime rises, and the manic phases tended to correlate with cocooning.

    For instance, outgoingness increased from 2003-2006, during the warmup phase; but cocooning resumed around 2007-2008, during the manic phase. There was still a lot of exhibitionism in the early 2010s - for instance, Robyn Thicke had an uncensored music video of girls dancing naked - but in the more dysfunctional, "look-but-don't-touch" way. The mid-2000s, on the other hand, had more of the warm, healthy, high-trust-between the sexes version of sexuality more common when crime rises. Combine that with rising exhibitionism, and what you get is a more hypersexual social environment.

    The early 90s warmup phase accompanied the peak of the "New Wave" crime wave. Lots of references to sex in song titles. The late 90s manic phase, on the other hand, happened well after cocooning had commenced. Lots of exhibitionism, but less sex and less trust between the sexes.

    If this is true, then we can expect lots of references to sex in song titles during the early 80s manic peak - which would break the pattern of it only happening in the warmup phases. Here are some songs I can think of from 1981-1983 that reference sex or kissing.

    1981:
    "Kiss on My List" - Hall and Oates

    "Rapture" - Blondie

    "Passion" - Rod Stewart

    "Hit me with your Best Shot" - Pat Benatar

    "Whip it" - Devo




    1982:
    "Physical" - Olivia Newton John

    "Making Love" - Roberta Flack

    "Centerfold" - The J Geils Band - the title isn't about sex, however the lyric "We'll take it(your car) to a motel room and take em' off in private" certainly does

    "Hurts so Good" - John Mellencamp

    "Abracadabra" - Hall and Oates - the lyric "when I touch your breast"

    "The Sweetest Thing"(I've ever known) - Juice Newton

    "65 Love Affair" - Paul Davis

    "Did it in a Minute" - Hall and Oates


    1983:
    "Sexual Healing" - Marvin Gaye - was actually released in '82, but was on the billboard list in '83

    "Every Breath you Take" - The Police - could be interpreted as having a sexual subtext

    "One on One" - Hall and Oates

    "Should I do it" - the Pointer Sisters




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  6. Finally, we shouldn't discount the influence of status-striving and inequality. We know that sex has more to do with the crime rate, but the sort of blatant sexual references that you see in the early 90s and the mid-2000s, are actually lacking in the warmup phases of late 70s and early 60s - both periods when crime, as well as exhibitionism, were rising. There was no "I like Big Butts" or "Smack that" during those periods.

    Inequality really ramped up in the Reagan era - therefore, the sexual song titles of the early 90s and mid-2000s are the combination of 1)more intense inequality, lacking in earlier decades; 2)crime rate rise; and 3)exhibitionism rising.

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  7. No correlation b/w manic phase and cocooning -- separate cycles. We had a manic phase in both the late '60s and early '80s, both squarely within the outgoing / rising-crime period. And we've had at least one warm-up phase during a falling-crime / cocooning period -- the late '00s.

    The '03-'06 years are halfway in the refractory phase of the early '00s, and halfway in the warm-up phase of the late '00s.

    The only effect of the crime / outgoing cycle is on the height of the peaks.

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  8. None of those songs count from the early '80s, since they aren't blatant, overt, on-the-nose references. Except for the ones I already included -- "Making Love" and "Sexual Healing".

    If we included any song with any degree of sexual / romantic / intimate connotation, the list would be a lot longer for all periods, and probably wouldn't show much variation over time. Those themes are what most songs are about, in any period.

    The point is when are these references subtle, figurative, double-entendres, plausible deniability, etc. -- and when are they whacking people over the head to jolt them out of bed?

    The early '80s lacked these overt sexual references because they were already on a high, during a manic phase.

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  9. I worked on radio for 30 years and would like to offer the radio perspective on why sexually suggestive songs spiked in the early 90s. The early 90s were a crisis period for the top 40 format. Many Top 40s wanted to attract the advertiser friendly 25-54 demographic. They were uncomfortable playing rap and many Top 40s flipped formats, often to Hot Adult Contemporary. When they switched formats they no longer were part of the Billboard Hot 100 panel.

    The stations that remained in the format embraced the extremes of music..including some metal and grunge and especially R&B and rap. I can't help but notice most (but not all) of the sexually suggestive songs from the early 90s are in fact urban crossovers. When the format became more mainstream (and made a comeback) in the mid-late 90s the rap product played less of a role which desexualized the format.

    It would be intetesting to see if the urban/hip hop/R&B/rhythmic charts shows the same pattern as the hot 100. My guess is yes but with more sexually suggestive titles during all periods...but maybe not a lot more. Off the top of my head none of today's hot hip hop artists like Post Malone or Cardi B are rapping about sex.

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  10. Thanks for your comment, Jason.

    This might be interesting. Someone came up with the idea of a 13-year cycle between rock and pop, the boundaries of which roughly parallels your 15-year cycles.(each 13-year cycle beginning with the warmup phase).

    "Since rock was born in the 1950s, rock and pop have been locked in a battle for cultural supremacy with each combatant a constant 180 degrees out of phase with the other. When rock is strong and ascendant in the public’s consciousness, pop is on a decline."

    https://globalnews.ca/news/4082568/the-theory-of-the-13-year-rock-vs-pop-cycle-alan-cross/

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  11. I think a lot of the culture of about 1992-1996, including the rap and R&B, was deliberately off-putting because when we're at the beginning of a cocooning cycle, some people go "all-in" to signal the change in culture. You see it in stuff like the "bed-head" hairstyles, affected and off-putting music vocals, garish use of ugly color combinations and image collages, and so forth.

    I read about U2 in the early 90's. Their 1991 album Achtung Baby had a deliberately "post-modern" vibe to it (a greater sense of detachment, use of irony, etc.), and their 1992-1993 tour allegedly satirized a culture of hype and over-stimulation by featuring garish stage shows of rapidly edited images and words on a series of screens, while Bono would wear different oufits to play different characters (whereas in the 80's, Bono was just himself).

    I tend to believe that 1992 was the first "meh" year in pop culture since, I dunno, 1961? What ever was left of the creative fires of the 60's-80's wasn't burning very bright. And some decided to take a big piss on the fire by goofing off obnoxiously, often under the guise of "commentary" or "satire" .A nd watching interviews with pop culture figures from about 1992-1995, it's clear that being a flippant and unprofessional dickhead was actually pretty cool for a while. By the late 90's, people had chilled out and weren't having an ID crisis anymore about the transition toward cocooning.

    Lyrics and song titles in popular music are more obscene these days because Gen X-ers don't believe in censorship like older generations did. Since the early 2000's many movies formerly banned or heavily censored in England have been re-submitted to their ratings board and passed with few to no cuts required. Graphic violence in R-rated movies is much less censored these days then it was in the late 80's and 90's. And remember stuff like the PMRC and Parental Advisory stickers? X-ers aren't like airheaded Silents and Boomers who thought that banishing obscenity and gore from art would somehow evict it from real life.

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  12. "I think a lot of the culture of about 1992-1996, including the rap and R&B, was deliberately off-putting because when we're at the beginning of a cocooning cycle"

    To be honest, personally I don't think it was so off-putting. There was still a lot of good music being made in the early-to-mid 90s, even top hits. The drop-off in quality didn't happen till 96-97.

    the in-your-face sexual references aren't just to shock a person into action, but also to try to entice them into action - by presenting future rewards if they can just get themselves going.

    Throughout the warmup phase, it seems like there is a running theme of trying to "force yourself", put forth conscious effort, get going, etc. References to work or effort.

    ReplyDelete

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